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Participants Say Mérida Initiative Making a Big Difference in Juárez

The Mérida Initiative, a $1.5 billion U.S. aid package whose beneficiaries include Mexico, has faced its share of criticism. But in Ciudad Juárez, many say they see the positive results of the initiative every day.

Children who participate in an after school program in Ciudad Juárez dance to Beyoncé as part of their routine. The program is one of several Merida Initiative projects in this border city designed to help the city rebound.

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Criticism of the Mérida Initiative wasn’t on Alejandro Matamoros’ mind recently when he spoke about his passion for teaching how to mix hip-hop tracks and how it helps his at-risk students express how they view Mexico after years of bloodshed.

And controversy surrounding the estimated $1.5 billion aid package from the U.S. to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean wasn’t evident during an after-school program in this city’s Felipes Angeles colonia. The children here squealed in delight during dance lessons, where the featured music was a Chipmunks-like rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”

In these gritty neighborhoods, where paved roads and electricity aren’t a given, participants in various social and educational programs are lauding the results of the initiative, which was set up to help the recipients combat organized crime and help areas impacted by related violence. Though these participants are hesitant to say that violence in Ciudad Juárez is gone for good, they say the programs created under the Mérida Initiative have fueled hope for the region following more than three years of urban warfare that left more than 10,000 people dead.

Mérida, also called Plan Mexico in some circles, was initiated by former President George W. Bush and signed into law in 2008. Concerns were quickly raised that a blank check would be given to notoriously corrupt officials in Mexico, and critics cautioned that another Zetas cartel could be in the making. (The founders of the violent gang were former Mexican military officers who some say received training by U.S. officials before their defection.)

But the Mérida Initiative came with four pillars, each with a specific purpose. One of those pillars is designed to help rebuild communities in Mexico ravaged by the drug war. In Ciudad Juárez, which was ground zero for the drug war just two years ago, some of the help is yielding positive results, according to participants.

The three other sections of Mérida deal with security development, drug trafficking and infrastructure enhancements at ports of entry. The U.S. State Department oversees aid distribution and related programs, and supporters argue that this vetting process prevents fraud, misuse and waste of resources.

For the community-building efforts, the State Department partners with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The agencies review grant proposals to decide which programs carry out various objectives. Since 2008, about $50 million has been allocated to help the Mexican government in its civil programs. Nine polígonos, vast areas of poor neighborhoods, were selected in Mexico in 2009 and 2010 based on several criteria, including crime rates, for aid programs. They include three each in Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana and Monterrey.

In the Riberas del Bravo neighborhood in the eastern part of Ciudad Juárez, neighborhoods that once housed thousands of workers from the city’s maquilas, or factories, sit half-abandoned. Stray dogs and street vendors lazily pass boarded-up or vandalized empty houses whose residents either fled or were victims of violence.

It is because these abandoned neighborhoods are havens for criminals that the International Youth Foundation established a community center here that offers supplemental classes for students. It is spending a portion of the $4 million allocated to IYF for its programs in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana on the center, which sits less than a mile from the border fence in El Paso. 

Gabriel Chirino’s parents work at one of the hundreds of factories here, and the 18-year-old thought he’d take the same path. But a recruiter came to his high school a few months ago, and Chirino said something was “sparked” inside him after he learned about an IYF program.

“Now that I’ve finished the program, I’d actually like to find work in the field that I study, computer engineering,” said Chirino, who moved to Ciudad Juárez from the state of Chiapas about 13 years ago.

At the end of the session, students receive a certificate that program coordinators said acts like a letter of recommendation. But Ruben Acosta, a program officer with the IYF, said he hopes they leave with more than a piece of paper.

“The goal, at the end of the program, is that each young man or young girl builds a personal life plan,” he said. “They don’t know how to look for other opportunities than their parents found.”

Chirino said he wasn’t as directly affected by the violence as much as others were. But like every Juarense, he said, you can’t escape its effects. “You have to move forward when that happens.”

About 20 minutes across town, in a hilly colonia called Francisco Madero, Alejandro Matamoros can be heard over the crisp samples of hip-hop tracks as he calls out instructions on adding a “piano roll” to his students’ music. Matamoros, 21, teaches at-risk youths about modern culture and integrates his passion for hip-hop and its power of expression. 

“For us in Latin America, we use hip-hop to denounce a lot of the things that happen in our neighborhoods,” said Matamoros, whose program is administered by Programa para la Convivencia Ciudadana. The purpose of that program is to find and recruit students who are not likely to continue their education after grade school and encourage them to keep studying. His classes include lessons on a computer mixing program that he says will teach the high schoolers how to make and record their own tracks. 

“When I fully engaged in learning about rap, I began to engage more in societal issues, and from there I went to the university and studied social work. Now I am here working with these kids,” said Matamoros, who cites Nas and Public Enemy as his main influences. He says the program he's involved in allows teens in the violent city to find common ground with others and feel less abandoned or isolated.

"They come here and they integrate with people in the same situations, and likewise we learn those conditions [they live in]," he said.  

Up the road at one of the city's older schools, children in an after-school program play soccer, practice tae kwon do and dance to modern music. This after-school program is partially funded by a group called FECHAC, Fundación del Empresario de Chihuahuense, a group of business leaders who pay an additional tax used to raise funds for community projects. That money is pooled with grant money from USAID.

Lennys Sanchez, a public relations officer for the group, said 30,000 businesses participate and 60 percent of the group’s funds go to programs in Juárez.

Despite the bevy of community-building programs like these, the security and training aspects of the Mérida Initiative will probably continue to get the most attention — and criticism. Witness for Peace, an independent think tank that focuses on Latin American policy, said of the initiative: “While the stated goals are to ‘produce a safer and more secure hemisphere and prevent the spread of illicit drugs and transnational threats,’ the reality of the initiative for the Mexican people tells a different story.” Just last year, Héctor Murguía, the former mayor of Ciudad Juárez, said the aid package had done nothing to help Mexico. He cited America's insatiable appetite for illegal narcotics as a main reason.

But Guillermo Asiain, who was educated in El Paso and now works with IYF, said stories of individual success maintain his faith in the program.

“This kid was born in the U.S. and came back with his mom. He wanted to go to college. When he came to the program, he said, ‘What’s the path to get there?’” he said. “A lot of the money that the U.S. spends on the border is good, and well-spent. I didn’t realize the impact that money had until he told us his story.”

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