WASHINGTON (AP) — With her senior year of high school starting in a week, Melissa Parra, of Chihuahua, Mexico, was focused on a problem that most of her American peers would never face: drug cartels.
"It just gets closer," Parra, 17, said of cartel violence in her hometown in northern Mexico. Just two days ago, her mother called to tell her about a boy in her community who had been killed.
"He had good grades. He was a good guy," Parra said. "He was working to help the family."
Parra does not expect to stop the violence, but she sees an opportunity to change the environment that makes her classmates vulnerable to cartel recruiters. That was one of the goals of the project she designed this summer. Parra worked alongside 76 other students from across Mexico who came to the U.S. to develop community service projects in hopes of fighting the drugs, violence, and truancy that plague their country.
Parra spoke Wednesday at a ceremony on American University's campus where groups of students presented plans targeting domestic violence, self-esteem problems, childhood development, bullying and risky behavior — all problems that they felt underscore the country's larger issues.
Sonora Horta, of Pachuca, Mexico, said her group was working to address what she called "the root of all problems."
Having high self-esteem and clear goals, said Horta, 17, makes young people less likely to get involved with violence, gangs and drug addiction.
The international nonprofit group World Learning organized the students' five-weeklong trip, which took them to Washington, Vermont and other parts of the U.S.
World Learning Senior Program Officer Cari Graves said giving the students the opportunity to meet with government and NGO officials taught them about leadership and setting realistic goals for tackling the problems that emerge in their country.
"Mexico being the United States' neighbor and drugs, gangs and violence being a common issue for both countries, it's just a really hot topic right now that we want to address," Graves said.
Alejandro Rangel, a tall, well-dressed 17-year-old who friends joke will be the next Mexican president, said his group had trouble getting community leaders to take their plans to combat bullying seriously. He said people thought they were "just jokers, youngsters."
"That's not true," Rangel said. "We're here to help them. We want to help them." Continued...