With a zip line, clowns and acrobats, the Missing Persons Search Brigade has turned this gray basketball court into a circus in Escuchapa, in the violent Mexican state of Guerrero.
It is a place where kids grow up trapped between the care-free play of childhood and the brutality of the world around them.
The village is on the long list of places in Mexico that have been devastated by the wave of violence engulfing the country since the government declared war on drug cartels in 2006 and sent the army into the streets. Since then, nearly 250,000 people have been murdered. Another 40,000 are missing.
There is a bleak objective beneath the colors, laughter and magic of this impromptu circus: persuade elementary school children to share any secrets they might know about where the bodies of the missing are buried around their hometown.
Some of its clowns and acrobats are in reality relatives of the “disappeared,” desperately seeking clues about what happened to their loved ones.
That means digging through the dirt to find mass graves, but also visiting churches and schools to plead for help from locals — including kids, in a part of the country where drug cartels are known to recruit children as lookouts and hitmen.
School children in villages like this are typically all too aware of the violence around them, says Maria Herrera, one of the leaders of the search brigade.
In Escuchapa, for example, there is a place known as Parrots’ Pit where everyone says there are buried bodies.
Children “are very receptive, and have the information we’re looking for,” says Herrera, 70, who is searching for four missing sons.
“They are little people, and they need to be informed…. They see men with guns driving around in pick-up trucks, they see these bad people walking around and nobody tries to stop them,” she told AFP.
– ‘Like losing your crayon’ –
Herrera tries to help the children understand what it is like to have a loved one go missing.
“It feels like when your playmate takes your pencil without asking, or a crayon that you need and you like very much. It makes you sad, right?” she says.
The circus opens with nearly an hour of jokes and gags. But then it segues into a bitter, inevitable contrast: using pictures of their search sites, the clowns explain why they are there and their work seeking clandestine graves.
“We explain how we excavate, and that we are looking for clues,” says Airam Lopez, 29, whose clown make-up hides her pain: she is searching for her husband, who disappeared in 2011.
The performers then break the kids into groups and teach them acrobatics and how to use the zip line.
Another group draws pictures. There is a “Peace Box” nearby where the children can leave anonymous drawings or messages with anything they want to tell the clowns.
– Cartel infantry –
Children in Mexico’s most troubled regions are not just witnesses to the violence, but increasingly participants in it.
“They are the cartels’ new infantry,” says Alejandro Almanzan, an expert on the narcotics trade and its ties to corrupt officials.
“I was in (the northern border city of) Tijuana recently and I saw 12-, 15-, 17-year-old kids armed to the teeth. My source told me the narcos… have started recruiting kids because young men don’t want to be hired guns anymore. They’ve finally learned the lesson that the capos are the only ones who survive.”
Children, on the other hand, “are recruited with drugs. It helps that they’re minors — they don’t go to jail. The ones who stay in the business think it’s better to live five years like a king than 50 years like a chump. Or they’re recruited by force.”
– ‘Mending the social fabric’ –
The Fourth National Missing Persons Search Brigade came away from the circus in Escuchapa with “several tips,” says Lopez.
They do not reveal their informants’ identity to anyone, including the authorities.
The information they receive is precious in a country where more than 90 percent of violent crimes go unpunished.
Andres Hirsch, one of the activists searching for the missing, says it is also “a way to mend the social fabric, to build peace.”
The Search Brigade found seven bodies and 100 bones or other remains during its two-week search in Guerrero.