San Diego 'We currently have 20 kids here who've committed homicides. We get about one a month. In every case except one, it was an armed assault, usually a robbery, involving money, drugs, or both. The one exceptional case involved a gay teenage boy who killed another young man out of jealousy. It was what you might call a crime of passion. As far as I know, we've never had a case in which a child killed someone for no apparent reason, or simply because he was angry with the world. We've never had a student at school kill a teacher or other students.
"But we do know that what happens in the United States affects us. Little by little, what happens up there gradually makes its way down here. After the shootings in San Diego, we're, of course, very worried."
Luz Maria Félix, a young and pretty woman with degrees in law and primary education, is the director of Tijuana's juvenile hall, a complex of white and blue buildings in a stretch of Zona Rio far from the city's center. At present there are 255 boys and 12 girls in Felix's care.
"Over the past two months, our population has doubled. Seventy percent of the kids have committed a violent crime, 80 percent have taken drugs. The big problem now is crystal meth, which the kids tell me is manufactured here in Tijuana. They steal to get money for drugs. Why are more kids committing violent crimes? We don't know. The majority of the kids tell me they started taking drugs to get their parents' attention."
An article in the local section of the April 1 edition of Frontera described how Tijuana educators, disturbed by the Santee shootings, were considering adopting a Scared Straight-type program in which troubled teens would be taken to prisons to get a good talking-to from inmates. "Such a program could be implemented in Tijuana," the article said. "But American and Mexican teenagers live in very different situations. American teenagers have access to weapons and have more liberty." The article concluded that perhaps the best means for preventing teenage violence was for parents to spend more time talking with their children.
A school in Tijuana is under the jurisdiction of either the federal, state, or municipal departments of education. There are, for example, state and federal high schools. Elementary and junior high schools are either state or municipal. No single entity oversees them all. To get an idea of what's going on in the city's schools requires talking to a number of administrators, like Luis Héctor Barajas, superintendent of the 1200 Tijuana elementary and junior high schools that belong to the State of Baja California's educational system.
"It's divorce. The disintegration of the family. The union of the mother and father staying together in order to raise and teach their children is crucial. If the family falls apart, there's no one to teach the children how to behave. If the parents don't teach them, they'll learn from outside, from the street, from television," Barajas answers when asked what he thinks causes incidents like the Santee shootings.
Tijuana's population is exploding. In the next year, says Barajas, the State of Baja will construct in the city 10 to 12 new elementary schools, 6 or 7 preschools, and 2 or 3 junior highs -- more new schools than in any other city in Mexico. Each year, Barajas says, the school system he oversees requires 200 new teachers.
"So far, our biggest problems -- thank God -- are fights and graffiti. But since the shootings in San Diego, we've been concentrating on programs we have in place that teach basic democratic values. Values and responsibilities. We have one program that's three years old, 'Culture of Equality,' that stresses very simple, basic things about what it means to be a good citizen. Not to litter. Respecting traffic lights. You start with the basic aspects of what it means to be a responsible citizen.
"What happened in Santee has us all worried. We had an incident, a few months ago, in Ensenada. A junior high kid brought a gun to school in his backpack. He didn't intend to hurt anyone. He just wanted to show it to his friends. The gun accidentally went off. No one was hurt. This was a big deal for us. We don't have that sort of problem in our schools. What happened in Santee is exactly what we don't want to become. That's precisely what we're working against."
Tijuana's educational system is unusual in that, like only two or three other cities in Mexico, its municipal government has a department of education. Ana Maria González, the department's head in Tijuana, keeps an eye on 10 elementary and 13 junior high schools. She's troubled by what she sees happening in San Diego, and she supports the controversial steps being taken by one of her principals to halt disorder.
"You can't really talk of violence in our schools, because it doesn't exist in the way it does in San Diego. Where we do have a problem is violence around the schools in some of the tougher neighborhoods. There are fights. Children have been attacked. Of course, what happens around a school has the potential to eventually get inside.
"One year ago, one of our best principals, Professor Francisco Aranda, who works at a school in a tough neighborhood, got tired of his school constantly being defaced with graffiti. So, he did something unprecedented in Tijuana -- he had a metal detector installed and he started something called Operación Mochila, 'Operation Backpack.' The way it works is that students, under a teacher's supervision, search their classmates' backpacks when they come to school. They've found knives, Magic Markers, spray paint. It's been very effective. Professor Aranda has eliminated his graffiti problem 100 percent.
"Other schools would like to adopt the program, but it has its critics. There are some teachers who oppose it. They say Operación Mochila infringes the students' human rights, that it invades their privacy. I know that in America people are very protective of their rights, and we Mexicans are too. But I think there has to be a balance between an individual's rights and safety. We try very hard to make our schools safe. We won't admit a child to school unless the parents first meet with teachers and the principal. We want the parents to be involved. We want to know who the parents are. As far as I can tell, our parents support Operación Mochila. I personally would like all our schools to adopt the program.