common ground

Mexican Education and Security

Program 0224 June 11, 2002

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(This text has been professionally transcribed, however, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

EMILIO GOMEZ OUNA: [via a translator] He himself realized that, “Yes, he was reading.” And he said, “I want to read, I want to work.”

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, classrooms in the streets of Mexico.And US-Mexican security training.


KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I'm Keith Porter. In Mexico some 120,000 children work the streets. They sell Chicklets or crafts, shine shoes, carry groceries, or offer whatever service they can to earn money.

MCHUGH: Most of the kids start school, but many drop out to earn a few more pesos on the street. Common Ground’s Tatiana Schreiber reports on a small organization trying to bring school to the streets of southern Mexico.

[sound of birds chirping]

TATIANIA SCHREIBER:San Cristobal de lasCasas is a beautiful colonial city high in the mountains of Chiapas. Many foreign tourists are drawn here, eager to see the Mayan ruins of Palanque and to experience the Mayan presence still evident today in the colorful dress of indigenous women selling their crafts in the Indian market and in the intriguing sounds of several Mayan languages spoken on the streets.

[sound of people speaking in a public setting]

SCHREIBER: In the public square at the center of town groups of women and girls in black woolen skirts and brightly embroidered blouses surround anyone who looks like a tourist and ply their trade

[sound of the Indian women and girls selling to the tourists]

SCHREIBER: If you try to resist the selling gets more intense.

[sound of the Indian women and girls selling to the tourists]

SCHREIBER: Some of the smallest girls can be the most skilled. If you don’t want to buy it’s hard not to think of these kids as little pests.

[sound of the Indian women and girls selling to the tourists]

SCHREIBER: One day, though, I had a different experience. I noticed a group of children sitting in a circle in front of San Cristobal’s gorgeous main church, cutting life-size silhouettes from brown paper. They were laughing and involved. In their midst a young woman was handing out scissors and crayons and talking in Tzotzil, the language many of these kids speak at home. I learned she works with MelelXojobal, a small nonprofit group that’s trying to bring education to kids who work the streets.

[A phone rings and a conversation begins.]

SCHREIBER: Patricia Figueroa directs the program.

PATRICIA FIGUEROA: [via a translator] The child in the street learns above all how to survive in the street. So he learns to lie, learns to swindle and cheat, so people will pay him. He’s going to lose an important value of the indigenous culture, which is dignity, you know. So the child, looking for his survival, sees that if you see him practically crying he’s going to get something. Perhaps a coin or whatever, because you feel sorry for him.

SCHREIBER: Figueroa says 1,500 children, mostly Indians, are in the streets here. Most aren’t actually homeless, though their home may be little more than a wood or cardboard shack at the edge of town. Some are orphans, but most have at least one parent, and the five or ten pesos the children earn can be important to the family income.

FIGUEROA: [via a translator] Yes, they need it because they are poor. But what we are trying to do here is to give value to their culture and show them that there are other ways to obtain money, not through manipulation, lies, deception—and prostitution, that they are learning also. These are things they are learning.

SCHREIBER:MelelXojobal or “True Light” in Tzotzil, is just beginning to investigate the extent of child prostitution. They do know that many street kids use drugs, especially solvents like paint thinner, to take the edge off their hunger. Kids face a lot of dangers on the street but Melel is starting with the basics—getting children interested in learning to read and write.

[sounds of children being taught]

SCHREIBER: At first only a few kids sit in a circle with the two teachers. In the center are various household objects.

[sounds of children being taught, and interplay between students and teachers]

SCHREIBER: Soon more kids join in or stand outside the circle watching intently. That’s how Melel works: attracting kids with games and music and then sliding in the lessons.

[sounds of children being taught, and interplay between students and teachers]

FIGUEROA: [via a translator] Today the theme is about culture, so we have some things to do with the indigenous culture. So we have our corn basket, the woolen net bag, a candle, the griddle for tortillas, some kindling. Well, these are really the important things within the indigenous culture. They are the basic things in a family’s house.

SCHREIBER:TschunoTzetetsien speaks the Mayan language Tzeltal, but to work with these kids he’s also learned Tzotzil. The teachers ask the kids to name the objects and talk about how they’re used and by whom.

TSCHUNO TZETETSIEN: [via a translator] So, for example I ask them about making Pozal. Pozal is an indigenous drink. So I was asking the girls and boys, “Is making Pozal, is it a task for women?” And the little girls said, “No.” And I said “Why?” And she said, “Because men have hands, also, no?” And so I said, “Yes, it’s true. So it isn’t only a task for women. Because men, we can do many of the things that women do.” So it’s a new generation that thinks like this. And how great.

SCHREIBER:Tschuno says in San Cristobal’smeztizo or nonindigenous culture these kids are often teased or looked down on because they don’t speak Spanish or because they wear traditional clothes. One of the goals of the street classes is to help them value both their language and their culture—not as some treasure to be preserved in a museum or sold for profit, but as a living, changing, contemporary Mayan culture that can enrich the lives of all Mexicans. Most of all though, he says, Melel tries to give kids respect as individuals, something they often lose when their main focus is making a peso in whatever way they can.

[sounds of children being taught, and interplay between students and teachers]

SCHREIBER:Pancho’s family is from Chamula, a nearby town, but he’s lived here in the city most of his 14 years. He’d never been in school until he joined one of Melel’s street classes several months ago.

[sounds of Pancho being questioned by his teacher]

SCHREIBER: One of the teachers translates for Pancho, explaining that it’s been a big change for him since he’s been here at Melel. Before he didn’t know any Spanish and now he’s learning Spanish, he can communicate a little better and deal better with certain situations. I asked why he hasn’t been in school.

PANCHO:[summarized by a translator] It’s because he didn’t have his birth certificate which you need to enter primary school and because his family couldn’t afford to send him to school.

SCHREIBER: These answers are common. Many children here don’t have a birth certificate, either because their parents didn’t know how to get it or because they couldn’t afford the 20 pesos—about $2—it costs. Public school in Mexico is free, but many indigenous families can’t afford the clothes, pencils, and the notebooks their kids need for school. Pancho shines shoes and sometimes brings home as little as 10 pesos, or a dollar a day.

[Pancho speaks, followed by his teacher]

SCHREIBER: [summing up Pancho’s translated statement] His teacher explains that though this is all he can earn, sometimes his mother scolds him and his parents fight because he’s not earning enough. For Pancho, attending classes was against his parents’ wishes, but once he got started he was hooked.

[sounds of Pancho being questioned by his teacher]

SCHREIBER:Melel also runs classes in a small building it rents downtown. Pancho came to a few and soon he was learning to read. Emilio Gomez Ouna is his teacher.

EMILIO GOMEZ OUNA:[via a translator] He is very happy because he used to say he could never learn. He’d say, “No, I’m a dunce,” he’d say. But suddenly when we saw him learning and we saw the smile on his face and the light in his eyes, he himself realized that, yes, he was reading. And he said, “I want to read, I want to work.” And he began demanding that we give him work.

SCHREIBER: Emilio also saw an enormous change in Pancho’s demeanor. At first he was always dirty, aloof, and the only words he’d speak were groserias—insults. But in time, with lots of encouragement, he started to wash up using the bathroom at Melel and he became more and more sociable. Since Emilio doesn’t speak much Tzotzil he says Pancho’s been a big help with the younger Tzotzil-speaking kids.

GOMEZ OUNA:[via a translator] So Pancho practically has become a multiplier. A teacher. And this has also raised his spirits. He feels happy that, “Yes, he is teaching the little that he knows.” This is the way I evaluate him. And he reinforces what he is learning, teaching it, and multiplying it.

[sounds of Pancho teaching another student]

SCHREIBER: Emilio says a lot of the kids are like Pancho. They can be tough, aloof, a little aggressive, and sometimes they’re suspicious of non-Indians. But they’re also often very bright, used to thinking on their feet, independent, and alert. Emilio has high expectations for Pancho. He wants to help him get into a formal school and eventually wants to bring him on board as a staff person. But things don’t often go as planned. Not long after I met him, Pancho stopped attending classes at Melel. And the teachers think maybe his father pressured him to quit so he could work more and bring in more money.

[sound of a conversation between Ms. Schreiber, an Indian woman named Rosa Hernandez, and Rosa’s daughter, Teri.]

SCHREIBER: But not all of the kids’ parents are unsupportive. Late one afternoon at the Indian market by the church I meet Rosa Hernandez, who’s selling her bracelets and wooden toys from a blanket on the ground. Nearby her daughter Teri is studying.

[sound of Teri reciting her lessons]

SCHREIBER: Teri is one of several children Melel has helped get scholarships to attend official schools. She loves it, and like many of the street children here she’s proficient at math, since she learned a lot of it working in the plaza. She also likes languages and wants to learn three or four at least.

[A church bell rings out over the busy public square]

SCHREIBER: At the end of a long day, Rosa and her two children pack up several enormous sacks of their wares and head home. Home is in “La Hormiga,” “The Ants,” a name given to a densely packed neighborhood of tiny dwellings stacked up and down a hillside at the edge of town. Tired, Rosa listens to a Tzotzil tape and prepares soup over one gas burner.

ROSA HERNANDEZ:[via a translator] I want them to study. You know, we often go to sell, but at times there are no sales. At times not even one peso for the day. I want my son to continue studying, but when there’s no money, no money for him to go on to the secondary school. I want him to study, finish secondary school and find a job. I don’t want my boy to be like me—like me.

SCHREIBER: Although Rosa wants both her kids to stay in school and they both want to go on, not only to secondary school, but to preparatory school and college, that possibility is slight. Right now all their school expenses are paid through the scholarships found by Melel, and those don’t go beyond primary school.

[Schreiber continues speaking with sounds of children at the school in the background.]

Back at Melel the building is bursting with activity, but resources are scarce. Funds to pay the seven staff and create educational materials are always about to run out. Aside from funding, the program has other problems. Melel has only a tentative and sometimes shaky relationship with local and state authorities. City police have been harassing teachers in the street, telling them to move on.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:[via a translator] There are many attitudes of racism in the city. It is very, very strong. Very strong. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen what I’ve seen. They call them Indians, call them louse-ridden, dirty—all the pejoratives.

SCHREIBER:It’s the persistence of racist attitudes against the indigenous children that Melel’s working hardest to address. The program promotes what they call “intercultural education”: not only a bilingual program but one that really values all the cultures and languages and traditions of the children who live here. In the meantime, Emilio Gomez Ouna says the small successes are worthwhile.

Emilio Gomez Ouna:[via a translator] To see Pancho, to see Esther, Rosa, Anna, reading, it gives us great pleasure. It’s just a little what we are doing—but it’s a lot. It’s a big achievement.

SCHREIBER: Seeing the confidence, enthusiasm, and talent of kids like Teri and her friend Olivia, just waiting to grab the mike, it’s hard not to agree and to believe that at the least, MelelXojobal is giving a few children in San Cristobal a chance to imagine a different future. For Common Ground, I’m Tatiana Schreiber.

[sound of children playing]

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Human rights activists have long criticized US military aid to repressive governments in Latin America and elsewhere. But in recent years a variety of US police agencies have stepped up their training of security forces around the globe.

MCHUGH: Now, some argue that one such training program in Mexico violates not only human rights but official US policy as well. Correspondent Kent Patterson has more.

[sound of a street demonstration]

KENT PATTERSON: Students from a teachers college stage a protest at the Guerrero state government headquarters in the city of Chilpancingo. They demand the release of companions whom they charge were brutalized and detained by state anti-riot police. Although conflicting versions exist as to who was responsible for the violence, student leader Jose Francisco, a member of the Socialist Federation of Rural Students, lays the blame squarely at the feet of the police.

[A man speaks in Spanish]

PATTERSON: Jose Francisco charges that what began as an academic conflict mushroomed into a social one because of the repressive actions of the police. He says the protesters were attacked and gassed, with some held incommunicado for more than one day.

[sound of a street demonstration]

PATTERSON: Accusations of police repression are widespread throughout Guerrero. But not far from where police and students clashed are the offices of the Guerrero State Human Rights Commission. Established in 1990, the Commission was Mexico’s first official local agency set up to hear citizen complaints. It makes nonbinding recommendations to the authorities.

JUAN ALARCON: [speaks in Spanish]

PATTERSON: [summarizing Alarcon] Juan Alarcon is President of the Guerrero State Human Rights Commission. He says that some progress is being made in fostering a human rights culture in the police.

ALARCON: [via a translator] In one way or another they are gaining the knowledge that they should respect human rights and the constitutional guarantees that are granted to all citizens and visitors who come to our country. That’s why there are academies, training courses, and orientations about human rights. New police graduate from academies with psychological, physical, technical, and investigative preparation. And also with the knowledge that they should respect the constitution, the law, and human and civil rights. To sum it up, they graduate with a new mentality.

PATTERSON: But recent statistics from Alarcon’s office show that human rights complaints against police, especially the Guerrero State Judicial Police, continue to be numerous. Juan Alarcon.

ALARCON: [via a translator] Old attitudes as well as some vices and bad practices still exist among some public servants. Above all, among the judicial police who haven’t understood that they should respect human rights. Sometimes in their pursuit against crime and criminals they trample people’s rights. Then we have to request that they be sanctioned in accordance with the law. This is a permanent struggle we’re in.

PATTERSON: Nevertheless, in recent years the United States has stepped up its training programs for the Guerrero State Judicial Police.

[Mexican music playing at a resort hotel

PATTERSON: While sunbathers recently basked in the sun outside the posh lodgings of the Acapulco Radisson, Guerrero State Police, together with officers from throughout Mexico, gathered inside to hear the latest in anti-kidnapping and interrogation techniques from FBI trainers. One of the trainers, Raoul Salinas, estimates he had trained 4,000 Mexican police in the two years prior to this session. What called attention to this particular training was the fact that many of the same agencies being trained by the FBI have had some of their own members previously implicated in kidnapping rings.

ZEFERIN TORREBLANCA: [speaking in Spanish]

PATTERSON:ZeferinTorreblanca is the Mayor of Acapulco. He says he invited the FBI to train his police two years ago. Like other elected officials in Mexico, Toriblanca is turning to foreign police trainers because of a dire need to professionalize Mexican police and curb high rates of crime.

TORIBLANCA: [via a translator] We’ve asked the FBI and we understand that other places have, too, to share with us their experiences, training, and guidance in matters of public security, and whatever they’re disposed to do. We’re hoping it will be in the middle of February when they give a five-day training program to state, municipal, and federal law enforcement authorities. Also, we might do the training with the regional representatives the FBI has in Oaraca and other states next to Guerrero.

PATTERSON: But others question US training for police forces that commit human rights abuses. Some critics cite the Leahy Amendment to the Foreign Operations Act that prohibits assistance to foreign security forces which violate human rights and don’t punish the responsible individuals.

TOM HANSEN: And our argument is that, “Well, if this Leahy—if this law is on the books in the United States then our Embassy ought to follow that law.”

PATTERSON: Tom Hansen coordinates the Mexico Solidarity Network in the United States. Hansen was once deported from Mexico because of his support for indigenous communities in the state of Chiapas.

HANSEN: Yeah, we’ve heard documentation from dozens of campesinos about human rights abuses that are conducted by all kinds of security forces, whether it be the army, the state police, the PFE—the Federal Preventative Police. But we’ve also heard—and this is maybe even more scary—about human rights abuses that have been carried out by paramilitary groups. These are groups that have no official standing in the state but that are often armed and trained by the military or by the police and do the dirty work of those groups at night, out of the spotlight of public opinion.They’re responsible for many of the individual massacres throughout the state. The US government makes the argument that—it’s a pretty ridiculous argument, really—that there’s at lot of, for example, campesinos or community leaders or leaders of civil society who are in prison here in Mexico are in prison because they were arrested by security forces, they were tortured into confessions, and then they use those confessions to imprison these people.And the US government makes the argument, “Well, the reason that they use torture is because they don’t have good police tactics.” I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I think they use torture as a repressive technique and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not they have good police investigative tactics or not. I think one of the things clearly that Mexicodoesn’t need is more internal security. There, the lack of freedom, the lack of respect for human rights, the lack of respect for civil rights, is rampant throughout this country.

PATTERSON: The US State Department, which is responsible for implementing the Leahy Amendment, declined to go on tape for this broadcast. However, in a phone interview US State Department spokesman Charles Barkley said Washington takes the Leahy Amendment very seriously and makes a good faith effort at quality control. Other US government sources insist that individual officers are screened ahead of time to make sure that known human rights violators are not trained. But a loophole in the Leahy Amendment arguably prevents units like the Guerrero State Judicial Police from being denied training, since in Mexico individual officers are selected for training instead of whole units.

Because no formal Congressional reporting is currently required of the Mexican police training, it’s hard to know the exact scope and expenditures of the programs. And nonfederal agencies like the Arizona Highway Patrol and the El Paso Police Department, which have trained Mexican police, might not even be subject to the Leahy Amendment if they don’t receive certain federal funds to conduct their programs. Another agency that’s jumping on what might be termed the NAFTA police bandwagon is the US Border Patrol.

DOUG MOSIER: Well, the training of Mexican authorities is really part of the Border Safety Initiative, which began in 1998.

PATTERSON: Doug Mosier, a spokesperson for the US Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas. Mosier discusses the recent water rescue training the Border Patrol gave to police and other authorities in Ciudad-Juarez, Mexico. Mosier says the training is needed to save the life of migrants who attempt to cross dangerous canals and waterways into the United States. But Mosier adds that it’s only one piece of an expanding US-Mexico law enforcement relationship.

MOSIER: You know, we have a Border Liaison Unit that works directly with the Mexican liaison unit that works directly with authorities in Mexico on a variety of issues. Everything from developing effective border safety techniques to working on, you know, information that will lead to stopping crimes being committed along the international border.And you know, five years ago that was unheard of. But we have come to the point where I think, and come to the table, so that both countries understand the importance of this. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

ALMA MAQUITICO: [speaking to an audience at a meeting of human rights activists] If you see that here to the left, we have for example some of…..

PATTERSON: In El Paso, immigrant rights activists recently convened a meeting at which they reported alleged human rights violations by the US Border Patrol and police agencies. Alma Maquitico of the American Friends Service Committee says she supports the Border Patrol’s water rescue training. ButMaquitico says such exercises stem from a 1993 US government policy of sealing off the border to job hungry Mexican immigrants.

MAQUITICO: If we didn’t have that operation these people wouldn’t be dying on the border, wouldn’t be trying to cross remote, remote and dangerous areas. That’s what they’re doing right now. They’re not crossing through the traditional points of crossing that they had before. Right now they’re crossing through the desert, through mountains. And actually there has been an increment on the number of criminal organizations that are trafficking with humans. And this is due to the, to this operations, because right now people have to go through these organizations to try to cross the border and to try to enter here into the United States. And we see that these operations are not stopping migration. It’s just increasing the number of deaths.

[a man speaking in Spanish]

PATTERSON:Maquitico says that Juarez City Police, who are being trained by the United States, violate rights outlined by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She says the abuses were documented by her group for a report delivered last year to the UN Conference on Racism in South Africa.

MAQUITICO: The main abuses that were committed in the Ciudad-Juarez area were wrongful confiscation of property. And that included extortion and robbery of personal belongings.

PATTERSON: Meanwhile, US State Department Spokesman Charles Barkley says Washington supports efforts by the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox to improve policing and deal with human rights offenders. For Common Ground, I’m Kent Patterson reporting.

MCHUGH: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free; cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa52761. Please refer to Program Number 0224. That's Program Number 0224 To order by credit card you can call us at 563-264-1500. That's 563-264-1500.

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