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Youth succeed: post offers alternatives to gangs.

To offer alternatives to young people in an area rife with gangs, the U.S. Consulate General Nuevo Laredo's Youth Council has encouraged more than 40 of the city's youths to become leaders, reflecting the dedication of consulate volunteers and youths who want to improve their community. In its four-year existence, the council has shown how "we as the U.S. government are able to interact with local citizens that we would not otherwise reach on such a close and frequent basis, and we are able to discuss issues that they care about deeply," said former Youth Council mentor Joseph Carnes.

The council's work is particularly impressive, given the city's challenging security environment. Since the early 2000s, Nuevo Laredo has been a battleground of turf wars between rival cartels. Violent crime, including homicide, robbery and kidnapping, threaten everyone in the region, and consulate staff members' movements are restricted within the city. A Department of State Travel Warning urges U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel to the entire state of Tamaulipas, with Nuevo Laredo, on the banks of the Rio Grande, representing the busiest border crossing with the United States.

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Such an environment makes outreach activities difficult. Nonetheless, Nuevo Laredo's Youth Council has thrived, largely due to the perseverance of the council members themselves. The consulate selects new members each year through a competitive application process. Many applicants are often already community leaders, due to their work, studies or extracurricular activities. Former Youth Council presidents Adriana Contreras Espinoza and Gizell Gonzalez Zamora run their own nonprofit organization called Somos Gigantes (We are Giants), which educates low-income children and combats bullying. Some council members work for the Nuevo Laredo city government, while others are pursuing advanced college degrees or work as teachers, factory workers, psychologists or in other careers.

In all, the council represents the diversity of Nuevo Laredo's youth.

In Nuevo Laredo, the council's work focuses on community outreach. One of its most successful events is its annual posada celebration. At this traditional Mexican Christmas event, council members play games with children from a local orphanage, provide them lunch and give Christmas gifts sought by the children in their Dear Santa letters. At last year's event, the council hired two lucha libre (freestyle) wrestlers to perform and then speak about healthy lifestyles and safety.

For those at post who serve as Youth Council mentors, this event is the highlight of the year. "I love that the posada is an idea the Youth Council came up with independently, and that it is a traditional Mexican event," said former mentor Monica Davis. "I also like the message and the symbolism of youth helping other youth."

Held since 2015, the council's clothing drive has provided clothing to 285 people in Nuevo Laredo, hosted a mock Model U.N. session (to prepare 40 local students for the Model U.N. competition in New York City), painted a mural depicting the bond of U.S.-Mexico border towns, visited area elementary schools to read stories to more than 360 children, and hosted a soccer tournament that encouraged gender equality and raised money for a local charity.

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Youth Council members face daily risks, living in a city with high levels of violence, yet often take on projects in some of Nuevo Laredo's most vulnerable neighborhoods. Last year, members cleaned a children's park in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, where drug cartel presence and security incidents are more prevalent. Although the area is off limits to consulate employees, Youth Council members went there anyway. Such dedication shows how Youth Council members are making Nuevo Laredo a better place for all.

The city's enthusiastic youth have found, through the Youth Council, a means to use their adaptability and creativity to make a difference. As council mentor and Public Diplomacy Assistant Ana Serrano puts it: "It is extremely important to lead young people and encourage them to do things to benefit their community--the Youth Council gives them that opportunity."

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Photo by Ethel Gonzalez Zamora

By Travis L. Tucker, vice consul, U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo
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Author:Tucker, Travis L.
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Oct 1, 2016
Words:687
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