New Football Field Honors Teenagers Killed In Mexico

After the massacre of teenage football players in Juarez, Mexico, last January, President Felipe Calderon promised a gift to the violence-torn city: a new American-style football field. And he has made good on that promise to honor the 15 teenagers who were killed.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

Those behind the Mexico initiative that you just heard about have their work cut out for them, in a country where mass killings have become commonplace. One of the most horrific happened back in January. Fifteen people were massacred at a teenager's birthday party, in the border city of Juarez. Most of the dead were innocent high school students; some played American football for a local Juarez league. Now, President Felipe Calderon has made good on a promise to build a new football field in their honor. Monica Ortiz Uribe reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL PRACTICE)

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE: A group of boys line up to tackle a long punching bag during football practice one afternoon. They play in anything they've got - T-shirts; shorts; old, mismatched helmets. One wears a basketball jersey; another is in a Dallas Stars hockey jersey. Their uniforms may be a little crude, but their playing field is the envy of all Juarez.

FERNANDO GALLEGOS: (Foreign language spoken)

ORTIZ URIBE: We used to call this place The Hole, says football coach Fernando Gallegos. That's because their field used to be a dirt ditch, littered with sharp pebbles and sticky thorns. It was a killer for exposed elbows and knees. But the truth is, that's what most sports fields in Juarez look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

ORTIZ URIBE: The new field is beautiful. It's made of soft, green, artificial turf and marked with the same white yard lines you'd see in any other American football field. But its existence is directly related to the painful reality of life here. More than 6,000 people have died in Juarez in the last three years due to drug- related violence.

GALLEGOS: (Foreign language spoken)

ORTIZ URIBE: Coach Gallegos explains that President Calderon promised the new field after the now-infamous birthday party massacre. Authorities have said hit men confused that party with one of a rival drug gang. Four of the dead were linked to Coach Gallegos' football team, the Jaguars; one was their star quarterback.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL PRACTICE)

ORTIZ URIBE: Coach Gallegos loves American football. He's convinced that involving young men in sports like this will help them turn their backs on violence. His players are more likely than most kids in Juarez to graduate high school and go on to college. Most of their free time is spent at practice or working out. They even do volunteer work, like clean up parks and prepare meals in impoverished neighborhoods.

CADENA: (Foreign language spoken)

ORTIZ URIBE: Seventeen-year-old Rodrigo Cadena was one of the players killed. His parents look through their son's photographs in the living room of their tiny home. Rodrigo's nickname was Tackle. He was a big guy. In the photos, he smiles between two chubby cheeks and dark, messy hair. Rodrigo made good grades, and was an excellent cook.

CADENA: (Foreign language spoken)

ORTIZ URIBE: I miss him more than anyone could imagine, his mother says. But she and her husband are remarkably strong. Both knew little about American football when their son started playing four years ago. Now, they have posters of the Dallas Cowboys, Rodrigo's favorite team. Continuing to support the local football league helps them deal with their grief.

CADENA: (Foreign language spoken)

ORTIZ URIBE: This violence will not defeat us, Mrs. Cadena said. There are people like us, who will continue to fight for our future.

Across the border from Juarez in El Paso, Texas, the Jaguars' new quarterback, Manny Echeverria(ph), recently registered for classes at the local community college. He wants to study mechanical engineering. Echeverria compares football to life.

MANNY ECHEVERRIA: In our life, it's almost the same. You are training in every day in your life, and you have to review your goals, and that's why I'm doing that.

ORTIZ URIBE: Since the massacre, Coach Gallegos feared that fewer people would want to join the league. On the contrary, a record number of young boys are signing up. Coach Gallegos calls it a blessing. The Cadena family says they will go to every game this season.

CADENA: (Foreign language spoken)

ORTIZ URIBE: I have to cheer even louder now, Mr. Cadena says, so my son can hear me from heaven.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in Ciuadad Juarez.

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