Gangs of teenage boys skulk on badly lit corners and outside pitifully dingy convenience stores in Mexico’s border city of Ciudad Juárez. Packs of police trucks rumble up and down the potholed roads, shining powerful beams into backyards. Occasionally they descend on a particularly shady-looking group, chase them down alleyways, spread-eagle them against the trucks, and sometimes arrest them for drinking or glue-sniffing.
In Ciudad Juárez, there are two types of gangs: colectivos and barrios. Barrios are the gangs that do the work on the street for the major drug cartels: the biggest are the Aztecas and the Artist Assassins, who are locked in a battle for control of the drugs that pass through the city. Colectivos are often persuaded to become barrios, but they begin life more innocently as a place for teenagers to hang out.
“Because everyone came here to work in the factories, in most families the mother and father both have to work very long hours. Their kids don’t go to school – they have no education, no opportunities. So they go into the streets, and join a colectivo. It starts as an identity,” says Guillermo Asiain, a 26-year-old youth organiser.
Asiain is part of Ciudad Juárez’s network of citizen-led initiatives trying to clean up Juárez. His focus is on giving Juárez’s youth things to do, to prevent the colectivos from starting to deal drugs and to attract people already in the barrios back from a life of crime. He organises concerts, football clubs, and graffiti lessons – anything the teenagers want to do.
“We can even use violence through boxing – to get the gangs to box each other,” Asiain says. “It gets it out of their system, while forcing them to coexist in the same place.”
In this weekend’s mayoral elections, the vote went to Hector Murguia, a working-class hero who was mayor once before. Murguia is beleaguered by allegations that he is in cahoots with the drug cartels. In 2008, a year after his previous term ended, his former police chief was caught trying to smuggle a ton of marijuana over the border to the US.
One of the biggest disappointments for many Juárenses about the election result is that unlike some of the mayoral candidates, Murguia wants the federal police, a notoriously corrupt and brutal force, to remain in Juárez.
“The police target the young people,” says Daniel Mundo, a 22-year-old who has made the rare leap from being in a barrio back to being in a colectivo. “They know young people will get scared, so they intimidate them.” Mundo helps organise meetings between members of the police and civilians, to provide an opportunity for each side to air complaints and listen to each other.
In the heart of the federal police’s heavily guarded headquarters, the police bemoan their status in the city. “There is no respect,” says one. “Not even children respect us.”
This, however, seems an insignificant concern alongside the conditions that ordinary Juárenses have to put up with. The death toll stands at eight a day, and while the killings are dismissed by the government as narco deaths, the reality is that they are mostly not ruthless drug lords but youngsters taking the only opportunities given them.