Mexico Goes After the Narcos — Before They Join the Gangs

The country’s latest addition to its anticrime strategy is stopping kids from joining cartels

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Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto attends a ceremony to receive the keys to the city at the National Museum in San José, Costa Rica, on Feb. 20, 2013

The gunshots at dawn woke residents of the cinder-block homes in Nezahualcóyotl, a working-class city on the edge of the Mexican capital, making a few people duck for cover behind their beds. When they finally peered out their windows, they saw the corpses of two young men, one stacked over the other, beside a threatening note written on cardboard and signed by the drug cartel called La Familia. The double murder, which took place on Feb. 16, was the latest in a series of killings that has brought the drug war to the edges of Mexico City — the mountain capital that has long been viewed as a safe haven from the cartel violence ravaging other parts of Mexico.

Recently installed President Enrique Peña Nieto hopes to reverse this trend with a new anticrime strategy — transforming poor neighborhoods like Nezahualcóyotl where cartels make their bastions and preventing young people from joining their criminal armies. On Feb. 12, Peña Nieto announced there would be more than $9 billion for crime prevention aimed at 57 hot spots. “We must put special emphasis on prevention, because we can’t only keep employing more sophisticated weapons, better equipment, more police, a higher presence of the armed forces in the country as the only form of combating organized crime,” Peña Nieto said. Rather than just shooting or incarcerating the seemingly endless ranks of cartel gunmen, the President hopes to stop young people from becoming assassins in the first place.

The 57 target areas include traditional hotbeds of violence such as cities on the U.S. border and Acapulco, on the Pacific Coast. But they also include places where cartels have been encroaching more recently, such as Nezahualcóyotl, commonly referred to as Neza. Named after an Aztec poet king, Neza was populated by squatters who built shantytowns in the 1970s and has since grown to more than 1 million people on the rim of Mexico City’s urban sprawl — growth that has attracted the attention of investors like billionaire Carlos Slim. Cartels like La Familia have moved into its slums from marijuana-growing mountains to sell drugs, extort businesses and kidnap for ransom. Some of their new members hail from Neza’s streets.

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Roberto Campa, who has been named to run the national prevention program, says there is a clear link between conditions in these ghettos and the rise of cartels. “When you see the circumstances that young people live in in many of these communities, you can easily explain why they are involved in these [criminal] activities,” Campa tells TIME. “You find young people suffer violence in the home, in many cases are from broken homes, where there is presence of alcohol or drugs, in communities where they have no chance to enjoy their free time. They form groups in the barrio, and then they are in gangs and then they are openly involved with organized crime. Yes, without a doubt, we have to work with containing [crime], with all the issues of police, prisons, prosecutors and the presence of armed forces. But on the other side, we have to start systematically confronting the causes of these problems.”

The plan includes gang-outreach schemes, community centers and employment projects to try to steer the young away from criminal life. There will also be construction programs aimed at transforming chaotic urban jungles into prettier spaces where people will feel inspired to say no to crime mobs. Mexican officials cite Ciudad Juárez as an example of where prevention programs have worked. In 2010, Juárez suffered over 3,000 homicides, making it the most murderous city on the planet by some counts. In response, the Mexican government poured money into social work, including tripling the number of community centers. This helped reduce homicides by three-quarters, to less than 750 last year. Medellín, Colombia, is also a case study in urban renewal. It was named the most violent city in the world in 1993, when it was the virtual fiefdom of cocaine king Pablo Escobar. But murders declined enormously as mayors erected state-of-the-art buildings in its slums and cable cars transporting residents up its hills to increase economic opportunity.

Many security analysts support Peña Nieto’s prevention goals, but there is skepticism about the details. One issue is that most of the money is not being handled by the prevention office itself but by an array of government departments and mayors. “We need to insist on transparency to make sure the money gets to the streets where it is needed and doesn’t end up in the pockets of bureaucrats,” says Victor Mendoza, a social worker who labors in problem neighborhoods across Mexico.

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Others worry that the plan is too broad. An initial document outlines schemes ranging from helping children with learning difficulties to reducing domestic violence. It also includes some southern Mexican cities, like Mérida, that have almost no cartel-related murders. “There is a complete lack of focus,” says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former member of Mexico’s intelligence agency. “It is such a mishmash of different programs that we will not know what works and what doesn’t. It is setting up itself for being a major waste of money.”

The prevention scheme doesn’t mean Peña Nieto is turning away from busting cartels. He has also promised a new military police force, especially for rural areas, while soldiers are being kept on some streets in the short term. He says the policies will be developed and perfected over time to get results. In the first two months since Peña Nieto took office on Dec. 1, there were over 2,000 cartel-related killings, according to a government count, a similar rate to those under previous President Felipe Calderón, who led a military-backed offensive against cartels.

On the Neza street where the Feb. 16 shooting happened, some residents were cynical about whether the government could really transform their neighborhood. “The promises sound good but will they deliver?” says Benita Ramirez, who migrated from a country village to the sprawl three decades ago. “We have built most of this for ourselves.” Others said a government scheme was vital or the violence would get worse. “We need help here now,” says Mauricio Ríos, a father of three teenage children. “The government has to attend to this new generation or the war will go on and on.”

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