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

Mexican Govt Turns a Blind Eye to Orphaned and Disabled Children

Daniela Pastrana

MEXICO CITY, Jul 22 2010 (IPS) - A baby hits the floor when his father, who was holding him in his arms, is murdered in Mexico. A two-year-old watches from her stroller as six drug addicts are killed in a rehabilitation centre, including her mother. The mother of another three-year-old never makes it to collect him from his nursery.

A child who has seen his dying mother remains at the scene, to the indifference of soldiers. Credit: Courtesy of El Diario, Ciudad Juárez (printed by permission).

A child who has seen his dying mother remains at the scene, to the indifference of soldiers. Credit: Courtesy of El Diario, Ciudad Juárez (printed by permission).

This is the darkest side of the ongoing war in Mexico against the drug cartels: the unknown number of orphans, of whom there must be thousands, although there is no official count.

In Ciudad Juárez alone, on the border with the United States, civil society organisations estimate there are 10,000 orphans, on the basis that in the last three and a half years more than 5,500 people have been murdered, 70 percent of whom were between the ages of 18 and 45.

Assuming an average of two children per adult in this age range, if this calculation is extrapolated across the nation, where 25,000 people have been killed in that time period, the bone-chilling figure of 30,000 orphans is arrived at. They are one of the consequences of conservative President Felipe Calderon’s government strategy of all-out war against drug traffickers.

“We know there are thousands of orphans, but no one has the slightest idea of exactly how many, or where they are,” Nashieli Ramírez, the head of Ririki Intervención Social, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with poor and excluded children and women and one of the most respected voices in Mexico on children’s issues, told IPS.

“We don’t know whether they are in the care of their extended family [grandparents, uncles and aunts] or living on the streets,” the expert said, adding that the state National Agency for Family Development (DIF) does not have the structural resources to care for the orphan population.

She said counting the individual cases has to be done through the state Attorney General’s Offices in all 32 Mexican states, where death records are kept. But they, too, are unable to care for and refer the orphans to suitable places of safety, she said.

In Ciudad Juárez, for instance, more than 2,600 people were murdered in 2009, but the Chihuahua state DIF only has records of eight children orphaned that year. Two of these were adopted by families, according to the DIF.

“The DIF has no outreach capability to extend its care networks, especially when the affected population is so large,” Ramírez said.

Stories and anecdotes multiply. A worker* at a nursery at the Mexican Social Security Institute in Ciudad Juárez told IPS that a few months ago, a mother never arrived to pick up her three and a half year old child at closing time.

“We tried to entertain him, and hours later a work colleague of his mother’s came and told us she had been shot. She wanted to take him but we couldn’t give him to her. If an authorised person isn’t available we have to hand him over to the authorities, according to the regulations,” she said.

Eventually his father claimed him, and as the nursery is only for children being cared for by their mothers, the boy never came back. “We don’t know what happened to him, or whether he received any special care,” the educator said.

Of Mexico’s population of 107 million, 38 million are young people under 18, and one-quarter of these are under six. But early childhood is one of the most neglected areas of public policy.

When he took office in 2006, Calderón announced the creation of childcare centres as the flagship social plan of his government programme. But results have been sparse.

“The problem is that the programme is focused on getting the mothers into jobs, not on providing quality care for the children,” Catalina Castillo of the Organización Popular Independiente (Independent People’s Organisation) in Ciudad Juárez told IPS.

Many children who have lost their parents also face discrimination, fuelled by the government’s constant rhetoric implying that all those who were killed were criminals.

Rodrigo and Raúl are brothers, aged eight and 10 respectively, whose parents were killed in 2008 and who now live with their maternal grandmother. According to Susana, their aunt, changing their school, home and city triggered rebellious and introverted behaviour in the boys, which gets worse every time other children ask them if their parents were killed “because they were ‘narcos’ (drug traffickers).”

In Ciudad Juárez, the NGO Fundación Integra works with a special group of orphans: those who have lost a limb or are permanently disabled.

In three years they have cared for over 800 people who were directly exposed to some kind of violence, 65 percent of whom are under 18. But they limit themselves to working with people who have relatives to take responsibility for them at home.

What about those who have no one? “We pass them on to the DIF. We can’t do anything else,” said Laura Antillón, a manager at the foundation.

However many they may be, the orphans are part of a generation of children torn by the Mexican war on drugs. They have seen their parents killed, they have been displaced and discriminated against – but the authorities are not looking their way.

On Jun. 2, two families returning from holidaying in the port of Mazatlán, on the Pacific coast, were intercepted by armed men on the highway between Casas Grandes and Ciudad Juárez, in Chihuahua.

One of the travellers, 32-year-old Mario Alberto Iglesias, was taken away by the assailants and his headless body was found nearby, hours later. His wife, María de Jesús Magallanes, was left at death’s door and she died only days later in hospital.

A series of photographs not published in the local press shows the couple’s children – a boy of five and a girl of three – watching their mother bleeding to death. In another photo the little boy, in bloodstained clothes, is seen among armed soldiers at the scene, with no one paying him any attention.

“They are totally orphaned. No one looks at them, no one listens to them: what sort of reality are they creating for the future?” said Mayra Rojas, head of Infancia Común, an NGO which works against child sex abuse.

*The nursery worker and some children and families are identified incompletely or not at all, at their request.

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