As I talked with our Latin America Director, José, about current and future projects one evening during my recent trip to Mexico, the phone rang, which wasn't uncommon for his bustling house. After he exchanged the usual pleasantries as is customary in Latin culture, I watched his countenance change and noticed a lump developing in his throat as he spoke. As he hung up the phone, he turned to me with tears welling up in his eyes and said, "A 26-year-old we pulled out of the drug trade a couple years ago just died." He paused in his grief for a moment and then added in choked words, "I'm so sick...so sick of burying kids," before he turned to walk out of the room.
Before he had ever given the eulogy for someone who died of natural causes in their old age, José had buried 72 infants, children and young adults. To him, it’s a relief and rare occasion to celebrate the life of a departed elderly friend. But nothing is more unnatural and grievous than having to do so for children whose lives have been cut short by drug-related violence. I cannot bring myself to tell you many of the stories I heard, since they would haunt you the way they have haunted me and continue to do so.
What I can tell you is this: no movie could ever exaggerate, over sensationalize or be overly graphic in its depiction of what is currently happening in Mexico. Reality is that much harsher than fiction. The movie I’ve seen that comes closest to depicting the situation is one that I would not recommend that you watch unless you want to be disturbed: Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), from the creator of City of God. Sometimes being disturbed is a good thing, though, if it moves us to action.
That’s exactly what happened in José’s case. He had had enough of drug-related violence claiming young lives, so he refused to remain a bystander. One of the ways he responded was by harnessing the power of one of the most influential institutions in Mexico: football (soccer). Football is not just a sport in Mexico. In fact, the lines between football, religion and even life itself blur considerably. Football is a way of life, and as such, it provides a powerful medium to reach adolescents who desperately need a vision that is larger than themselves. Football is a discipline that encompasses more than life on the field: players go to bed early, avoid parties with drugs and alcohol and learn how to control their anger, knowing that the choices they make will show up in their game.
To say that the teams José has started are good is an understatement—the Division 3 team is consistently ranked #1 in the professional football federation. However, the more important reality is that the teams are achieving their goals off the field as well: the lives of the players are changing dramatically…so much so, that mothers have marveled at their sons’ development and called José to ask what he has done with their children. I have witnessed this myself over my last couple of trips by getting to know the guys on a personal level. What’s more, drug violence has gone down significantly in every area where José has started a team.
There is no easy remedy for the tragedies that are occurring in Mexico on a daily basis. Finding large-scale answers may take a while. But in the meantime, we are encouraged by the progress our people on the ground have been making, one futbolista at a time.
More to come from Mexico…stay tuned.