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Raised in Hell: The Children Haunted by Juárez's Vicious Drug War

Ciudad Juárez ranked as the world's most violent city from 2008-2010. Many children are suffering from PTSD today after witnessing the murders of family members, friends, and strangers, during the horror.

by Nathaniel Janowitz
Jun 14 2016, 9:40pm

Des enfants jouent à Ciudad Juárez. (Photo par Jorge Cuevas/VICE News)

This article originally appeared in the Mexican edition of VICE Magazine, June/July.

"Hi my name is David," said a small boy sarcastically, causing his friends to laugh at his use of English. "Motherfucker."

David is nine years old, has a buzzcut, a cut off t-shirt, and is growing up in Ciudad Juárez — the Mexican border city which claimed the dubious title of the world's most violent metropolis in the world three years running from 2008 to 2010.

When the topic turned to his barrio, the tough kid facade dropped. He said life was "hard" and he felt "bad" when he saw stuff. "Like what?" I asked. "When they killed my dad," he said, very quickly.

David said he saw his dad gunned down when he was leaving for work, and he didn't know why it happened. "I always think about that," he continued. "Why did they kill him?"

But for David, the worst is when he sleeps. He said he has nightmares at least two nights a week in which people are murdered. Then he wakes up scared, sweating, and sad — all symptoms characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I wish for a new, different life. Where I can live with my family, my dad," he said quietly. "When I grow up, I don't want to be sad. I want to be a soccer player."

Juárez is a scarred city, still reeling from a bloody turf war between rival drug cartels that left bodies strewn in the streets from 2007-2012. In 2010, the bloodiest year on record, Juárez averaged over eight murders per day.

After three years as the world's most violent city, followed by a year as the second most, Juárez finally fell out of the top 10 in 2012. The government claims the drop reflects the success of its security efforts. Others contend that it has more to do with El Chapo Guzmán's Sinaloa cartel defeating the homegrown Juárez cartel in the battle for control of the city's trafficking routes.

And now that the violence has lessened, its longer-term impacts are becoming more obvious.

"We have a lot of children who are very damaged, who are resentful and angry, and now we have teenagers who are committing high impact crimes," said José Luis Flores, director of The Network for Children's Rights in Ciudad Juárez, AC. "Now there's beginning to be an entire generation with post-traumatic stress that's not being taken care of too."

'When I grow up, I don't want to be sad. I want to be a soccer player'

He pointed to the estimated 200,000 children who grew up during the height of the violence, and the 14,000 children who lost a parent. Many more witnessed the murder of other relatives, friends, and strangers.

"During the drug war they [the citizens of Juárez] were constantly being traumatized," said Kathleen O'Connor, assistant professor at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) School of Nursing. "They would run across shootouts and bodies in the street. And everyone was afraid to leave their homes."

Dr. O'Connor, who has published four papers examining post-traumatic stress amongst the adult inhabitants of Juárez, says she knows of no serious studies of the problem among children.

'Children who have suffered trauma will have a host of problems as adults if its not dealt with. And (the government) is basically doing nothing in that area'

While researching she heard numerous stories about murder, torture, extortion, kidnapping, and disappearances, and coined the phrase narcotrauma to explain the mental health issues they have caused. She says it is often a chronic trauma made up of multiple events over a long period of time that contrasts with the usual way of thinking of PTSD as a reaction to a single incident.

Related: The Mental Health Crisis Facing Europe's Refugees

"Children who have suffered trauma will have a host of problems as adults if its not dealt with," she said. "And they [the government] is basically doing nothing in that area."

El Paso is divided from Juárez by a fence, a small river, and a few bridges. El Paso consistently ranks as one of the safest cities in America — a far cry from the reputation of its neighbor.

From her office Doctor O'Connor can see the dangerous Felipe Ángeles barrio that sits on Juárez's western limits and is where nine-year-old David lives. The barrio's dusty roads also provide a view of the pristine UTEP campus.

The Felipe Ángeles neighborhood is one of the most dangerous barrios in Ciudad Juárez. (Photo by Jorge Cuevas/VICE News)

At an after school center in Felipe Ángeles, I sat at a table with four pre-teen girls and asked 12-year-old Diana whether she liked her neighborhood. "Well, no, but what can I do?" she said.

The girls mentioned a particular incident that had stuck in all their minds, when someone was shot in front of them while they were in their elementary school. "I only saw it a bit," Diana explained, and then changed the subject.

'I feel really unsafe. All the time when I walk, I'm worried someone is going to kidnap me'

That wasn't the only event that affected Diana during the drug war. Her father was killed when she was seven. She, like David, said she didn't know why, and like the younger boy talked of the lasting impact of the years of terror.

"I'm afraid all the time," Diana said. "I feel really unsafe. All the time, when I walk, I'm worried someone is going to kidnap me."

Daniela, the supervisor of the Felipe Ángeles center, was also sitting at the table. She works for a group called OPI, which stands for Independent Popular Organization. The group runs free after school centers in dangerous neighborhoods around the city. Here, Daniela leads activities with the children, trying to provide them an outlet to enjoy themselves, build their confidence, and keep them off the street. Some days they sing songs, other days they make art, anything positive they can find to do with a limited budget.

'I'm going out a bit more now. Before I never went out, I didn't go to parties. When I was a teenager, I spent my time locked in the house because of the violence'

And every day Daniela witnesses the scars of the drug war on the faces of the children in the center.

"I see it in the children, they reflect within themselves all the violence that there was here," she said. "They carry the consequences of everything that happened."

Only 22 years old, Daniela's teenage years were marked by the murders of friends and the kidnapping of a cousin. The war left her scarred too.

"I'm going out a bit more now. Before I never went out, I didn't go to parties. When I was a teenager, I spent my time locked in the house because of the violence," she said, while the girls sitting beside her kept their eyes downcast. "I wouldn't even go to the movies because I was afraid they'd kidnap or kill me."

Even before Juárez's murder rate began breaking records, the city had a notorious reputation for another reason. In the 90s, Juárez became internationally infamous for the disappearance and murder of its women — femicides.

Related: Cartel Gangsters Face 697 Years Behind Bars in Historic Femicide Case in Juarez, Mexico

The Mexican authorities have shown little sign that they are willing to address the lasting impact of either on the city. When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto made his first presidential visit to Juárez in January 2015, he and the governor of the state of Chihuahua, César Duarte, touted Juárez as a successful example of Mexico's fight against crime.

"Some cities, and Ciudad Juárez in particular, have a very different feeling than they did even two or three years ago," said Peña Nieto, enlisting the fallen murder rate in the city to underline a wider drop in the national number of homicides that has since been reversed.

'They don't want to deal with the broken hearts of our children'

Months after the president's visit, the plight of Juárez's children briefly made it onto Mexico's front pages when five kids, aged 12 to 15, tied up a six-year-old boy in a game of secuestro — kidnapping — who they then tortured and murdered.

"This is a state that says 'in Juárez, nothing happened'," said Catalina Castillo, the director of OPI, stressing the lack of government action and the tiny budget groups like hers can access. "They don't want to deal with the broken hearts of our children."

'I feel bad, sad, now. I think about it all week...Everynight, I dream about him'

It was 6pm when the after school program started to empty out. Alejandro, 11, waited behind.

"My father died. Well, he went to work, a car came, and they shot up the van that he was in," said Alejandro. He was six years old when it happened, and said he's seen multiple strangers gunned down as well.

"I feel bad, sad, now. I think about it all week. I dream about him every night," he continued. What else do you dream about? "Fights, gunshots. Nothing else."

Related: If Ciudad Juarez Is 'Back,' Why Haven't the Killings Stopped?

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz

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posttraumatic stress disorder
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