Latin America & Caribbean

Mexico ex-gang member works to tackle Juarez violence

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Media captionDaniel gives a tour of the youth centre in Juarez

It is the end of another baking hot day in Ciudad Juarez on the US-Mexico border. A group of teenagers is sitting under the shade of a corrugated iron roof at a youth centre.

They sit in circles, discussing their latest hip hop lyrics and playing guitar.

The mood is upbeat and they have a surprisingly optimistic outlook on life for people living in one of the world's most dangerous cities.

Ciudad Juarez saw 3,000 drug-related murders in 2010, according to the attorney general's office in Chihuahua - a dramatic rise since 2007 when 300 killings were registered.

Most of the victims were male and most were under 30.

"Young people don't expect to live beyond 22, 23 or 24. Because you may end up in prison, or because you may actually be left dead on a pavement," says Daniel, 22, who founded the youth centre.

Daniel admits he carried a gun and hung out with fellow gang members when he was younger.

And he knows that he could have ended up like many of his friends, drawn into the drugs trade and very possibly murdered.

But he found an escape through his love of hip hop. The music, he says, gave him a way to be heard, just like guns had done before.

Drug transit point

Daniel and some friends performed concerts around the city and used the money raised selling T-shirts and CDs to pay for school.

Sitting outside the centre, alternating between the interview and joking with friends, Daniel is clear hip hop saved him.

"I was lucky. I was given the right opportunities at the right time. I found a space to develop what I liked," says Daniel. "It came just in time for me, just before I became more involved with the gang."

Ciudad Juarez's location on the border with the US has long made the area a key transit point for drugs.

The crackdown on the drug gangs, launched in late 2006 by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, has seen tens of thousands of police and troops deployed in various parts of the country, including Juarez.

Officials say the murder rate in Juarez has fallen. During a recent visit, President Calderon said killings were down 60% on figures from October last year.

But local social workers and academics argue that as well as increased security, more needs to be done to address the city's social needs.

According to Socorro Velazquez, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, the city lacks enough schools to keep children off the streets and away from the gangs.

Now is the time to invest in centres liked Daniel's, she says.

Image caption Tens of thousands of police and soldiers fight the cartels in the north of the country

"These centres are great spaces to control violence, because they look after education and provide emotional and psychological support for the children," says Ms Velazquez. "Without them, the situation would be much worse.

"They help give hope to hundreds of young people."

Determined

Young people at Daniel's centre praise his commitment.

"Daniel is very active and dedicated, he always talks to the other kids about their problems, and he's very involved in his work," says a 20-year-old, also called Daniel, taking a break from a game of football at the centre.

"This helps a lot because lots of kids don't have anything to do, and they get involved in things they shouldn't be doing. This centre helps them get out of this and gives them a chance to work on a career, to keep them from getting involved in other bad activities."

One case is particularly telling. Daniel convinced the 14-year-old leader of a violent gang to start his high-school studies.

The boy is now hiding after surviving two murder attempts and could not be reached.

But some of his friends say he is determined to continue studying.

This atmosphere of change is easily spotted around the centre. In a classroom next to the football pitch a group of kids are studying maths.

Many of them say they would not be able to complete high school without the centre's help.

Next door, a popular hairdresser from the neighbourhood has come to teach the members the skills necessary to get apprenticeships in local salons.

Sitting outside next to colourful graffiti on the walls, some older members of the centre teach music.

The centre has only been open since November last year but it already sees a steady flow of members coming in on a daily basis.

Daniel's work may have only a small impact, but he hopes it will inspire others to set up similar centres.

"In this city, kids become easier prey for organised crime. They prefer to live only until the age of 25, but to have a more dignified life, than until the age of 40 or 50 with a very low quality of life," he says.

"I would like more youngsters... to open up centres like this one in other communities.

"That would make me feel happy with my work - to create more leaders among these kids, and to create a chain."