EL PASO — Two sister cities on the border — El Paso and Ciudad Juarez — are banding together to fight juvenile crime, a shared problem because drug cartels often recruit teens on both sides of the shared frontier.
“Our main focus is on childhood, how to prevent the things we have experienced the last years,” said Giovanna Ortiz, coordinator for the Child Protection Council of Ciudad Juarez.
During the worst days of the drug war in Juarez, teenagers were often the trigger men.
While drug violence has declined, there are fears it could flare up again. So prosecutors, police officers, teachers, social workers, paramedics and others from the Mexican border city came to El Paso to exchange ideas on reducing juvenile crime.
“The percentage rate of our children involved in drug offenses and drug trafficking is higher considerably higher here on the border than they are throughout the state of Texas,” said Laura Christopherson, division chief with the El Paso County Attorney’s Office.
Christopherson has prosecuted El Paso youth charged with drug smuggling working as cartel "mules."
“Our children are being told nothing is going to happen to you and that’s just a lie.” said Christopherson.
To raise awareness, the El Paso County Attorney’s Office created public service announcements based on real cases to counter the lure of quick money.
“Getting arrested isn’t the only risk you face when you’re a drug runner,” warns one spot featuring “Brad,” and El Paso teen who was offered $500 to drive a load of drugs across an international bridge.
It includes a re-enactment of Brad’s kidnapping... and murder after he got caught smuggling drugs and lost the load.
“The majority are very young,” said Victor Estala, an officer with Mexico’s National Immigration Institute.
As an immigration officer, he often receives young people at the international bridges when they are deported after they commit crimes.
Both sides share similar concerns about gangs and cartels recruiting teenagers and sometimes the same youngsters cross the border to commit crimes.
“We’re one single region, and the problems we have in El Paso we have in Juarez, and the problems in Juarez we also have in El Paso," Estala said.
But many of those who attended the juvenile crime training session hosted by the El Paso County Attorney’s Office said in Juarez now there’s a need to reach out to at-risk kids at a much earlier age.
“Children have been introduced to drugs at age of 6, 7, 8,“ Ortiz said.