Urban Courage

Former gang members from one of Mexico City’s poorest and toughest suburbs are teaching teens and adults about self-reliance and sustainable living

For decades, Nezahual-coyotl, Mexico, or “Neza” as it's commonly called, has earned a reputation as Latin America's largest slum – an urban sprawl of shanties cobbled together by rural migrants who live in crushing poverty on the outskirts of Mexico City. For years the police wouldn't take two steps into Neza; crime syndicates were headquartered there, along with drug dens, street corner gangs, thieves' markets and the tough inner-city rock music culture known as la banda.

But if you look beyond the methane fumes, high crime, and obvious poverty of this suburb of 3 million people, you can see the signs of a powerful social movement. Although still beset by deep poverty, the people of Neza have been building their city into what could be a model for a nation in crisis.

A group of Neza's citizens have taken their lives and their city into their own hands – paving streets, stringing power lines, and organizing block by block in single-issue crusades to fight for what little help the state and federal government would give them. At the forefront of this movement is a grassroots coalition called Urban Courage.

A street gang's epiphany

For years the open garbage dump in the center of Neza, complete with professional scavengers (kids called pepenadores, or “garbage pickers”), had been an apt metaphor for the town. But in the early l990s, one young man and several of his friends decided to change Neza for the better.

Mauricio Irineo grew up in Neza. His family had moved there in the late 1950s and early 60s, part of the mass exodus of families from rural communities like Iztapalapa and Santa Fe who were driven to the city by poverty and unemployment. As an adolescent, Mauricio saw his father and uncles die from gang violence.

At that time, Neza was exploding with a youth population frustrated by poverty and despair. The Mexican government responded by violently repressing the youth, mass media vilified them, and civil society branded them “delinquents.”

At 14 years-old, Irineo realized that he couldn't even walk across his own street without fearing for his safety. His friends were dying from gang wars or drug overdoses, and he clearly saw that he and the rest of his peers could end up dead themselves if they didn't do something to change their lives. In 1989, Irineo persuaded his friends to create the Consejo Popular Juvenil Neza A.C. to lift up the neighborhood.

Together they petitioned the Mexican government to honor a little known squatters' rights law, which provided them with a piece of land and a small amount of money for tools and supplies. After a great deal of effort, the group received their land – the same block of land that was the site of the putrid city dump.

Undaunted, they enlisted other local gang youth and not only cleared the dump, but pooled their skills and resources – and those of other community members – to erect an 8,000 square meter multiple-use hall. This building became a community center, where Urban Courage now offers three revenue-producing workshops in upholstery, carpentry, and silk-screening. They also set up a recycling center and a food pantry, which serves the garbage pickers, the elderly, and other locals in need.

The former gang members built a soccer field next to the community center, which doubles as a rock music arena. The arena's roof collects precious rainwater for the recycling center.

According to Irineo, “We decided to create action-based strategies to help our communities, government, and people. We're inventing a new culture of collective projects and shared responsibilities where the truces amongst gangs are a reality, where the agreements reached between us and the government and the police make respect for human rights possible.”

Bridges between gangs

Along with Irineo, another driving force behind Urban Courage is Helen Samuels, an American living in Mexico. Samuels' commitment toward working to create positive gang dynamics began in West Los Angeles when a friend of her 16 year-old daughter was murdered one night by a gang member for leaning against his car. Motivated by the urgent realization that she had to keep her daughter's friends busy before they retaliated, she quickly organized a mural project for them in the Pico/Union district of L.A. where they could vent their rage and grief. This project eventually grew into a collaborative effort uniting members of six divergent gangs.

“People are always trying to break gangs up, but gangs exist all over the world. Corporations and nations are gangs! They're just authorized ones,” says Samuels. “Gangs have their own culture, established ways of talking, specific images and symbols, music, rituals, food, ways of dealing with each other socially. They're tribes. Post-Industrial age tribes and they need places to be.”

Although Helen Samuels lived in West Los Angeles during her marriage, she grew up in Mexico and after her divorce returned there. She became friends with Mauricio Irineo and helped with the construction of the Urban Courage community center.

Samuels has instituted conflict resolution classes and nature conservation field trips for many kids who have spent their entire lives hemmed in by concrete. She also introduced the sweat lodge, an act that has contributed to powerful and positive healing experiences between rival gang members, who make soul connections and establish friendships.

An urban success story?

Today, Urban Courage is a highly organized, grass roots alliance of urban youth, or chavos banda , whose collective goals are: “to curb local violence through non-aggressive music and recreation, hold constructive forums with the police, create better conditions of life, pool skills to generate income, manage distribution of provisions, and create places for community development through the formation and participation of work brigades.”

They recruit members through a mentorship/friendship approach. Usually, a few members of the group – guys who formerly had been highly ranked in a gang's hierarchy – hit the streets to talk with the kids about the Urban Courage cultural center, the money they make from the workshops, and the concerts they help produce. Then, they invite the kids over to their clubhouse to hang out or to play soccer.

Urban Courage members don't try to push the street kids to leave their gangs. They just want the gang members to see that they can be part of another kind of gang as well – one that will be a lot more satisfying and positive. Not all kids are interested in joining Urban Courage, but the many who do soon find themselves involved on a daily basis with some aspect of the project.

Urban Courage has inspired an international movement with branches in 18 states of Mexico, links to the US, and cultural exchange programs with young people from over 80 countries. All this in less than a decade and on few resources.

At the recent youth Conference on Non-Violence in San Francisco, Mauricio Irineo addressed a crowd that included His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “By knowing how to organize, we can go far together. At first, many people felt sorry for us and told us we were crazy. But today they ask us for advice, for jobs, and for help with other problems.”

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