As Mexico inaugurates a new president today, much of the country is asking itself a key question — how will the incoming head of state handle crime? The question of drug violence has been a top concern since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels more than a decade ago, and even more so when it became clear that his strategy only made the problem worse. According to estimates, there have been more than 200,000 deaths related to organized crime over the past 12 years, and the murder rate is expected to reach an annual record of 29,000 in 2018, according to BBC.
In 2013, I released a Bravery Tapes episode examining the impact of violence and kidnapping on a family in Monterrey, Mexico. I wrote a magazine piece to accompany the video, and am republishing it here in hopes that it can serve as a reflection on where the country was five years ago, and where it might be going. Has the security problem improved at all? Is this type of violence still happening just as much five years later, or even more? Can Mexicans hope for real change? Here’s the story from February 2013:
Children are the unsung victims—and also the heroes of the violence that has convulsed Mexico
When more than a dozen hooded armed men burst into Richie Rivera’s home to steal everything, the 16-year-old stoically endured repeated blows to his head and body from heavy boots and the butts of guns. The men pointed four AR-15s at his head and threatened to kill him in front of his mother. But that was nothing compared to what happened next. When the men left, Richie yelled his brother’s name and got no response.
“Imagine turning around and not seeing your brother,” he says. “You think this can’t happen; this is impossible. You throw yourself down on the floor and explode. You cry what you didn’t cry when they hit you in the head and you ask why.”
It has been nearly two years since Roy Rivera was kidnapped in front of his family in their home in Monterrey, Mexico. Richie, now 18, and their mother, Leticia, have done everything imaginable to find him: they’ve conducted their own investigation, scoured the morgue, and even paid a ransom that was never honored. But perhaps the bravest act of all was to go public with the story. They did so even though they feared the men responsible for the kidnapping might take revenge.
“We’re always afraid to be talking about this. I got afraid just now,” Richie says in an interview. “But the love we have for my brother is much greater than the fear of talking about the case. Love is much bigger.”
Of all the horrors associated with a drug war that has killed some 60,000 Mexicans in the past six years, the country’s children and adolescents are perhaps the greatest casualty. They are the future of the country, yet an estimated 30,000 minors in Mexico are involved in some sort of organized crime, while more than 1,400 were killed in homicides between 2006 and 2010, according to Mexico’s nonprofit group Network for the Rights of Children. The rate of 15-to-17 year olds who have been victims of homicides tripled between 2008 and 2010. Seeing the headlines isn’t shocking anymore: 14 teenagers massacred in Ciudad Juarez, seven minors killed in Durango, a 4-year-old girl shot to death in a car in Acapulco. The list goes on and on. Parents are dying as well, and thousands of children are believed to have been orphaned. And many minors who aren’t directly impacted by the drug war have been scarred by the bloodshed in some way.
But there’s an untold story as well. Some young people are answering violence with acts of courage, some quiet, some public. News stories, whether local or international, typically focus on the violence and rarely highlight these cases. Mexican outlets, under attack and facing constant threats, don’t usually search for the bright spots. But the stories are out there, and this article profiles the tales of four brave young people from Monterrey, a city under siege from drug-related violence.
Interestingly, local rights groups are quick to point out that such success stories are usually thanks to personal will or community support rather than government assistance. They blame the state for not doing enough to protect children from violence or to improve social conditions. “The risk we run in only thinking about the heroic people is that you make it sound like a personal decision,” says Juan Martin Perez of the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico. “While this individual effort is important, the state has an obligation to generate the conditions so that instead of 10 success stories, there can be 100.”
True. The country would be much better off the government were more effective. But highlighting examples of valiant children who were able to overcome the odds can be an inspiration for others who lives are plagued by violence. In fact, while a violent upbringing will stay with people throughout their adult lives, and most scientific research on the subject focuses on children who later suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, serious depression or even suicide, a surprising number of kids find ways to channel their internalized unrest into productive activities such as fighting for justice, says Ron Avi Astor, who studies the impact of violence on children as a professor of social work and education at USC. “These are kids who were able to overcome,” Astor says. “That’s an important message that the scientific literature doesn’t always stress. A really good proportion of kids who go through this figure out ways to not only survive but to maximize their potential on Earth.”
Richie is a case in point. He had been watching television late at night when suddenly he heard noises at the door. When he heard his brother Roy yelling that armed men were trying to break down the door, Richie ran to the kitchen, grabbed two knifes and gave one to Roy so they could defend themselves. Suddenly, the door burst open and some 15 hooded men with rifles overtook the house.
The brothers ran back upstairs and tried to lock themselves in their mom’s bedroom as she yelled out the window for help. The men kicked the door open and began beating Richie. Their cohorts, meanwhile, ransacked the house, stealing money, vehicles, perfume, televisions, hats and shoes. When Richie asked them to spare his backpack because it contained his school notes, they yelled profanities and took it anyway. As they did this, Richie noticed some of them were wearing bulletproof vests displaying the name of a local police force.
“Who is the oldest?” yelled a man who must have been the leader and who was staring at Richie and his brother Roy. Although younger, Richie’s size made him look older, and he knew he could save his brother by saying he was the eldest. And so he did, and the men continued to pound him. When they picked Richie up and began to take him away, Roy couldn’t take it and confessed he was the older of the two. The men paused, dropped Richie, turned towards Roy and began to kick him. They overturned the bed, put Richie and his mother inside the upside-down frame and soon were gone, with Roy.
They received a call the next day from someone demanding 1 million pesos for Roy. They could only muster about 100,000 pesos and an X-box, an amount the kidnappers eventually agreed to. After they dropped off the goods, the men called and said Roy would be freed in a half hour.
That half hour still hasn’t come. Richie and his mother are speaking out in hopes that it will. Letitia joined a group of mothers who publicly display signs praying for the return of their “disappeared” children. In August, Richie told his story in front of hundreds of people at a Texas church as part of a peace caravan that moved across the United States. “I was always afraid. It was fear that they could do something to us,” he says. “The fear isn’t very strong anymore. It’s just the love we have to find my brother.”
Those who commit such acts of violence against families like Richie’s are often no more than boys themselves.
To most in Mexico, working for one of the feared organized crime groups would seem like making a pact with the devil. After all, these groups terrorize society by beheading people, throwing grenades, and hanging victims from highway bridges.
But to Eduardo, a teenager from a poor area of Monterrey, the chance to join the ranks seemed like a godsend at first. The gang, a local branch of one of Mexico’s largest cartels, offered him the two things he most sought: the prospect of making more money than he could ever dream of, and of gaining respect and superiority over other young gang members who always had the upper hand.
Such temptations make it hard for kids to say no when they’re offered such work, especially those who live in poor areas where public institutions are weak, the quality of education is low and employment opportunities are scarce. They identify with the narco culture, its music and its dress, and they look up to the leaders. Children as young as 9 can be used as informants, while 16-year-olds run drugs and carry out murders and kidnappings. Once they join, few of them ever leave because the perks are too good or because they fear punishment.
But Eduardo was different; he made a decision most aren’t brave enough to make.
He was only 14 years old when a group of local kids offered him a job selling marijuana, cocaine and crack. Soon, he was working as a dealer 12 hours a day and as an assistant and bodyguard for the bosses. He still lived with his parents, and would tell him he was out working at a body shop. A sense of power came with the job that Eduardo had never experienced; soon, the same neighborhood kids who once intimidated him didn’t want to mess with him.
The whole gang felt that sense of power and had no problem abusing it. Some nights his group would hit the streets to go after rival gangs. Other nights, they would seek out people addicted drugs such as methamphetamines, and beat them up just because they bought such drugs from other groups. The preferred method was to whack their backsides repeatedly with heavy wooden planks or break the bones in their hands. When asked why they did this, Eduardo said simply, “for fun.”
“They completely lose themselves, all rationality, the body, the soul,” Eduardo, who declines to give his last name, says in an interview. “It’s like they’re infected. They reach a level of unconsciousness. They see people as objects. If someone has money, they say ‘let’s rob them and extort them.’”
Behind the feeling of power was fear. Eduardo and his companions knew that at any time, the army, police or another gang could attack them. Plus, the pay turned out to be much less than Eduardo had expected: he was only earning 2,000 pesos (around $154) every two weeks. But narcotics were all around them, so they would dip into their stashes to numb their unease. Soon, Eduardo was addicted to marijuana and cocaine.
One early morning, a rival gang attacked Eduardo’s convoy on the outskirts of the city. He fled unscathed, but four of his companions were shot. No one helped them, and Eduardo never found out if they were left to be captured by the other side, or to bleed to death on the concrete.
“I started thinking. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? Am I risking my life for a certain amount of money?” Eduardo says. “Giving your life for someone who won’t help you in the future, who might be the one to let you die: that was the act that made me question if I wanted to stay there.”
He was afraid to talk to his superiors because he knew there would be punishment for leaving. When he finally told them of his plans, they took him into a room and flogged him with that same wooden pole. His legs turned purple and he wasn’t able to walk for days, but he was free. He only got a warning that if he ratted out his bosses, they would kill him.
When he left that world, he worked through his addiction to drugs, and, now 16 years old, he gives workshops to kids on hip-hop, graffiti art and drug addiction. “I consider it an act of bravery because not many people think it’s possible,” he says. “Many are afraid of what they’ll say, that you won’t be able to leave.”
A Child's Voice
In some cases, just getting back to normalcy takes resolve and heroics, as seen in the case of 6-year-old Maria in the suburb of La Estanzuela. In the months following a shooting outside her school, Maria would wake up with nightmares, thinking there were shootings going on when there weren’t. “She thought every loud noise she heard was a gunshot,” her mother says. That was worsened by the drug violence that continued to escalate in her neighborhood. But a year later, Maria is back playing with her friends and not showing a severe impact from the incident.
The shooting can be experienced in dramatic fashion on a YouTube video recorded by teacher Martha Rivera that went viral. It opens with commotion and a titled shot of a tiled floor. Rivera’s voice says, “Yes, my love, everyone get down on the floor.” The camera pans up to show a group of children lying face down in a classroom. Maria is one of them and is surrounded by her classmates. “Nothing’s going to happen,” Rivera tells them. “Just don’t lift your head.” Unidentifiable noises are heard, and it’s unclear why the children are turning towards the window behind them with bewildered looks. Suddenly they get much louder and it becomes clear what’s going on: it’s the deadening sound of automatic weapons exploding outside the window.
It had been a normal Friday afternoon at the Alfonso Reyes kindergarten in an outlying section of Monterrey, but when she dove onto the floor, Maria could tell this was not normal. The class had already practiced ducking and covering in the case of a shooting—just as most schools would do for earthquakes or fires—but it was much scarier in real time.
"Do you want to sing a song?" Rivera asks the children over the sound of gunfire. “Yes.” So the teacher launches into a song from the kids’ show “Barney & Friends” about the sky raining candy, and the children follow, singing, "If raindrops were made of chocolate, I would love to be there, opening my mouth to taste them." "Who wants chocolate?" Rivera shouts. "I do," the kids reply.
When everything was over, authorities confirmed gunmen had killed five men a block from the school. Rivera caught the frightening contrast between the nursery rhyme and the gunfire on cell phone video and soon hundreds of thousands of people viewed it. People across Mexico praised Rivera’s courage and she was recognized in a ceremony with the state's governor. And the children were brave as well.. “On the Monday that we came back to class, they said let’s sing ‘Raindrops,’” Rivera says.
A year later, Maria and her former classmates weren’t walking around thinking about the shooting; in fact, they had to be reminded of the event before they could talk about it. Maria, who is now in first grade and who say she wants to be a teacher, talks about the incident with a huge smiling showing her baby teeth, as if she couldn’t recall any fear. She recalled ducking and covering and singing the song. “I was scared,” she said, but shouted it with a huge smile as it were some action movie she had seen. Her life had been forever altered by that event, but she was back to living her life, and her mom said her nightmares were gone.
A Pathway Through Music
While many kids in Monterrey’s Colonia Independencia carry pistols, Maickol only carries his accordion. Living in one of the most violent neighborhoods in the country, he’s seen plenty of kids his age go down the wrong path and decided early on he didn’t want anything to do with that. Instead, he sees music as his path to a more peaceful existence, and, a rising star in the world of Colombian vallenato music, he’s trying to use his craft as a ticket to leave the violence-torn area.
In Independencia, which clings to the side of a steep hill nearby downtown, it’s a general rule that sensible people do not leave their homes past 6 p.m. That’s when young pistol-toting gang members rule the streets. The sheer poverty of the area—marked by pot hole-filled streets, shuttered stores and ramshackle homes—makes it an ideal breeding ground for drug traffickers to train youth to join their ranks. Criminals are known to demand that businesses pay them a quota in order to operate. Some residents have even had to flee their homes after gang members demanded they pay large sums of money in order to prevent harm.
“It’s very ugly up there,” says Maickol, pointing towards his home at the very top of the incline. “I’ve seen the kids with their pistols hitting my friends and neighbors. I don’t get involved.” It’s common to hear gunshots from his house, and the violence is shutting down the bars he used to play at. “I get scared; all the people up there are scared of them,” he says. “They don’t mess with me because they know I’m a musician, that I’m a person of peace.”
Maickol’s refuge from the chaos is a government-built community center in the middle of the colonia that offers classes in all sorts of pursuits, including the music classes he attends. Just a week before speaking to a reporter, gunmen shot and killed five taxi drivers and an innocent bystander only a couple blocks away. After that, many students stopped coming to the center. But, Maickol doesn’t miss a day; inside the center, he can take out his accordion, close his eyes, and feel safe. He’s diligent and dedicated: his parents first bought him an accordion at the age of eight, and he has played since. Recently, he won first prize at Monterrey’s international vallenato festival, and now he plans to travel to Colombia for a festival.
At the community center, teachers hope kids who come to learn music will be inspired to choose a path of art rather than one of violence, says Noé Diaz, the chief music instructor. “There are students vulnerable to violence, but they prefer music class,” Diaz says. “It’s an act of bravery. Despite all the circumstances in the community, they want to move forward.”
Indeed, Maickol doesn’t say much about the violence; he’s concerned with music. “I can’t stop playing because the music is so beautiful,” he says. “There’s something that inspires me in the music.” And despite all the violence around him, his greatest concern is the instrument he will take to Colombia. “What I want most is help to get a new accordion,” he says. “A white, red or blue one.” And a few weeks later, he got his wish: a white one.
Like Eduardo, Maickol is using the arts to find meaning in his life and prevail over the violence. Richie is pursuing a campaign of justice, while Maria, perhaps without even knowing it, seems to be taking a stand by playing and going back to regular life. “If you have something to focus on that helps you buoy you through these storms, like music or family, this is actually protective,” Astor says. “It’s important to get stories out on how people have overcome.”
This article was originally published in the February 2013 edition of PODER Magazine.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.