The February arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is a significant milestone in Mexico’s fight against organized crime.
Not everyone is rejoicing though.
In fact, some Mexicans are protesting the arrest of the country’s most notorious kingpin, who was ranked on Forbes list of most powerful people in the world five years in a row and considered the 10th richest person in Mexico. Millions of Mexicans idolize him – about 1,000 of them recently marched in a show of solidarity in his hometown of Sinaloa.
The pro-El Chapo marchers were a relatively small group. However, the economic frustrations are real, in a country where more than 45 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Despite the protests, El Chapo remains in custody in a high-security prison. He could face extradition to the United States and will most likely never be free again. But the battle against organized crime is not over yet. We may have to contend with the drug lord’s second coming.
In Sinaloa and across the country, an army of admirers are looking to follow in his path. El Chapo’s supporters are not only passionate, many are also very young. Cartels in need of manpower easily pluck children and teenagers from the poverty they are desperate to escape. For years, many of these children had been enchanted by the ascent of El Chapo. Once recruited, they become just as elusive as their hero, thanks in part to Mexican laws that make it difficult to prosecute youth.
There are no winners in bloody rivalries that co-opt kids. Since former President Felipe Calderón declared war on Mexican drug cartels in 2006, families on both sides of the nation’s border have been devastated by insecurity, extortion, and kidnapping, and more than 60,000 people had been killed by 2012. Inexperienced and expendable, junior narcos are among the mounting casualties.
Any time of the year can be a vulnerable one for Mexican children in resource-deprived communities. But one window in particular – after school lets out and before summer begins – leaves students especially susceptible to the call of the cartels.
That’s where we step in. We are the leaders of Mend, a U.C. Berkeley-based group of cognitive science, math, business, and humanities graduates and undergraduates of Mexican heritage.
Though we’ve been afforded opportunities across the border from the drug war, reminders of what Mexican youth face are never far away. With the support of the Clinton Global Initiative University, we are making a commitment to action to intervene in the heat of Mexico’s academic summer by introducing a free youth empowerment center in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes.
The center, named !Adelante! (Spanish for “forward!”), will serve 25 recent middle-school graduates at risk of not continuing on to high school in Aguascalientes, whose border with Zacatecas is lined with gunfights and cartel-enforced roadblocks. We are working to create alternatives for disconnected youth in the area, hoping local mentors replace exploitative gang leaders, as we put tutoring centers and internship programs within reach of their idle hands.
We’ll be honest. We don’t see an end to the Mexican drug war coming anytime soon. But we do see opportunities to provide at-risk teenagers with a safe haven and positive influences. In Mexico, we can dismiss children as the problem or empower them as the solution. Engaging the younger generation is the only way to ensure that El Chapo is gone for good.
Cristian De Leon is a first generation Mexican-American student at the University of California, Berkeley and a participant in Clinton Global Initiative University 2014.