Youth orchestra a ray of hope in Mexico drug war

Mon Dec 6, 2010 4:54pm EST
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By Julian Cardona

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.   Continued...

<p>10-year old Jose Angel (R) and his classmates pose for a photograph with their violins at their school in Ciudad Juarez, October 13, 2010. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo</p>