Drug Killings Haunt Mexican Schoolchildren
TIJUANA, Mexico — The little boy, his school uniform neatly pressed and his friends gathered around, held up 10 little fingers, each one representing a dead body he said he saw outside his school one recent morning. He was not finished, though. He put down the 10 fingers and then put up 2 more. Twelve bodies in
“They chopped out the tongues,” the boy said, seemingly fascinated by what he saw at the mass-killing scene outside Valentín Gómez Farías Primary School three weeks ago.
“I saw the blood,” offered a classmate, enthusiastically.
“They were tied,” piped in another.
Mexico’s explosion of drug-related violence has caught the attention of the country’s children. Experts say the atrocities that young people are hearing about, and all too frequently witnessing, are hardening them, traumatizing them, filling their heads with images that are hard to shake.
“Unfortunately, with this wave of drug violence, there’s been collateral damage among children,” said Jorge Álvarez Martínez, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in post-traumatic stress. Such exposure to violence can hinder learning, interrupt sleep and linger for years, he said.
Nowhere is the trauma greater than along the border with the United States, where drug cartels are battling one another for a growing domestic market and the lucrative transit routes north. In Tijuana alone, a wave of gangland killings has left at least 99 people dead since Sept. 26, a death toll that rivals, if not exceeds, that in Baghdad, a war-torn city that is four times as large, over the same period.
Across Mexico, the carnage is impossible to hide, with severed heads and decapitated bodies turning up, sometimes nearly a dozen at a time. There have been more than 3,700 killings related to drugs and organized crime this year, up from about 2,700 last year, the Mexican attorney general’s office said early last week, with Chihuahua the most violent state and the killings continuing in the days since.
Exchanging gruesome stories is nothing new for schoolchildren, who have a way of overstating their brushes with danger. But the 12 tortured, tongueless bodies that were the talk of the playground recently were no exaggeration. In the early hours of Sept. 29, the bodies of 11 men and one woman, bound and partly dressed, were found in an abandoned lot opposite the school.
The headmaster, Miguel Ángel González Tovar, canceled classes soon after the bodies were discovered, but that did not stop some students from getting a glimpse of them and many others from hearing about them.
“There’s no doubt these images affect the children,” said Mr. González, who recently met with government psychologists to plan counseling sessions with the students. “Some of them are very quiet now. Some are asking us, ‘Why did they die?’ ”
And the bodies dumped outside the school are only one of several macabre displays, forcing teachers to compete with the killers for the attention of Mexico’s youth.
Indeed, it is hard to find a student here who does not know some of the gruesome details of recent killings, like the several vats of acid that were found outside a seafood restaurant, containing what the authorities said they believed were human remains. Or the two bodies wrapped in what resembled cellophane that were found near a road sign that said, “Thank you for visiting Tijuana.”
Bodies have been hung from bridges, sliced into pieces, decapitated, burned.
Mr. González’s biggest fear is that the awful scenes playing out across much of Mexico are so common that they will eventually lose their shock value among the young, making killing an expected, even acceptable, part of life.
“They may grow up with this sort of thing being normal,” he said. “They can say, ‘I saw 12! How many did you see?’ You could never have imagined this years ago.”