At a high school in Ecatepec — one of Mexico's most violent municipalities on the outskirts of the capital — an initially rowdy classroom of teenagers soon settles down to listen with rapt attention as former gang member Williams Cucuiy tells them his story.
"Within a gang, I felt accepted," the 24-year-old says. "My Dad had beaten me, the kids at school beat me, but around my buddies, I was safe."
Cucuiy spent his formative years as a member of a group called Bad Boys in Inglewood, California, before he was convicted of reckless driving and deported back to Mexico in 2010 where he again became involved in gangs and crime.
"Going around with a gang gave me a sense of loyalty and self-respect," he tells the teenagers. "But it also turned me into somebody I didn't want to be."
In recent years, armed violence in Mexico – social, economic, drug-related and political – has made international headlines. Over 150,000 homicides and at least 22,000 unsolved disappearances have shaken the country since former president Felipe Calderón declared a military-led crackdown on organized crime in 2006 that has been continued by his successor President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Yet while the headlines focus on fugitive drug lords, the more dramatic violent events, and the infiltration of cartels into politics, the principal perpetrators and victims are often ignored.
According to a 2012 Government and World Bank report, around 38 percent of murder victims in Mexico are between the ages of 15 and 29. The same group, the report said, makes up over half of all perpetrators of crime. Nearly half of all young people murdered between 2004 and 2013 were aged between just 15 and 17, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.
Williams Cucuiy lived gang life on both sides of the border, and also behind bars after he was imprisoned for assaulting a taxi driver during an attempted robbery in 2011. He tells the roomful of fourteen-year-olds how easily it gets out of control.
"Prison was hell," he says. "The same gangs that were on the outside were waiting on the inside. The same threats; the same violence. That's when I realized I had to make a decision in life."
While serving his sentence, Cucuiy joined a workshop on conflict resolution organized by Cauce Ciudadano, a Mexican NGO composed of active and former gang members who work to support vulnerable young people at risk of being drawn into organized crime. Today he visits schools, prisons, and communities in and around Mexico City, encouraging youngsters to build up their resistance to getting sucked into the violence.
"I realized that life would carry on whatever I did," he tells VICE News of his decision to finally go on the straight and narrow. "And I could either have a positive effect on the people around me, or I could carry on hurting them."
Over one million young people enter the Mexican job market every year and are faced with notoriously few opportunities. According to a study by the OECD, there are currently more than seven million in the country without jobs or places in school. The term nini (ni trabaja ni estudia – "neither working nor studying") is frequently used to describe this demographic.
The link between youth violence and the country's powerful organized crime groups has always been present in Mexico's drug wars. The eight murders a day that turned the border city of Ciudad Juárez into the most violent on the planet at the end of the last decade was directly linked to the way two major rival cartels recruited members of local gangs to do their fighting.
Still it was the 2013 case of Edgar Jiménez, known as "El Ponchis", that really brought national attention to the phenomenon. The 14-year-old gang member from the state of Morelos appeared in a YouTube video torturing a rival and later confessed to the murder of four people. Abandoned by his parents and constantly absent from school, he had worked as a sicario, or hit-man, for the violent Beltrán Leyva Cartel, earning US$200 per week.
Carlos Cruz, himself a former gang member and the director of Cauce Ciudadano, insists that there are thousands of similar cases throughout the country.
"The problems with violence in Mexico go beyond the war on drugs," he tells VICE News. "It's about a country that has forgotten its young people and where the state is absent or complicit in the majority of cases."
Cauce, as the organization is better known, was founded in Mexico City in 2000. At its modest main offices it offers workshops in life skills, carpentry, welding, and hip-hop, while members also visit schools and prisons. Today it works in seven Mexican states.
"Young people join gangs looking for friendship, protection," Cruz says. "But they later become foot-soldiers for organized crime."
Street gangs in Mexico vary widely in size and origin. In northern border towns like Juárez and Tijuana, local gangs often have a direct link to US counterparts. In rural Michoacán on the country's southwestern coast, the Knights Templar cartel recruited thousands of disenchanted young people with the help of pseudo-religious propaganda.
Cruz claims that the majority of gangs active in Mexico City are neighborhood-based groups involved in street rivalries and petty crime who are nevertheless frequently recruited by more organized criminals.
"Most gangs start out as bandas, or groups of young people just looking to hang out and kill time," he explains. "Little by little, they expand territorially, and come into contact with more hardened groups who exploit them."
He uses the widespread phenomenon of car theft in the capital to illustrate his point.
"When a 15-year-old boy steals a car in the capital he doesn't drive it home and park it in his parents' garage. The vehicles are taken to storage facilities. There is a whole ring of criminals involved, as well as complicity by police and other authorities," he says.
"To prevent that happening, you have to go into those communities and talk to young people; work with teachers, friends, and neighbors," he adds.
In 2013, the Peña Nieto administration launched an ambitious violence prevention program aimed at combating the social factors behind young people turning to crime. Partly drawn from the experiences of other violence-plagued nations like Brazil and Colombia, the National Program for the Social Prevention of Crime and Violence set out to identify risk factors and address them through skills workshops, community-building activities and job creation.
"During the last administration, seeds were planted in this area, but what the government is doing today is unprecedented," Eunice Rendón, Director General of Inter-Ministerial Coordination for the program, told VICE News. "In the past, crime in Mexico was measured by its effects. Now, we are looking at the causes, what exactly leads young people to fall into crime."
Cruz, whose organization collaborates with some government institutions, though it remains fiercely independent, said he has mixed feelings about the program he describes as long overdue but in danger of being limited to a political project rather than the establishment of a permanent policy.
The government social prevention program has been accused of a poor methodology by NGOs and, inevitably, the presence of corruption in the distribution and use of funds.
Civil society groups also loudly complained when President Peña Nieto named Arturo Escobar as the new head of crime prevention in the Interior Ministry in September. Escobar is a leading figure in the notoriously opportunistic and allegedly corrupt Green Party.
For the founders of Cauce Ciudadano, an ongoing and open dialogue with local communities and the authorities is a key element of crime prevention.
"There has to be a dialogue between citizens and authorities," Cruz says, though he makes it clear it is not one of subjugation. "When I'm at a meeting with a government minister and he asks me who I am, I tell him I'm a gang member looking to build peace. If his eyes pop out, all the better."
Giovanni Xochipa, another founding member of Cauce, tells VICE News that he sees many of the same factors driving violence among young people in Mexico today that he experienced as a gang leader in the 1990s. "It's the same fury, same pent-up energy," he explains. "If violence is the only thing you've known in your life, you're going to do the same."
Things changed for Xochipa when he saw a close friend gunned down in a street battle after the group had come out of a pool hall and another group challenged them to a fight.
"Guns were pulled and shots were fired. Carlos died in a taxi on the way to the emergency room. He was one of my closest friends, a really charismatic guy who everybody looked up to."
A leader of the 3 de marzo gang, a group that roamed the capital's feisty northern neighborhoods, Xochipa subsequently felt the mythical invincibility he had acquired through gang life slip away.
"At first, the temptation was to look for revenge," Xochipa, now 38, recalls. "In those days, we lived by the motto 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But I knew that if we retaliated they would just come after us again. It was a moment of reflection for me."
Xochipa adds that he still considers himself part of the gang he joined twenty years ago and still sees many of his old friends.
"Some might say it's contradictory to still identify yourself as a gang member when you're working to prevent violence," he says, while preparing to give a workshop at Cauce's community center in Mexico City. "But young people learn values from gangs: friendship, loyalty, respect. It's not a completely negative experience."
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