Battle for the “ni-ni” in Mexico

by Walter Rodriguez

Recent kidnappings of Mexican journalists and attacks on media news outlets have drawn focus on an important underlying aspect of Felipe Calderon’s War on Drugs- the battle over the Mexican citizenry. Drug cartels utilize fear and money as a means of obtaining and strengthening power over law enforcement, the government and civil society. With the expansion of cartel efforts into the realm of extortion and kidnapping, has come a more fervent public outcry with the creation of community involvement initiatives such as “We Are Juarez,” as well as various organizations created by the families of kidnap victims. However given these flare-ups of citizen unrest turned citizen initiative, many still find themselves victims to cartel propaganda in the form of brutal violence and “narco-mantas,” or bed-sheets hung on walls and overpasses comprised of warnings and threats, with occasional allegations concerning the corruption of political figures at the hands of rival cartels.

            Some organized groups, such as Nuestra Familia, have even pushed it one step further with the indoctrination of the citizenry through booklets and artwork emphasizing religion, manners, and brotherhood, as evidenced by the Nuestra Familia’s requirement of its members to watch the Godfather 1, 2 and 3 in order to learn familial values and respect. All aforementioned themes are aimed at the high-risk, 14-25 year old sub- population of Mexico’s 50 million and growing impoverished class. This subgroup comprised of young Mexican males, and sometimes females, has come to be known as the “ni-ni,” short for “ni estudia, ni trabaja,” translated to “neither study nor work.” This group of about 7 million Mexican youth serves as a large pool from which to recruit lower rank street soldiers who take part in most of the violence and account for most of the dead.

            The cartels are tipping the scales in the battle over recruitment through their use of media suppression and ransom demands asking for the promotion of an increasingly popular drug culture, filled with romantic tales of Robin Hood-like figures, as well as themes of retribution, wealth and family. However, given enough attention, and with the creation of educational and career opportunities the “ni-ni” could also prove to be a source of recruitment for the Mexican government and investment in a bright future. To say the least, the “ni-ni” could serve as allies in intelligence gathering for law enforcement, and the backbone of the political will needed to create citizen resistance against organized crime. For this to happen, it is argued that the War on Drugs needs to win individualized battles over the media, and aim to attack structural problems of poverty and inequality to win over the hearts and minds of its citizenry.

            The goal has been outlined as the Fourth Pillar of the Merida Initiative strategy, however the extent to which this provides a solution can be characterized by three serious questions: Will the government’s mission of strengthening communities by “implementing job creation programs, engaging youth in their communities, and building community confidence in public institutions” remain high on its list of priorities?  Can the government tailor such programs to appeal to and attract the “ni-ni” population? And finally, is it too late?

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