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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - In one of the world's deadliest cities, where drug gangs murder a dozen people a day, a former heroin addict is changing lives with violins and trumpets rather than assault rifles.
Alma Rosa Gonzalez is helping poor children learn classical music and give them an outlet that might stop them falling prey to the gangsters who are terrorizing this city of about 1.5 million on the Texas border.
"Just to see a gang member bringing his child to school carrying an instrument means the kid's life has changed, he won't be the same as his father," said Gonzalez, a social worker who started the youth orchestra program in 2005.
Inspired by Venezuela's famous network of orchestras known as El Sistema (The System), which aims to rescue poor young people through music, the program has helped more than 400 children in Ciudad Juarez. The success has come despite threats, robberies and students dropping out when parents have been kidnapped.
With help from local musicians, one children's orchestra is run out of a school built on a garbage dump where two classrooms recently collapsed. In the neighborhood, which has no paved roads and is full of abandoned houses, the Mexican Blood gang dominates. A few blocks away in 2008, gunmen shot dead eight people at a rehabilitation center as they prayed.
But the children's parents are undaunted, spurred on by the knowledge that previous generations of students have ended up smuggling and dealing drugs or dead. Most of the kids won't become professional musicians, but music broadens horizons, teaches discipline and helps promote peace, Gonzalez said.
"The violence is terrible here, they kill people like dogs," said Angelica Palacios, a divorced mother whose 10-year-old son Jose Angel studies violin at the school. "For Jose, the violin is everything. In the beginning, he even wanted to take it to bed with him," she said.
More than 7,200 people have died in drug violence in and around Ciudad Juarez since early 2008, when rival cartels started a turf war over the city's strategic smuggling routes into the United States, as well as over lucrative local extortion, kidnapping and drug rackets on the Mexican side.
Despite handling billions of dollars in cross-border trade every year, Ciudad Juarez is one of Mexico's most neglected cities, lacking parks, decent schools and public transport.
In the desert and ringed by rubbish dumps and shantytowns, the city offers little future other than low-paid work in factories making goods for the U.S. market, an underlying cause of the violence, according to social workers.
Mexico's biggest single military drug war deployment last year -- more than 10,000 troops at its peak in Ciudad Juarez -- has so far failed to contain the spiraling violence. President Felipe Calderon this year launched programs aimed at rebuilding the city's schools, parks and hospitals in recognition that the desperation that many young people feel fueled the violence.
The federal government now helps to fund Gonzalez's orchestra program, run at a series of schools and community centers, although for years she relied solely on charity.
Gonzalez said she was motivated to start the orchestras when she realized nothing was being done to help the city's impoverished children. Most charities were focused on coaxing teenagers out of gangs and into jobs and better lives.
Drawing on her own experience as an alcoholic at 14 and then later a heroin addict, she began working at churches and charities after her recovery from drugs at 35. A music lover, Gonzalez realized Ciudad Juarez was full of musicians who could help -- many came from across Mexico and even Eastern Europe to the city when it attracted U.S. tourists in the 1990s.
More than 70 children will take part in a Christmas concert at a local church on December 19, playing music composed by Bach, Handel and Mozart.
Some of the children in the program have gone on to study music in Mexico City, and Gonzalez's hope is that some might play for Mexico's National Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest in the Americas.
"I emphatically believe that if 20, 30 years ago the government had really invested in children, we wouldn't be where we are today," Gonzalez said.
Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Paul Simao