The almost unimaginable violence and shocking murder rates that turned Ciudad Juarez into the most dangerous place on earth for most of the administration of former Mexico President Felipe Calderon have left behind an irreparably damaged generation of young people.
Bryan is sure of his steps. He’s learned them well. And he knows his neighborhood, the colony called Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.
On this afternoon, Bryan is standing on a soccer field alongside an arroyo known as “El Arenal.” Rain has kept the other kids away, so he has time to chat a bit. He starts by describing how he got there.
This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series “Learning to Live With El Narco.” See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.
First he told his grandmother that he was leaving the house, Then he walked along streets with no sidewalks, crossed empty lots, went around half-built houses, dodged stray dogs, and stood aside to let reckless drivers pass before making it to the soccer field.
That’s what it’s usually like getting around in one of the poorest settlements on the west side of Ciudad Juarez. Bryan usually negotiates the obstacles alone. He lives with relatives, but in reality he doesn’t have anybody close to him.
Unlike most boys his age, he has no parents to take care of him. As an orphan, he has had to learn to make his own eggs, fry potatoes, heat up tortillas and “make the chichi” as he calls preparing the milk formula for the babies that live in the house.
He says he has nine scars on his legs — one for each year of his life — though he doesn’t say how he got them. The scars are insignificant, though, compared to the psychological wounds that are unmistakable in his eyes.
For Bryan, violence and life are synonymous. But he has learned to cope.
When he was five, he was told that his mother had disappeared. But his childhood innocence didn’t end with the news. It had already vanished two years before when he found himself staring at his father’s bloody corpse. He’d been shot in a drive-by murder.
There has been no investigation of the murder of his father or the disappearance of his mother. Only silence and indifference. Just one more disappearance, one more killing, in the Ciudad Juarez records.
Bryan had the misfortune of being born into what was the most violent city in Mexico. And the violence snatched his childhood away.
Its grip on his life goes beyond the memories of his parents. It’s with him every day in the fighting among his cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives. Sleeping 10 to a room and sharing beds turns the concept of living under the same roof into something unbearable.
Bryan says he has no trouble putting up with the leaking roof and walls, or the crowded mattresses, or the wailing babies. What he can’t stand are the screams from his Tío Chuy, who “goes crazy,” in Bryan’s words, with inhalants and other drugs.
That’s why Bryan leaves the house whenever he can to negotiate the streets of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. So does Abuelita Irma, his grandmother who’s been in charge of Bryan and his three sisters since her daughter Marisela disappeared on May 26, 2011. Grandma admits, without a hint of shame, that she prefers to work double shifts at the maquiladora than return to the house.
She’s exhausted. Her energy has been sapped by the double shifts, the uncomfortable house, the grandchildren, the search for Marisela, and the grinding poverty.
Bryan, meanwhile, concentrates on surviving. He leaves early for his primary school without breakfast. He can take 10 pesos with him to buy a burrito and a juice at recess. When there’s not even that, he negotiates with one friend or another to share lunch. His next bite comes when he gets home, where his grandmother has usually left some pasta or beans.
A Damaged Generation
Bryan was born in 2006, when violence from organized crime, and from authorities combating organized crime, was taking off in a city already plagued by social problems. By the time Bryan was two, Ciudad Juarez had become the most dangerous place in the world, measured by its murder rate, according to the US government, as well as the Mexican Citizens Council for Public Security.
Chihuahua state prosecutors reported 3,103 murders in Ciudad Juarez in 2010 alone. That’s an average of eight per day.
No human being was spared the violence, including the smallest of them. The death toll that year included 20 children under 5 years old. That’s a murder rate for that age group in that city of 12.4 per 100,000. The overall national average is 1.5 per 100,000.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides
Adolescents were frequent victims. There were 298 homicides of children between 12 and 17 that year in the state of Chihuahua, 62 percent of which occurred in Ciudad Juarez.
The extreme violence destroyed an already fragile social structure that depended economically on providing cheap labor to the textile factory industry. Family life was turned upside down. The violence in the streets was often reproduced in the homes.
In 2006, the rate of children under 14 who suffered intra-family violence in the state of Chihuahua was 18.3 per 100,000. By 2012, the rate had soared to 78.7 per 100,000, according to the Health Secretariat.
And the family tragedies continue even as the murder rate has tapered off. In 2014, the Assistant Prosecutor’s Office for Legal and Social Aid reported 329 minors suffering from sexual abuse in the state, tripling the 2013 figure. Cases of physically abused children increased that year by 30 percent.
A Postwar Era
Organizations such as UNICEF and the Red Cross have long recognized that children are the most affected by a violent environment. Bryan’s generation will forever be marked by the extreme violence that took place over that five-year period (2007-2012) that Ciudad Juarezresidents refer to as a war.
Catalina Castillo, director of an organization called the Independent Peoples Organization (OPI), which works in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, considers that Ciudad Juarez residents are living in the shadow of the recent “war.”
“It’s no exaggeration to talk about a postwar era,” she says. “Taking care of the children now is the last link left for families to struggle for.”
What children’s advocacy groups complain about now is the absence of government involvement in working for the most basic needs of the kids –survival, education, family, healthy development, nutrition.
Protecting postwar minors doesn’t, in fact, seem to be a priority. In 2013 there were 73 child welfare centers (“Centros de Bienestar Infantil”). Over the next year, 15 of them ceased to exist. The 58 that remain treat only 2 percent of the 282,220 eligible children.
Also disappearing are full-time schools and the provision of meals.
The right to education is not guaranteed. The 2010 census revealed that 54,595 children between 3 and 5 years old had no school to go to. The same census showed that a little more than 21,000 between 15 and 17 were not in school.
And, to make matters worse, the schools themselves are sites of violence: 70 percent of students over 12 were crime or abuse victims, according to a government survey of violence and crime known as Ecopred.
Facing a social disaster, governments have chosen short-term or temporary actions. The “We Are All Juarez” strategy enacted by former President Felipe Calderon, whose time in office coincided with the “war,” has yet to be evaluated, acknowledges Eunice Rendon, an official who worked on its implementation. The risks faced by Ciudad Juarez minors, she recognizes, have not disappeared.
A Turn of the Page?
Violence is still eating away at Ciudad Juarez. Relatively lower numbers of murders are still absolutely high numbers. There were 424 murders in 2014, and 214 over the first eight months of 2015.
“There is a bill that’s coming due,” says Jose Luis Flores, the director the Children’s Rights Network in Juarez. “Adolescents whose lives were subverted by the violence of the recent past are now committing high-impact felonies.”
Flores thinks this is only the beginning. A second generation of minors will be living with the same risk factors and shadow of violence that the current young people who are committing crimes grew up under.
Nashieli Ramírez, of Ririki Intervencion Social, a Mexican children’s rights NGO, is concerned that the local, state and federal governments, and adults in general, just want to forget the violence of recent years and are failing to respond to the crisis.
“The big question today in Ciudad Juarez is what will happen to the children,” she says. “What will happen to this generation scarred by violence?”
And to put a face on it, what will happen to Bryan?
*This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series “Learning to Live With El Narco.” See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.