Photography & Text by Karen Moe.
The presence of injustice is more blatant than ever and the possibility of any long-term solutions can be daunting, not to mention down right overwhelming. The extreme right is fighting to hold onto its power by whatever means necessary which, of course, affects the underprivileged countries of our world most and always translates into violence.
It is well known that Mexico is no stranger to violence. Having the geographic misfortune of sharing a border with the United States' insatiable hunger for narcotics, being the final push for cocaine transport from South America, ravaged by the turf wars of feuding drug cartels and plagued by a notoriously corrupt government, fear and violence are a constant in the average Mexican’s life. Naturally, it is the disenfranchised Mexicans who are the most deeply afflicted and it is the youth of Mexico’s poorest barrios who are the most vulnerable.
Juan Pablo García Aguiñaga, (JP) has dedicated his life to alleviating the exploitation of his country’s children and teenagers. Founder of the Monterrey based NGO Nacidos Para Triunfar (Born to Triumph), JP and his leadership team work at ground zero of the Mexican drug war. By inter-acting directly with the residents of the impoverished barrios of Monterrey, they are in constant contact with those who are preyed upon by the cartels in order to be recruited as foot soldiers, namely teenage boys.
If one spends any time in these bleak neighbourhoods, it is completely understandable how a young man can be seduced into the potentially status-filled and moneyed, but equally lethal, cartel lifestyle. These kids have nothing. Some are hungry, all come from families with violence in the home, some have no parents around at all, and some are drinking paint thinner in order to not only gain the relief of momentary escape from a life that feels hopeless, but also to quell their literal hunger.
JP is as close to this epidemic of youth poverty and cartel violence as one can get: he used to be one of these kids. JP left home at the age of seven to look for work. He never went back. He became involved in drugs and violence and ended up working for a Nuevo Leon Gang that was connected to the Caro Quintero Cartel. But, JP got out; and with him, his desire to promote reform and justice at its source—the place he had come from.
With the founding of NPT in 2011, JP began to stop violence where it begins. He developed a nine-month reformation program that starts with a diagnosis of the neighbourhood in order to pinpoint the centers of gang activity. These gangs (or clikas) are made up of kids 12-18 years old and are usually not heavily involved in organized crime, yet. Once making contact with the youth and gaining their trust, the NPT team starts to bring up ideas of peace, going to school, getting a job, the possibility of getting out of the barrios by other means than crime and violence. The majority are interested.
NPT works with multiple gangs at the same time. The first time the gangs meet in a context of non-violence is through football tournaments; the second is through sharing murals they paint about peace that, ironically, are on the same streets that have been their long fought over turf. JP told me how “this mural painting is symbolic in that gangs are always guarding their territory. The murals recover the walls with messages of peace rather than messages of violence.”
The first half of the nine-month program culminates in the brokering of peace treaties between gangs who have often been at war for generations. From the youth who participate in the treaty process, those who have shown the most commitment are invited to join the NPT Education and Formative Program. This is where the young people begin to be integrated into society and learn how to forge a positive and prosperous future for themselves.
All of the NPT teachers are graduates from the program and all, like JP, used to be just like the kids they are working with. Because of shared life experience, the leaders are able to readily empathize with their students and build trust. The classrooms are on the streets of the barrios; however, there is a world of separation between the realities of before and the ones that are being taught.
The term ‘formative program’ is telling. JP explained to me how “it’s an education program based on values: responsibility, peace and non-violence, leadership, safe sex, developing a life project and human rights.”
I asked JP about the methodology of the classes. How do you teach human rights to kids who have lived the opposite? His response was that of Gandhi: “the one beside you.”
“In order to not get lost in the effort,” he continued, “although there are a lot of gangs and the problems are very large, we focus on the ones who are there and want to be helped. Who do I start working with? The one closest to me now.”
Some kids are resistant, but NPT never loses track of the ones they can’t reach, the ones who are not ready yet. By keeping a close eye on all of the youth in the barrios, NPT works to bring another young person into the centre of their quiet revolution for peace—and it is working.
Since 2011, there have been hundreds of graduates. Due to the success of these graduates, the NGO began to receive funding from Mexican businesses. Through this support, more training schools were opened. In September 2017, there were 250 graduates from the NPT Formative Education Program, 250 vulnerable youth who have been removed from violence at its source. Unfortunately, due to corrupt and fickle politics, the organization lost a lot of its support in 2018 and had to stop operations for over a year. Not allowing corruption to get in their way, Nacidos Para Triumphar is now up and running again and has extended their project to Cancun. JP told me how their goal is to go everywhere they are needed, both in Mexico and internationally.
At the end of our interview, I asked JP what he thinks is the origin of violence. He responded immediately “en casa.” Of course, what goes on in a home is inevitably connected to global forces of poverty and privilege; nevertheless, it is those closest to us who are our teachers. Change truly begins with the one beside you.
Since the publication of this essay, on February 27th, 2021, Nacidos Para Triunfar negotiated a truce and a cease-fire between gangs in Querétaro City, Mexico. See this link for the full story:
Thanks to JP (Juan Pablo García Aguiñaga) for his generosity of spirit and ferocity in resistance. You are an inspiration to everyone who cares beyond themselves.
About the Writer:
Karen Moe is a writer, visual and performance artist and a feminist activist. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, ArtSpace, WhiteHot and Revista 192. She is the editor and founder of the magazine Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms. Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. Her first book, Victim: A Feminist Manifesto from a Fierce Survivor, is being published in Spring 2022. Karen lives in British Columbia, Canada and in Mexico City.