Ioan Grillo for The Chronicle
Daniel Mundo, a sociology major at the Autonomous U. of Ciudad Juárez, works with teenagers to steer them away from organized crime. "The problem is that nobody else but the gangsters come here and offer these kids anything," he says.
By Ioan Grillo
Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
Olga Rosa Ortiz had stepped out of an afternoon conference when she heard the gunfire, rattling like firecrackers at a carnival. The law professor at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez dived onto the patio and waited for the explosions to finish. After what seemed like an eternity, Ms. Ortiz got to her feet to see an ambulance carrying a student shot by federal police. The injured man was among a group of students who had been protesting against the violence in the city, but the officers, who are under investigation, said they fired because they mistook him for a drug-cartel hit man. The student survived two bullet wounds.
That incident at the gates of the university in October is the closest the relentless drug war has come to the campus of the city's largest higher-education institution. But there has been an even more worrying level of attacks against its staff and students on the streets outside. Since January 2008, when drug-cartel warfare exploded in this border city south of El Paso, gunmen have shot dead five of the university's professors and seven students here. In the same period, four faculty members and several students have been kidnapped for ransom.
Such violence and intimidation has affected universities across Mexico, severely straining campus life. But nowhere is it worse than in Ciudad Juárez, the country's most murderous city with a staggering 3,000 homicides last year among a population of 1.3 million.
Despite the pressures, the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez has kept up enrollments, counting 22,000 students and 1,600 professors. Security has been stepped up and students say they feel the campus grounds offer a kind of oasis from the bloodshed being spilled on the streets. And the university has started new projects to try to bring the city back from the abyss. Centers of learning, the directors feel, have to be part of the solution to Mexico's crime wars.
"It has been the most difficult period since the university was founded in 1973," says David Ramírez, the university's secretary general, in the campus offices two miles from the U.S. border. "When a faculty member is killed or kidnapped we all feel pain. Many people just want to abandon the city. But we have responded by giving out more grants, making it safer on the campus, and working more with the community."
Police have solved none of the homicides of the university's professors and students, typical of the dismal police record in Mexico. Mr. Ramírez says that some killings appear to stem from mistaken identities, a depressingly common cause as gunmen roam the streets shooting at rivals. Many young people are killed just for being at the same party or on the same corner as someone in the drug trade.
About 11 students have lost their fathers to violence in the period. Such losses are frequent enough that the university has created what it calls "orphan grants" to help them complete their education. "It is a terrible crime if a kid has to stop his education because they kill his father," Mr. Ramírez says.
Helping Heal Wounds
Since the violence exploded, the university has increased the number of security guards fivefold and installed panic buttons. Students say they feel safer on campus than in their own neighborhoods. "It is a place where you forget about the problems outside for a while and focus on your learning," says Angeles Espinosa, a psychology major.
Like many students, Ms. Espinosa was actually born in El Paso and is a dual Mexican and American citizen. "Despite the violence, I prefer to study in Juárez because it is cheaper and I speak much better Spanish than English," she says. In addition to the numerous dual-citizenship students, about 60 foreign students, mostly Americans, are enrolled, down from about 100 five years ago.
But while they feel safe once inside the university gates, many students worry about their journey to and from campus, especially in the evenings. "My mother insists on personally driving me here and collecting me every day," says Mayra Saenz, who is studying business. "She never wants me going to student parties either. My cousin was murdered last year and our family is still devastated about that. We don't even know why they killed him. My mother is stressed all the time about something else happening to one of us."
The pervasive violence means that almost everybody in Ciudad Juárez has a similar story of a family member or friend suffering. The university has tried to help heal the city's wounds in several ways, with the biggest focus on a community center that brings in students and professors to rebuild impoverished neighborhoods. Ms. Ortiz, the law professor, is the center's founder and director.
"At the core of the problem in Juárez is a broken social fabric," says Ms. Ortiz, who opened the center in January 2010. "In this environment, young men work for the drug cartels and commit murders because they see no other opportunities. We have to rebuild our community from the ground up."
Architecture students and professors help restore public spaces—such as parks and monuments in the old Chaveña neighborhood—a technique that reduced crime in other battered cities, such as Palermo, Italy, and Medellín, Colombia. "We want to create a city environment that people care about and can feel good in," says Adrian Avalos, a student, as he was working on a 3D computer model for a city park. "But it is a tough challenge to design something that everybody in the neighborhood likes and that won't be covered in graffiti in a month."
A native of Ciudad Juárez, Mr. Avalos says he tries to ignore the daily violence as much as possible to focus on his work. "It all becomes normal and you stop feeling anything," he says. noting that he still goes to bars and discos on weekends despite many shootings in them. But he concedes that when he graduates, he will look for opportunities in other places such as Mexico City. "Juárez is a difficult place to think about starting a home and family," he says. University officials fear that if the violence rages on, a brain drain could be a problem in the future.
A few miles up into slums that climb Ciudad Juárez's eastern hills, Daniel Mundo, who is studying social work, leads a workshop trying to steer teenagers away from organized crime. He directs them in a drama-improvisation session, where they play the roles of people in the war-torn community. "The problem is that nobody else but the gangsters come here and offer these kids anything," Mr. Mundo says. "They offer them money, cellphones, and guns, and many take them. They don't see any other possibilities. With social work, I try and make these kids realize that there are more things in the world than this."
Mr. Mundo grew up in those barrios and is determined to keep working in them. But he says that all young people, including students, are at risk of being attacked by gunmen or soldiers, making for an intimidating environment.
Social-work graduates also give residents guidance in getting jobs and help shape community leaders. And, crucially, psychology professors work with residents to help them cope with losing loved ones to violence. "When someone sees their father or brother or son murdered, it causes deep pain and also social resentment," Ms. Ortiz says. "It is crucial to help people with this pain if we are to move forward as a society."
At Ciudad Juárez's public hospital, the university helps heal wounds in a literal way. Many university medical staff and students assist in the emergency room, where more than a dozen people may come in with gunshot injuries in a single shift. Some medical students have more experience treating bullet wounds than do veteran doctors and paramedics elsewhere.
Firsthand experience of violence has also been an education for students in other ways. Raul Flores, a sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, says that although classes end earlier to get students home safely, classroom debates have become more intense.
"In my classes on the sociology of violence, we used to look at foreign examples such as Colombia or Africa," Mr. Flores says. "But now we look at examples from right here. The students know exactly what violence means and how it can have terrible effects on society. Every student knows somebody who has been killed or kidnapped."
Mexican and international efforts to save Ciudad Juárez have brought in experts from around the globe. But governments and nonprofits would do well to harness the experience gained in the city itself, especially at the university, Mr. Flores says. "The staff and students here have valuable analysis to offer about the meltdown of the community," he says. "We have been making suggestions for years about the need for active community centers, about the need to have a police force that is monitored by citizens over corruption, to have independent prosecutors who are not politicized."
Yet the Mexican government's main response has been to pour in more federal police and soldiers. Similarly, most of the $1.6-billion in aid pledged by the U.S. government to fight the Mexican drug war since 2008 has been pumped into military hardware, such as Black Hawk helicopters. "If politicians would really start listening to what we are saying," Mr. Flores says, "and acting on the suggestions, we might start to get out of this hole."