TIJUANA — It’s not much more than dusty lot in one of Tijuana’s grittier neighborhoods. But for Guillermo Mandujano, it’s become a haven — a place to forge friendships and build dreams.
The 13-year-old is participating in a pilot project started this year in Tijuana by the nonprofit Asociación Scouts de Mexico. The program is part of an unprecedented, U.S.-funded effort led by the Scouts group to help some of Mexico’s at-risk youths resist the influence of drug gangs.
“I’m not going out into the street as much,” said Guillermo, who on a recent Thursday afternoon was busy raising tents, tying knots and playing games designed to strengthen teamwork skills. “Here I can come and sing and play and do a lot of things.”
Tijuana is one of three cities, along with Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey, receiving U.S. federal support for programs aimed at building stronger communities. These include job training, community policing, public space enhancements and promotion of cultural activities — all under the auspices of the Merida Initiative, a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Mexico.
“What we agreed with the government of Mexico was to focus on a handful of key locations,” said Thomas Delaney, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development office in Mexico. “We’re looking at places that can be models for innovations in crime and violence prevention.”
Launched in 2007, the Merida Initiative supports a range of strategies aimed at fighting drug-trafficking groups in Mexico. To date, the U.S. Congress has appropriated $1.9 billion for it.
For every dollar spent by the United States on Merida programs, Mexico spends 10 times that amount, Delaney said.
What started out as purchases of military hardware now includes efforts to bolster Mexico’s legal system, new equipment for better monitoring of border crossings and close collaboration with government and community groups on social programs in the targeted cities.
In Tijuana, the community-building efforts have focused on three areas of the city: Camino Verde and Mariano Matamoros, as well as Granjas Familiares, a string of impoverished neighborhoods east of the Mesa de Otay industrial district, on hillsides that rise toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
María Antonieta Bernal, principal of Escuela Secundaria General No. 117, a public middle school in Granjas Familiares, said students not only face poverty but also problems such as drug addiction, broken families or simply a lack of supervision. Bernal also has seen students who have been forced to sell drugs.
“Parents go to work, and they don’t know what their children are doing,” she said.
Scouts de Mexico aims to reach some of these youths, getting them off the streets and away from televisions and video games. The project offers to help them with homework, engages them in physical activities that promote collaboration and gives them lessons on everything from good hygiene to honesty and responsibility.
With the Scouts, the participants “have a chance to make friends in a healthy atmosphere,” said Paula Fuentes, manager of the Scout Center in Granjas Familiares. “And parents can feel safe knowing that their children are here.”
The group’s push in Tijuana “is a new model for Mexico,” said Raymundo Tamayo, director of institutional development for the Mexico City-based Asociación Scouts de Mexico. “We’re testing the capacity of the Scout method to conduct a deep change in at-risk young people.”
José María Ramos, an analyst at the think tank Colegio de la Frontera Norte, said programs such as the Scouts can help some of Tijuana’s most vulnerable young residents, but that lasting effects depend the sustained cooperation and commitment of all levels of government in Mexico.
“Fundamental is determining who will take the lead and coordination” of crime-prevention programs, she said, “and that there is a guaranteed search for results.”
The Merida Initiative is divided into four main categories, or pillars. The Fourth Pillar, which aims to build strong and resilient communities, has received more than $100 million since 2008 — about 5 percent of all Merida spending.
The latest community-building projects come as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has pledged a shift in strategy for Mexico, which suffered about 60,000 drug-related deaths during predecessor Felipe Calderón’s six-year term. Since Peña Nieto took office in December, “the Mexican government has put a significant emphasis on violence prevention,” said Maureen Meyer, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.
With $700 million in Merida Initiative funding still unspent, “the tough question is figuring out what the U.S. is interested in supporting in Mexico and what Mexico wants to ask of the United States.”
Meyer and others said a big hurdle for Merida is finding ways to measure success — especially with social programs.
“The problem with Merida from the start is that it hasn’t had any clear way to measure progress,” said Alejandro Hope, a security specialist at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. “I would like to see (Fourth Pillar projects) evaluated in a systemic fashion,” he added.
In Tijuana, that pillar has included backing for a Tijuana Municipal Crime and Violence Committee and development of public-private partnerships that offer job training for at-risk youths in collaboration with CEMEX, the Mexican building-materials company.
Other groups benefiting from Merida support are the Baja California Orchestra, which operates youth orchestras in Granjas Familiares and the other two targeted neighborhoods. Another organization, Tijuana Innovadora, is receiving funds for a training course and workshops “to foster and enhance creative thinking and interaction of young men and women and female heads of household,” according USAID.
In November, Asociación Scouts de Mexico received $3.2 million for a three-year effort to reach at least 1,500 children and 1,000 parents in Tijuana. More than 500 children have participated in since the group launched its activities in the city during spring break.
On a recent afternoon in Granjas Familares, shrieks and laughter arose from the Scout Center, where younger children gathered around a table discussing the importance of hygiene with Axel González, a medical student and scout volunteer. Nearby, a group of slightly older participants focused intently during a knot-tying exercise.
These newest Scouts come from a broad range of family backgrounds: “We see everything from super-responsible parents to parents who have no idea where their children spent the night,” said Fuentes, the Scout Center manager.
The children said joining scouts was far preferable to their previous after-school options — playing video games, meeting friends outside, staying inside to watch television, or fighting with siblings while parents worked.
Before joining Scouts, “I’d just wander the streets,” said Obe Pérez, a soft-spoken 15-year-old who lives with his mother, a maquiladora worker, and two younger sisters. He was walking by one day and noticed the scouts, and he accepted the invitation to join them.
“This is pleasant, and a way to know more people,” said Obe, who is no longer in school and doesn’t work. He has found support and focus with the scouts, and hopes to re-enroll in school: “I like the activities, the singing, and the challenges the Scouts give us. I like that a lot.”