Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Taking Fight for Decent Childcare to the Streets

Daniela Pastrana

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico, Jun 10 2010 (IPS) - “Sometimes I feel sad when things don’t go ahead as well as I would like them to, but we have no alternative but to keep on trying,” says Lourdes Almada, a Mexican sociologist and activist for children’s rights, as she drives her pickup truck in Ciudad Juárez.

Groups of promoters hit the streets, putting stickers on cars and collecting signatures.  Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

Groups of promoters hit the streets, putting stickers on cars and collecting signatures. Credit: Daniela Pastrana/IPS

She is on the streets in the world’s most violent city, her only protection the lime-green T-shirt worn by those involved in the campaign “¡Escúchame! Hazlo por Juárez” (Listen to me! Do it for Juárez), an innovative civil society initiative aimed at improving the lives of infants and toddlers in this city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, on the border with the United States.

“A society that pays no heed to its children is a society without a future,” Blanca Gutiérrez Carrasco, another campaign activist, told IPS.

Almada is tireless: she gives interviews, argues with the managers of “maquila” factories (which assemble goods for export, taking advantage of tax breaks and other benefits), and meets with priests, social leaders and television broadcasting executives.

Between appointments, she cuts out car stickers, collects leaflets and delivers T-shirts, and still makes time to pick up her kids from school and drop them at home.

“We’re not even attempting to reach the level of childcare they have in industrialised countries,” she told IPS.

“We’re only proposing to achieve, in the space of three years, childcare coverage equivalent to that in the state capital (also called Chihuahua), because right now we have twice the child population and half the infrastructure,” she said.

A total of 165,000 children under the age of six live in Ciudad Juárez, where they make up 15 percent of the population, but only six out of every 100 pre-schoolers under four have access to high-quality care and early learning in child centres.

To reach the target of quality childcare for 16,000 children under six, 2,000 new places in creches, kindergartens and other care centres must be created in each of the next three years, at an estimated cost of 31 million dollars, the campaign organisers say.

Ciudad Juárez is at the centre of the national strategy against organised crime set in motion by the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón. In the last three years, some 8,000 army troops and 5,000 federal police officers have been deployed in the city.

Two powerful drug-trafficking groups are battling for control of Juárez: the Juárez cartel which has been operating in the city for several years, and a cartel run by Joaquín Guzmán, a.k.a. “El Chapo”, a drug lord who escaped from a top security prison in 2001 by hiding in a laundry truck, and has appeared on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest men.

The all-out war triggered by the arrival of the federal forces, which according to analysts have tended to side with “El Chapo’s” group , has left more than 5,000 people dead, including over 100 children.

The February murders of 16 young people at a party in the neighbourhood of Villas de Salvárcar put the spotlight back on the city and forced the federal government to hastily introduce a programme called “Todos Somos Juárez, Reconstruyamos la Ciudad” (We Are All Juárez: Let’s Rebuild Our City).

The programme aims to tackle violence and crime in Ciudad Juárez and involves the state and city authorities and civil society as well as the federal government. It includes 160 concrete pledges, most of which are planned for completion by December 2010. In addition, each pledge has a benchmark it is expected to meet within 100 days of its implementation.

The 100-day period expired May 28. However, May has gone down as the most violent month so far this year, with an average of 8.1 murders a day.

The people of Ciudad Juárez are due to vote in elections for state and city authorities Jul. 4.

In the last few days, increasing numbers of poll respondents have reported their intention to vote tactically against the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate for mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Héctor Murguía, formerly mayor of the city from 2004 to 2007, who is accused of links with drug trafficking.

In 2008 Saulo Reyes, Murguía’s former public security operations chief, was arrested during a covert operation by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for allegedly trying to smuggle one tonne of marihuana into the United States.

Although Juárez residents are not all that interested in the electoral campaign, the organisations promoting the childcare initiative want candidates to make concrete commitments on provision of funding and coverage goals.

“Vote for the candidates who are most committed to children,” says their advertisement detailing the early childhood initiative, published Monday Jul. 7 in the main local newspapers.

The proposal has gathered support in the last few weeks through social networks on the internet, and has even won the backing of some local media outlets.

“The strategy is to get past the fear,” “Oveja Negra” (Black Sheep), a member of the hip hop group Batallones Femeninos, told IPS.

“It isn’t easy. People are fed up,” Laurencio Barraza of the Independent Popular Organisation, a pillar of the street campaign, told IPS.

In spite of all the efforts, June did not start well for the children of Juárez. On Jun. 1, three-year-old Liliana Hernández was shot to death by gunmen, along with her 22-year-old father.

The following day, a family returning from holiday in Mazatlán, in the state of Sinaloa, were intercepted on their way back to Ciudad Juárez. An armed gang abducted the 32-year-old father, whose headless body was eventually found. The mother bled to death at the scene, in front of her children, aged three and four.

Also on Jun. 2, four young men were murdered on basketball courts, when the area was packed with people.

But it was a very different scene at Cazadores park on Saturday Jun. 5, when a hundred children from the Do it for Juárez movement released green and white balloons into the air, carrying a banner reading “Listen to me!”

“We don’t want any more violence. We want more daycare centres, so that children won’t have to look after their little brothers and sisters,” seven-year-old Jazmín, busy collecting signatures for the early childhood initiative in Juárez, told IPS.

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