Mexico’s drug war as seen through the eyes of children

Children’s drawings depicting extreme violence and distrust of government forces reveal the impact of narco-culture.

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A gang member hurling a grenade at a police officer [Stephen Woodman/Al Jazeera]

Guadalajara, Mexico – One image captures a fierce shoot-out between rival drug cartels, with several lifeless bodies slumped on the street in pools of their own blood. Another shows a gang member hurling a grenade at a police officer. A third features a collection of Kalashnikov and Armalite assault rifles, the weapons of choice for Mexico’s cartel hitmen.

These are not photographs, but children’s drawings depicting the harsh realities of Mexico’s decade-long drug war. They uncover the mental scars borne by a generation exposed to extreme violence, many of whom distrust government forces and admire narco-culture.

Elementary school students produced the drawings as part of an investigation into the effects of the conflict on children in northern Jalisco, an impoverished area plagued by violent crime.

More than 500 children between the ages of eight and 13 participated in the study, which was led by Maria Teresa Prieto Quezada, an educational psychologist at the University of Guadalajara.

The investigation involved surveys and interviews, as well as drawing. Most subjects portrayed themselves as victims or traumatised spectators of the drug war, a conflict that has claimed more than 170,000 lives since December 11, 2006 [PDF], when then-President Felipe Calderon deployed troops in an ill-fated attempt to stamp out organised crime.

A collection of Kalashnikov and Armalite assault rifles [Stephen Woodman/Al Jazeera] 
A collection of Kalashnikov and Armalite assault rifles [Stephen Woodman/Al Jazeera] 

Admiration for outlaws

Prieto Quezada’s most disturbing find was that many of the children respected drug traffickers.

“Sometimes I think I would like to be like them,” David, 11, told researchers. “I would like the power, the money, the luxury cars and all the rest. On the other hand, you don’t live as long… People want to come to your house and kill you.”

READ MORE: Meet the man cleaning up after Mexico’s murders

The investigation revealed the profound impact of narco-culture – a phenomenon that has impacted Mexican music, fashion, and language – on local children.

“We never thought we would find this in primary schools,” Prieto Quezada told Al Jazeera. “These children know more about the history of the drug trade than the history of Mexico.”

Most of this knowledge is gleaned from the morbidly graphic website The Narco Blog and from narcocorridos, Mexican folk ballads that glorify drug traffickers. Many children could name personal heroes from the world of organised crime. Some had over 100 narcocorridos downloaded on their phones.

While the internet has popularised narco-culture, the students’ drawings and interviews revealed that much of what they see online is reflected in their daily lives. In recent years, the remote municipalities of northern Jalisco have seen gun battles as opposing cartels battle for control of the region.

“There are lots of drug traffickers in these parts,” said Juan, 10. “Every day you see federal police, state police, the navy and army. When you see them pass, you know something’s going down.”

READ MORE: Mexico’s ‘lost generation’ of drug addicts

No distinction between police and criminals

A drawing competition to mark Mexican independence in neighbouring Michoacan state elicited similar results, with children interpreting the theme “The Mexico I live” as a prompt to portray their experiences with drug-related violence.

Of vast majority of the 3,500 elementary school children who participated in the contest depicted crime and injustice. Forty-five drawings were collected into a book that was published by the Michoacan state Human Rights Commission and a local university.

“The Mexico they perceived was not a Mexico where they played happily in the streets,” said Ana Maria Mendez Puga, a professor of psychology and the co-compiler of the book. “It was not what you would expect from a child.”

Michoacan state has been at the centre of the drug war since December 2006, when Mexico’s government launched a full military offensive against cartels in the state.

While the security forces failed to restore order, the crackdown hit civilians hard, with complaints of mistreatment to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) in Michoacan increasing more than 2,000 percent in five years [PDF].

“We noticed the children made no distinction between police and criminals,” said Cristian Lopez Raventos, a psychology professor who helped select drawings for the book. One shows an angry police officer pointing his gun at a civilian. Another depicts a giant shoe labelled “justice” crushing young victims.

The pictures also point to an awareness that cartels prey on minors.

More than 19,000 children and young people under the age of 19 were murdered between 2007 and 2015, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). To drug traffickers, children represent a low-cost pool of recruits. Around 30,000 have been pushed into active participation in the ongoing conflict, according to Child Rights Network, an alliance of civic organisations in Mexico [PDF].

Experts believe this heightened exposure to violence carries into the classroom, where seven out of 10 primary and secondary school students have suffered bullying or harassment, according to the CNDH [PDF].

“Educational institutions are a barometer for the problems in their communities,” said Juan Martin Perez Garcia, executive director of Child Rights Network.

READ MORE: Mexico drug war fuels private security boom

Children's drawings depicting the harsh realities of Mexico's decade-long drug war [Stephen Woodman/Al Jazeera] 
Children’s drawings depicting the harsh realities of Mexico’s decade-long drug war [Stephen Woodman/Al Jazeera] 

Cradle of cartels

Narco-culture originated and remains most pervasive in the sun-baked highlands of Sinaloa, where the local economy revolves around cannabis and opium production.

Sympathy for drug traffickers runs so high in this western coastal state that protesters took to the streets to demand the release of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after his arrest in 2014. His subsequent prison escape further cemented his folk hero status and when he was recaptured last January, police had to patrol the streets to prevent another embarrassing display of support.

A study of graffiti at the Western University in Culiacan, the state capital, revealed that well-educated undergraduates are also immersed in narco-culture.

Francisco Felix is a student and singer who performs narcocorridos such as “El Mercenario” (The Mercenary) and “El Bajito” (The Short Man), an homage to Guzman.

“About 40 percent of students listen to narcocorridos,” Felix said. “Plenty of us reflect narco-culture in our dress or word choice. It’s Sinaloa. That’s the culture here.”

READ MORE – Narcocorridos: Mexico’s ‘gangster rap’

Jose de Jesus Chavez Martinez, a lecturer in communication sciences at the university, conducted an analysis of 42 samples of classroom desk graffiti. Allusions to the drug trade featured prominently, with references to “buchonas” [cartel-affiliated girlfriends] and drawings of the expensive SUVs favoured by drug traffickers.

One drawing depicts a dark vehicle and an AK-47 hovering in midair. In the foreground, a terrified soldier looks away, unable to face the menacing threat behind him.

“Many young people see the drug trafficker as an almost untouchable figure,” Chavez Martinez told Al Jazeera. “A species of antihero, but a figure worthy of admiration.”

Mexican narco-culture dates back at least 45 years [PDF], when Sinaloans formed cartels in response to the growing demand for illicit drugs in the United States.

“I don’t think the government has designed a programme or strategy that can compete with the cultural influence of drug trafficking,” said Tomas Guevara, a psychology professor at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.

Local authorities have made attempts to combat narco-culture, including violence prevention programmes in schools and banning public performances of narcocorridos.

“They’ve tried, but they’ve had few real results,” said Anajilda Mondaca Cota, a social scientist at Culiacan’s Western University. “The phenomenon of drug trafficking has permeated all levels of the population.”

Mondaca Cota told Al Jazeera that the state must focus on education and poverty in order to reduce cartel recruitment. She argued that citizens need to resist despair and actively speak out against the destructive influence of the drug trade.

“In the face of narco-culture, we need to look for a more peaceful path,” she reflected. “We hope that society can somehow recover what it has lost.” 

Elementary school students produced the drawings as part of an investigation into the effects of the conflict on children in northern Jalisco [Stephen Woodman/Al Jazeera] 
Elementary school students produced the drawings as part of an investigation into the effects of the conflict on children in northern Jalisco [Stephen Woodman/Al Jazeera] 
Source: Al Jazeera