Thousands of Central American children are heading north to the United States, desperately trying to flee gang violence, murder, rape and hopelessness. But in the violent birthplace of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel, some children are developing the strength to stay.
At a rundown yet bustling gym in La Reforma, Sinaloa, a small Mexican community of 1,733 households, kids between the ages of 8-19 come together to train as weightlifters. They are led by Coach Tomas Isidro Barraza Cuevas, who tries to inspire kids to resist the lure of narcotraffickers and instead channel their energy into a serious sport that can give them the sense of power they desperately crave. To him, weightlifting is more than a sport.
“For me, it’s that kind of spiritual experience,” the coach explains. “To feel the passion, to feel this desire to always keep doing it.”
Sinaloa is best known as the home state of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and for the unrelenting violence from the drug cartel empire he helped build there. Faced with few job prospects, many children who grow up in Sinaloa aspire to be one of the wealthy narcos they see with fancy cars and beautiful women.
According to Citizen Cause, an organization dedicated to promoting and strengthening youth action in Mexico, 75,000 Mexican children have been recruited by organized crime syndicates, including some 24,000 who have joined the Sinaloa drug cartel. Many at-risk youths feel their only choices are to join a criminal gang or become a victim.
Coach Tomas offers his students a different track. “It’s a sport that keeps them away from the vices,” he says. “The time that you could use or waste on the streets getting into trouble, we fill that time.”