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Family helps children in war-torn Juarez

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By Alfredo Corchado
Dallas Morning News

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — Even in this neighborhood where gunbattles keep them awake at night, the children are filled with the anticipation of Christmas. Heidi wants a doll. Nayeli craves cream-filled chocolates. Nancy dreams of roller skates.

“Santa Claus would have his hands full here,” said Sara Paez, one member of a Texas family that runs shelters in Mexico for abused, neglected and homeless children. “Yes, there’s fear in crossing to Juarez, but these are our neighbors, and you don’t walk away from your neighbor in time of need.”

Amid the dark, monstrous city that Juarez has become, the Paez family spirit remains unbroken. Each year the family leads a volunteer effort, soliciting gifts and donations from the community to make a brighter Christmas for orphaned and abandoned children.

A brother and three sisters, all born in Juarez, hold down full-time jobs as professionals in El Paso. One works for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Two are nurses, and another is a business owner.

But they also donate their time to run five shelters in some of Mexico’s most dangerous communities. Another brother, a journalist in Mexico City, sends annual donations. About 80 percent of the shelters’ operational costs are paid by the family; money to cover the rest comes from private donors on both sides of the border.

The Paez matron, Guadalupe Paez, is the backbone of the family’s generosity. For more than 40 years, she has run Rescue Ministries of Mexico, a nonprofit operation with one orphanage in the Chihuahua town of Madera and four in Juarez. The efforts are aimed at saving children now witnessing a wave of human slaughter not seen here since the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Many are the children of parents caught, directly or indirectly, in violence generated by a vicious turf battle between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels that began in 2008.

“No corner of Juarez is without bloodshed,” said Guadalupe Paez, who spends three or four nights a week at one of the shelters. “And we mourn the tragic death of our city, but we must not give up. These children don’t want us to give up, especially when everyone else has given up on them.”

If there’s a place on earth in desperate need of Christmas cheer, it’s Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities anywhere. The death toll, about 3,200 so far this year, surpassed last year’s record of 2,700 despite the presence of more than 10,000 federal police and soldiers and state and local authorities. Add to that We’re All Juarez, a multimillion-dollar effort by the administration of President Felipe Calderon, supported by the U.S. government, to create jobs and enhance opportunities for young people.

On Christmas Eve, at least eight people were killed and three injured.

The landscape is so forbidding that few tourists visit anymore, pointing to fears of kidnappings, extortion and killings. Coaches for both the Norte Dame Fighting Irish and the Miami Hurricanes college football teams, which will play Dec. 31 in the Sun Bowl across the border in El Paso, warned their players to stay away from Juarez and even confiscated players’ passports.

Guadalupe Paez understands the fear.

“But as bad as things are, and it’s bad, we must not lose faith that we, as caring human beings, not a government, represent a brighter future,” she said. “Otherwise, you’re robbing the children of the only thing that matters to them, hope and caring, and I see hope in these kids, a brighter future, maybe a nurse, a lawyer, an engineer.”

One of the four Juarez shelters is perched on a small hill on the outskirts of city, in a community known as Zaragoza. From its windows and playground, the children see a harsh world. All have stories, many of them tragic. One girl was raped repeatedly by relatives and neighbors; a boy lost his father in a gunfight.

Nancy, now 10, was awakened one morning by her mother, who then poured gasoline into every corner of the room, lit a match, and walked away with her daughter. The mother took Nancy to a corner, told her to hide behind trash cans, warned her to be wary of men, and left. Nancy was 5 years old.