In Acapulco, Mexico, access to school grounds is limited, and children share the playground with uniformed security personnel carrying automatic weapons. Black ribbons adorn doors to mourn teachers killed by organized crime, and children are trained to take cover from gunfire. It's all part of living with "El Narco."
"Access to the campus is only permitted with official identification," reads the cardboard sign at the entrance to the secondary school Tecnica 117, a school in Acapulco, Guerrero.
There are two more messages inside the gate. One is for the parents of the 700 young people who study there: "For reasons of security, we inform you that attention to parents is from 7 to 9 o'clock. After that time the door will be closed."
This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.
The other is for the kids: It shows a bald man with dark glasses, a pistol at his side and holding a machine gun. There is a line running through him that indicates "prohibited" and he is accompanied by a phrase written in English: "Don't bring any kind of weapon."
The school consists of a two-story building that is noticeably orderly and void of vegetation. The scarce funding that it receives is barely enough to cover the basic needs of the 18 classrooms of full-time students. It offers food service and technical classes in accounting and computing.
It is located at the border of the Simon Bolivar and Zapata neighborhoods, two of the most dangerous areas on the periphery of Acapulco, which is itself the most violent city in Mexico and the third-most violent in the world, behind only Caracas, Venezuela and San Pedro Sula in Honduras, according to the Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice.
This periphery zone, the most densely populated part of Acapulco, is where many of those who work along the coast live. It has a murder rate of 104 per 100,000 residents. This area, "the other Acapulco," contributes between two and six homicide victims per day to Mexico's murder count. Here the people have learned to fear going to school as much as going to the doctor.
"What we've implemented is 'chest to the ground,'" says Paula Davila, a team leader and assistant director of Tecnica 117, describing the school's security protocol when there's gunfire. "There are periods of calm, but in this neighborhood there are deaths almost every day. The majority of parents live near here, and when there are shootouts they want to come and get their kids. But we tell them, 'How are you going to take them now? It's more dangerous taking them out."
Classes don't start at the usual 7 a.m. in this school, but a half hour later. That's a security measure put in place for the teachers who come in from other neighborhoods and would otherwise be arriving when it's still dark. Another security measure: Home visits by social workers for children with behavior or absentee problems have been suspended.
These measures were put in place beginning in 2011, when criminal organizations began targeting schools for extortion. They started by demanding "quotas" from the teachers, especially as they received their Christmas bonus or other extra payments. Then they started going after the parents as well.
Just last November 13, at least a dozen schools in the Zapata and Renacimiento neighborhoods had to suspend classes because of extortion against the teachers. Guerrero Governor Hector Astudillo announced that as of November 17, a federal security presence would return to the schools in the area.
Faced with this growing pressure from criminal organizations, the Guerrero state government also hired private security guards and placed them inside the schools. But the problems continued. In fact, the criminal aggression took off toward the end of 2014, when in a two-month period 21 teachers were murdered and the escalating threats caused 198 schools in the Acapulco-Coyuca de Benitez region to close down on December 3. Winter vacation lasted months for those students and teachers.
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A state teachers organization known as Ceteg (for the State Coordinator of Education Workers in Guerrero) helped arrange for increased security that included 1,200 security personnel -- including from the military and federal, state and municipal police -- to be deployed outside the schools. The troops stayed for five months. They were gone by the time the current school year began in August.
"They all left for (summer) vacation and never came back," says one mother whose child attends the Francisco Sarabia primary school, in the Renacimiento neighborhood, one of the most densely populated in the area.
Dealing With Fear
For months, the main door to Francisco Sarabia displayed black ribbons as a sign of mourning for two teachers who were killed in August and September of 2014. One of the victims was Jorge Omar, a fifth-grade teacher, who was murdered a half-block from the school as he was arriving to work. The other was Armando, a physical education teacher, who was killed leaving the school in the afternoon.
"We had to convince the parents that (the attacks) were not against the school itself," said Erik Aguilar, Francisco Sarabia's director. "We almost had to knock on their doors for them to send their kids."
His school had no problems with extortion because they didn't wait for them to happen. They suspended classes as soon as they found out that other schools in the neighborhood were being hit with extortion demands: 20 pesos a week per student, 800 pesos per fortnight for each teacher, according to what was being said at the time.
"It was explained to the children that the school would be made safe, in one way or another, with police and soldiers," Aguilar says.
Asked how the teachers are dealing with the fear, he said. "We have the support of the psychology and social work unit. We have been working together in not feeling pressured, watched. We want to try to have a normal life."
The effect of organized crime violence in the area goes beyond the schools. "This is not just a teacher issue," Aguilar says. "There have been cases here of doctors in the Donato G. Alarcon General Hospital who no longer want to be around here because they were being abducted. They took doctors, nurses, and the engineers who came to carry out public works. So the children understand that in the end we have to be here."
Clearly, the violence in Acapulco has altered the school dynamics -- changed the schedule, restricted access, reduced services -- but the resulting police presence has caused its own changes. Kids in these neighborhoods have grown accustomed to playing during recesses next to police officers carrying automatic weapons. They joke about the day's deaths.
The culture has reached the point where, after an especially violent week, the administrator of an education community Facebook page could post: "Well, half of December 21 has gone by and we're not dead yet."
As for the students' reaction to the presence of armed and uniformed federal security agents, one teacher, who asked for anonymity, says, "At first they were impressed. They were curious about them. But with time they grew used to seeing the weapons."
Davila, the Tecnica 117 teacher, says, "They see them as something they like, something to admire. The girls even start to call them their boyfriends. But in reality, in terms of security, nothing has changed."
In July of 2012, a federal government report was issued under the title "Progress and Perspective of the Safe Schools Program," which identified school conditions of "high risk" and identified extortion and violence in 4,700 schools nationwide, 10 percent of the schools participating in the program. The schools at highest risk, according to the report, were those along the northern border, and in four areas of Acapulco.
To date, that report is still the only official information in existence about the impact of violence in Mexico's public schools. And apart from a "School Security Manual" distributed in the nation's public schools, there is no other integrated strategy to deal with the violence, which in areas like the Acapulco periphery forces students to drop out of school.
The Simon Bolivar neighborhood consists of steep and narrow alleyways reminiscent of Brazil's slums known as "favelas." A year ago, during a gun battle that lasted hours, an elderly woman and two of her grandchildren were killed while inside their home. When their bodies were found, she was still hugging the children.
That house is one of many that have been abandoned along the street where "J," a Tecnica 117 student, lives. He says he is more concerned about learning his multiplication tables than with violence. "It scares me a little, but not much," he says. Still, he admits that he has been absent a lot this school year. It's hard to be a student when you're facing not just gun battles but also dengue and other infectious diseases, and killer storms.
No End in Sight
Private security doesn't seem to be a solution either. Valentin, a guard who works for one of the Acapulco schools, is 24 years old and married. He used to live in San Miguel Tololapan, a city in the Tierra Caliente region eight hours to the north of Acapulco, which is considered the most dangerous place in that part of Guerrero. He wanted to study medicine, but instead he joined the municipal police because he lacked the money for his studies.
"It was either that or the maña," he says, using a slang term for a drug-trafficking cartel.
But things got so bad in that part of the state that he decided to move to Acapulco to work in private security. He hasn't witnessed a shootout yet, or a direct attack on the school where he works. He hopes, of course, that he never will. The odds would not be in his favor now that the state and federal security presence is gone.
Showing his automatic weapon, Valentin says, "Do you know how many bullets the company gives me for this? Fifteen. Can you believe it? But what can I do? It was even worse in San Miguel."
Meanwhile, the teachers at Tecnica 117 and other schools in the area know one thing for sure. With December approaching, the extortion demands will return.
*This article was originally published by Animal Politico as part of the series "Learning to Live With El Narco." See Spanish version here. It was translated and edited by El Daily Post (see here) and is reprinted with permission.