How I'm Using Rock-Climbing to Save Youth From Gangs

Posted by Rory Smith

Thanks to Hollywood and Invisible Children’s viral KONY2012 campaign, most Americans associate child soldiers with African dictatorships or Middle Eastern terrorists. But the reality is the problem is much closer to home. Head to Mexico and you’ll soon discover that over 30,000 of that nation’s youth have been coerced into working as child soldiers for the various drug cartels.

I first became aware of the problem while working on my master’s thesis in international development. I spent the greater portion of 2012-13 in Mexico, specifically Monterrey, researching gangs and organized crime. I wanted to know why so many young Mexicans between the ages of five and 18-years-old were involved, and what specific factors were pushing them towards this life. Although I’m originally from the United States and attend grad school in Sweden, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Latin America, so I’m skeptical of mainstream media depictions of youth gangs and youth involvement in México’s drug cartels. The discourse in the U.S., Europe, and Mexico on these cartels is far too black and white—it demonizes the marginalized youth of México as a large reprobate population that must be put down with violence. These youth are the future of México, yet they’re treated more like rabid animals than humans. 

What I discovered is that these youth come from extremely marginalized areas where opportunities, networks of support, and often families—60,000 youth have been orphaned due to the drug war—are in short supply. Family disintegration, abuse, abandonment, exposure to extreme violence, poor access to education and state services, societal apathy, and the pervasive presence of organized criminal groups have all become commonplace in these areas. Education is no longer seen as an avenue for social mobility, jobs are scarce, and the state is for the most part absent, abusive, and corrupt.  The result? These youth have become victims to the same kinds of child soldier abuse we see elsewhere in the world.

However, even though Mexican youth experience the same kind of abuse that KONY 2012 mobilized awareness of, they’re not considered child soldiers because according to the Geneva Convention, Mexico is not considered a country experiencing an “armed conflict.” As a consequence, nothing is being done to remedy and rectify the situation.  But, turn on your evening news, or read the headlines—like the latest news from Michoacán of vigilantes taking on the cartels—and it’s clear that Mexico’s official status is out of step with the reality. These youth can’t wait for that status to change, so I decided to do something to help.

I’m a passionate rock-climber so I, along with my colleague and rock-climbing partner, began exploring how sports, specifically climbing, could be used as a tool for positive change for youth in underdeveloped areas of the world. Inspired the online platform Sports for Development, we realized we could use climbing as a natural way to bridge the negative values, low self-esteem, and perverse risk-taking endemic with a healthier lifestyle that supports a positive outlook as well as a host of promising opportunities for these youth.

After consulting with gang members, organized criminals, youth inmates, youth leaders, government officials, and progressive-thinking youth from Mexico and around the world, in 2013 we started Climbing Borders, a nonprofit organization that uses rock-climbing to get youth away from gangs and drug cartels and back into life pathways that offer more promising future opportunities.

Our new center is located in Monterrey, and since our program is completely free and unaffiliated with the government, we encourage local youth to visit and give climbing a try. We make contact with youth through schools, community leaders, influential gang representatives or ex-gang members, and through walking in our target areas where we meet and talk with gang members and youth in the street.

Once youth come through our doors, we use rock-climbing to foster discipline, focus, trust, and camaraderie. Climbing has a way of improving self-esteem, reducing stress, and it encourages them to seek the outdoors, which exposes them to areas and nature that they would generally not otherwise experience.

In addition to providing safe public spaces for these kids, we are open late, which is when most violence occurs. Many youth are attracted to the peaceful, open space that is crime and drug free. We offer guidance in proper climbing techniques and motivation through positive reaffirmation. Climbing inevitably creates close relationships, and through constant positive interactions between climbing instructors/mentors and youth, trust, communication, and positive values are fostered. The rest occurs organically—we’re seeing self-perceived limitations begin to dissolve. As an added incentive, we offer youth the chance to escape the city and climb in Potrero Chico, a world-class climbing area just a short drive outside of Monterrey.

We are currently in the process of raising money to construct a space dedicated to climbing and culture for the youth in the neighborhood Independencia, one of the most vulnerable areas in Monterrey. This space will allow us to expand our reach, begin rehabilitating the many former child soldiers in Monterrey, and prevent thousands of others from falling victims to the same fate.

Though still in our infant stages, by the end of 2015 we aim to reach at least 1,000 of Monterrey’s most at-risk youth. With a team of psychologists, teachers, mentors, and inspiring individuals by our side, we intend to expand the reach of our organization to other conflict areas around the globe.

Having interacted with, befriended, and spent considerable amounts of time in the same streets as these Mexican youth, we see them not as a threat or an incurable and lost group, but as a boundless and potent source of ideas, creativity, multiculturalism, and promise. They need your help, too. Join our movement by liking us on Facebook or getting involved as a volunteer. As Howard Zinn said, “We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”