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Education: unfulfilled dream for children of Juarez

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When Beatriz drew a picture of what she wants to be when she grows up, the 11-year-old sketched a policewoman.

She drew a smiling face with "polecia" written underneath. Hearts, stars and open-toothed grins created a border.

It's quite the dream growing up in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Most of the criminals she will fight belong to drug cartels contributing to increasing levels of violence, corruption and murder. If Beatriz gets an education, not only could she defeat them, she could also pull her parents and 11 brothers and sisters from crippling poverty.

Sadly, despite her capabilities, it's the same violence and poverty she wants to fight that could keep Beatriz from school. It's also what will hold the entire region in a vicious cycle.

"Often there are large families and a lot of kids. They can't feed themselves so their parents can't afford to send everyone to school," says Charlene Golding who runs a US-based organization called Juarez Kids with her daughter Caroline. "By nine years of age, they need to work to bring home money."

For some, that money will come from factory work. Others will choose the drug trade.

On a mission to Juarez in 2007, Golding and her daughter met Beatriz amid what they call "the war next door." Within 20 minutes of the El Paso, Texas border, they were confronted by families living in homes made of cardboard with no running water or electricity.

On top of this, they learned Beatriz needed between $125 and $165 for tuition, uniform and books as education isn't free. This was too much for her parents. They are among many poor families who migrated to the border region in search of low-paying factory jobs.

The Goldings began fundraising for scholarships. Around the world, education has proven to be a crucial factor in fighting poverty. If Beatriz had money for school, she could fulfill her dream, support her family and create a better life for her own children. But, when their next trip was cancelled for security reasons, it became clear financial security can't provide physical security.

Last year, over 2,600 murders occurred in Juarez, up from 1,600 in 2008. About 134 minors were killed in the crossfire as rival drug cartels strive for power. The situation is such that on Oct. 30, a local newspaper announced the first murder-free day in 10 months.

"At this point you wonder are these kids even safe," says Golding. "When they are sending in troops and there's extortion going on, education is great but we're talking about are these kids even safe at this point."

Children are increasingly drawn into what can only be described as war. Many schools are forced to close when classrooms are held hostage and kids used as tools for extortion. As well, young people are increasingly being recruited as active participants.

They have little choice. The Juarez Chamber of Commerce says 6,000 businesses closed in 2009. With kids expected to help their family earn a living, they are forced to choose between $10 per day in a factory job and potentially $500 for one drug smuggling trip. With more and more innocent bystanders being killed, virtually the same level of physical danger is carried by school, factory and criminality.

Police at one border crossing recently reported a 13-year-old in a car filled with drugs. As young people get more involved in the trade, this only perpetuates the violence keeping kids out of school and families in poverty.

"It's almost as if an educational issue turned into a humanitarian crisis," says Golding. "What's so shocking is this is happening right across our border."

With 2009 setting a record for its level of violence, Golding can only hope that Beatriz stays safe as she works to fulfill her dream.

Hopefully, when she's old enough, she can fulfill her dream of stopping the violence.