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In Mexico, Curbing Violence Before It Is Learned

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Author Topic: In Mexico, Curbing Violence Before It Is Learned  (Read 63 times)
« on: January 11, 2009, 07:25:56 am »
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In Mexico, Curbing Violence Before It Is Learned

Toy weapons for sale at a popular market in downtown Mexico City. A Mexican lawmaker’s proposal to toughen a ban on the toy guns would fine or close down businesses that carry them.

MEXICO CITY — Over the Christmas holidays, Othón Cuevas Córdova, a Mexican congressman, had his life threatened, albeit in jest. His young nephew pointed a toy pistol that he had received as a gift at the lawmaker and said, “Tío, I’m going to kill you.”

Mr. Cuevas was not amused. He talked to the boy’s parents about the inappropriateness of giving a child a weapon, even a plastic one, in a country so overrun with violence. And he sped up the introduction in Mexico’s National Assembly of a legislative ban on the fabrication, importation and sale of toy guns and other warlike toys.

“The boy was so young he could barely say the words,” said Mr. Cueva, who is from Mexico’s southern Oaxaca State and represents the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. “But from infancy, children are learning the culture of violence and we need to do something about it.”

Mr. Cuevas’ proposal to ban toy weaponry, introduced on Thursday, is one of a number of legislative proposals aimed at addressing in one way or another the explosion of killings and kidnappings that Mexico is experiencing, much of it tied to narcotics traffickers fighting with the authorities for control of their lucrative transit routes.

Lawmakers have suggested legalizing marijuana to reduce traffickers’ profits, bringing back the death penalty for kidnappers and reducing the age at which criminal suspects can be tried as adults to 12 from 18, among other measures.

The bills face varying probabilities of success and are in some cases dismissed as irrelevant by security experts. But they show the concern, and even desperation, that many politicians feel toward the state of their crime-racked country.

The proposal to legalize marijuana is considered dead. But President Felipe Calderón has put forward his own measure to allow those carrying small amounts of illegal drugs to spend time in treatment centers instead of jail.

The overhaul of Mexico’s judicial system — introducing quicker, oral trials instead of the current trials conducted solely by the exchange of legal documents, and making arrests of organized-crime suspects easier — is considered by experts to be among the most important legislative steps taken recently.

Substantive proposals are also under consideration to improve intelligence-sharing among law enforcement agencies and to overhaul the security forces to make them less corrupt.

One priority of Mr. Calderón’s government is to reduce the number of real guns in Mexico, the vast majority of which are smuggled into Mexico from the United States. That is likely to be high on the agenda when Mr. Calderón meets with President-elect Barack Obama on Monday in Washington.

In the case of the toy gun ban, Mr. Cuevas is seeking to add teeth to a measure already on the books. In 2002, Mexico made toy guns that look like the real thing illegal, largely because criminals were using the fake guns to commit crimes and get away with lighter sentences. That ban applied to replicas of assault rifles, submachine guns, shotguns and pistols.

The only problem with that ban, Mr. Cuevas said, is that it carried no sanctions. Street vendors still sell toy Berettas outside schools. Markets still stock realistic-looking AK-47 toy rifles, which are known in criminal circles as “cuernos de chivo,” or goat horns.

The beefed-up measure offered by Mr. Cuevas would fine those who trade in toy weaponry or close down their businesses. The country would be better without those sales, he argued.

“The cost we will pay as a society will be more if we do not do something to prevent conduct in children that later will become criminal,” the bill says.

Mr. Cuevas acknowledged that wiping out every last plastic pistol, realistic looking tank or replica warplane was not going to make Mexico safe again, a point that security experts make as well. “It’s not a panacea,” he said. “There are many reasons for this violence. But this is something we can do.”

Other places have tried a similar approach. Los Angeles, fed up with an explosion of gang-related violence, banned toy gun sales in 1987. In Iraq, the British Army issued a public safety announcement last month asking parents to not allow their children to play with toy guns “in case security forces mistake them for real weapons and open fire.”

Airsplat.com, a California company that makes toy guns that look like real ones and fire plastic pellets, warns users not to bring their guns to schools or pull them out in public places.

“If you are confronted by a police officer while transporting or playing with your airsoft gun, stay calm and follow their orders to the letter,” the company says on its Web site. “Tell them the gun isn’t real, and ask them what you should do. Don’t make any sudden movements and DO NOT argue with the officers.”

Toys are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how violent themes reach children, said Mr. Cuevas, the father of two daughters. There are violent video games and television shows, he said, that expose children to unchildlike behavior. And then there are the violent videos put up on Web sites, sometimes by drug traffickers themselves.

On top of all that are news reports, which in Mexico, on any given day, can feature beheadings, bombings and numerous other violent acts.

That real-life horror is what concerns José Antonio Ortega, president of the Citizen’s Committee for Public Security and Criminal Justice.

He lamented that the role models for many children these days “are drug dealers, kidnappers and others involved in organized crime.”

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