Children in Hiding

Juarez kids surrounded by violence, dead bodies.

Those who stay live an altered reality. "I am scared most of the time," Alfonso says just above a whisper. Pablo's murder was not the first time death came to the neighborhood; two years earlier, there was a drive-by shooting right across the street. "That didn't really matter," Alfonso says, shrugging off the incident. But ever since Pablo's April killing, Alfonso doesn't leave the house unless he has to.

"Of course, everyone stays inside," says Clara Jusidman, president of Incide Social, a Mexico City-based social research and advocacy organization, who for years has been studying violence in Juárez. "The city is in the middle of a civil war. If you're inside, you believe you're less likely to be collateral damage."

Some kids stop going to school, although Alfonso says he never left. The day after Pablo's death, his homeroom teacher saw the boy crying alone in a corner of the schoolyard. He felt a mix of rage and despair, the sixth-grader remembers. Alfonso confided in the teacher, and she took him to the school's psychologist, one of a fleet of professionals stationed on campuses across the city who deal frequently with trauma, though they often have no specialized training. Alfonso began regularly visiting the shrink. "That helped," he says, nodding his head in apparent sincerity, but he no longer goes to his appointments.

Activist Susana Molina and her collective put up their own graffiti images to counteract the violent ones.
Luis Aguilar
Activist Susana Molina and her collective put up their own graffiti images to counteract the violent ones.
About 45 percent of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 are neither enrolled in school nor have formal employment.
Luis Aguilar
About 45 percent of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 are neither enrolled in school nor have formal employment.

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More than anything else, he finds solace in his family — a close-knit group, most of whom live within a radius of a few blocks. Alfonso says he has nine cousins, though it's not clear whether Pablo is still included in that count. They all recently came together for a Father's Day celebration. "That was a hard day," Laura says. Such gatherings are likely to be harsh reminders of their loss for a long time to come.

Laura says keeping Alfonso inside is her only choice, though she admits it's no way to raise kids. "We have to put up with that for now," says the fortysomething hairstylist. "It's got to change at some point, but the solution is not going to come from the politicians. All they do is send more federales, and look where that's gotten us."
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It's a post-lunch sugar rush. A dozen wired four-year-olds climb on top of each other in the front classroom of the Independent Popular Organization (OPI), a day-care center in Juárez's poor Poniente neighborhood. Face paint smears as the youngsters jostle for position, and by the time they settle into a circle, Spider-Man looks more like a ripe strawberry than a superhero.

The question put to the group is universal: What do you want to be when you grow up? The answers are stingingly Juárez: "A soldier!" The boy barely finishes his thought before another chimes in. "Me too!" the second boy yelps, throwing his hand into the air as if offering to enlist right then. A third takes a different slant. "I want to be a policeman in El Paso," he states, lips pursed with seriousness. The rest take their time to think about their responses, but eventually fall into line. By the time the circle is done, it's clear that every male kid — if childhood dreams were fulfilled — would be packing heat daily.

Juárez's federales and soldiers are ubiquitous. The former are dressed in dark blue, the latter in green. They respond at crime scenes and man checkpoints. But mainly, they circle the city, stuffed into the back of pickup trucks, masked and standing erect with rifles pointing outward. On an average day, residents cross paths with more than a dozen patrols. For adults, they inspire rage and fear. But in the eyes of a child, these men are life-size G.I. Joes; Juárez is a videogame turned reality.

Mikaela Castillo, who's been the director of the day-care center for years and has heard this chorus a thousand times, shrugs: "At least they didn't say assassins."

But few of the children will grow up to be federales. "In Juárez, your only choice is narco or the maquila," says Susana Molina, an activist who helped revitalize a once-desolate public park. And maquilas are no dream job. The sprawling factories are infamous for deplorable working conditions, low wages and long hours. "Narco," Molina says, referring to narcotrafficking, "offers a better life."

Even if Juárez were to give up its murder-capital reign, it would still be deeply troubled. Education is substandard: 68 percent of five-year-olds — about 65,000 children — do not attend kindergarten. Juárez has the highest dropout rate in the country — 29 percent — and students begin leaving as early as the fourth grade. About 45 percent of those between the ages of 13 and 24 are neither enrolled in school nor have formal employment.

"What can you expect when the maquilas' starting salaries are the same whether you have gone to school or not?" Jusidman asks. "There have to be other economic opportunities for Juárez residents if this city is ever going to change."

And Juárez will remain a thorn in the side of the United States. Juárez and El Paso comprise the largest binational metropolitan area in the world. Thousands legally cross back and forth daily — living on one side and working on the other, or doing errands across the border. Ironically, the recent Juárez crisis has not been all bad for El Paso.

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