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— Can Palermo, Sicily, help save Tijuana from its crime wave? The surprising answer is maybe, even though Palermo is known as the headquarters of the Sicilian Mafia.

Tijuana teachers are learning that, as in Sicily, you have to start with the kids. Kids are easy pickings for drug dealers and gang members here at Delegación de la Presa, at the top of the Tijuana valley, where mothers all work at maquiladoras and fathers labor on building sites or are away "on the other side," working in North America.

Filemón Moreno Nuñez, 36, remembers what it was like before he started teaching in the neighborhood. Drug dealers would gather under the Mulberry trees at the school entrance near the low cinder-block houses and offer the kids samples or cut them in on the dealing inside. This is why Moreno is teaching these 15-year-olds values.

(He asked that his secundaria high school not be identified, so ongoing studies comparing it with other schools that don't benefit from the course he teaches there would not be influenced.)

"What's more important to teach?" Moreno says before class. "Once, only the gang members taught them values. 'Sell drugs. Get rich. Forget tomorrow. Don't worry about society.' Now I teach them values too, values to armor them with so they can speak out, not be silent and frightened anymore."

In his classes, Moreno teaches self-esteem, culture, reality; rules, laws, customs, and las consecuencias de la ilegalidad; when you break the law; the law and moral dilemmas; the law, justice and equality.

He also teaches the cold, unlovely realities of life in the ranks of organized crime and corrupt officials; how organized crime really functions; the business of organized crime, gangs, and drugs; organized crime and violence; and the danger of being a member of a gang.

Right now he's got 25 15- and 16-year-olds jotting down a list of good and bad tendencies and of the consequence of good and bad habits, virtue/vice; happiness/perdition; life/death.

What has this to do with Palermo, Sicily? Both cities have attracted plagues of criminal organizations. Both have had escalating robbery and murder rates. Both have had populations intimidated into silence by the violent people around them.

One difference is that Palermo's plague, the Mafia, has had its foothold in Palermo longer than the Arellano brothers have had theirs in Tijuana.

"Tijuana today is something like Palermo was a decade ago," Leoluca Orlando told journalists recently. Orlando, who is famous as Palermo's first anti-Mafia mayor, wants Tijuana to become Palermo's sister-city. "But people are starting to understand it's necessary to do something about organized crime. It is not possible to build a future unless you oppose the Mafia. And politicians, businessmen, normal people, even the church must speak out more strongly against organized crime."

Orlando speaks from experience. He came to power after mob hit men assassinated two crusading prosecutors in 1992. Protests broke out throughout the city. "Teachers, parents, and students rallied to demand that money pocketed by dishonest officials be used for new schools," said a report by the teacher-parent group CIVITAS.

CIVITAS International is a network of teachers and parents organizing against crime in more than 50 countries. It has come to the same conclusion as many teachers in crime-heavy Tijuana: it's time to start a culture war against criminals.

"Classes of students 'adopted' architectural and cultural monuments and demanded that they be restored," continues the report. "Priests called on their parishes to cooperate with law enforcement; journalists exposed tainted dealings; judges and prosecutors went after crime bosses."

Over the next three years, hundreds of Italian mobsters were arrested. Murders went down from 240 ten years ago to 7 last year, according to Orlando. Palermo went off the country's -- and the world's -- ten most violent cities list.

"The struggle against crime," said a report by CIVITAS, "is most effective when citizens themselves...stand up, expose abuses and make institutions of democracy work."

"To paraphrase the Mayor of Palermo," says Jeffrey Berman, a researcher from Georgetown University who was in San Diego-Tijuana last week looking at Filemón Moreno's work, "'There are two wheels on a cart.' In order for a cart to function and go down the street, both wheels have to turn at the same time -- one wheel being traditional law enforcement, stopping people from committing crimes. And the second wheel on the cart, changing cultural values and societal norms."

Berman and his boss Roy Godson, a professor in government at Georgetown who specializes in what he calls the "explosive growth of organized crime and corruption around the world," are the focal points for a new experiment in preparing children to deal with drugs and crime by educating them with an intensive 12-week course in values. Filemón Moreno's class and others in San Diego-Tijuana are pilot projects to iron out the kinks before the full pilot program begins next school year.

"Two years ago, in October 1997, we organized a conference in Mexico City for civic educators from around the world," says Berman. "It looked at the need to promote the culture of lawfulness, and the role that civic education can play in promoting this culture, and how crime and corruption hurts democratic movements and democratic institutions around the world. And as part of that conference, we looked at the successful efforts in Palermo, how they combined both traditional law-enforcement approach and a cultural approach, because there are problems with the Sicilian Mafia there."

Berman says that out of that Mexico City discussion came a recognition that there were lessons to be learned from Palermo's experience. "And the experience of Hong Kong as well," he says. "They've done some remarkable successful efforts there in changing societal values, not eliminating, but clearly beating back Chinese organized crime, the triads. That's a documented 25-year effort. So the interesting question is, can this effort be replicated and brought to this area?"

Yes, says Rosalia Salinas of San Diego's County Office of Education, who was inspired by the Mexico City conference. "This project to promote lawfulness," she says, "is a beautiful idea. And [professor Godson's] National Strategy Center out of Washington, D.C., as the facilitator-coordinator, has implemented a very small pilot [project] here in San Diego-Tijuana. But it is the perfect laboratory."

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