With its high rates of drug cartel deaths and femicide, Ciudad Juárez has often been described as one of the most violent cities in the world – if not the single most dangerous city. 

“When you speak about Juárez, you have to speak about violence,” said Luis Mendoza, who has been living in the city across the border from El Paso his whole life.

“We have to think about where the roots of the violence are and where we can prevent violent behaviors and situations from happening in the future,” added Mendoza, who serves as the chief operating officer for the Juárez nonprofit Fundacíon Paso Del Norte. “So you really have to work with youth and children.”

Now, the foundation’s Escuelas de Bienestar, or wellness schools, are using sports and play to deter young children from entering a life of violence while helping them develop self-awareness and skills to interact and communicate with others, and teaching them how to manage emotions and build relationships through physical activities.

“We know that sports and play is a very powerful tool for organizations, individuals, teachers, schools, and other foundations to affect social change,” Mendoza said. “The problem is we have kids at school that are expressing or replicating cycles of violence or unhealthy behaviors. We have teachers that don’t have a curriculum or they don’t have tools to connect with the kids. That’s when we come into play.”

Coaches with Escuelas de Bienestar try out balls donated by the One World Foundation during a training session. (Courtesy Luis Mendoza / Fundacion Paso Del Norte)

From 2008 to 2012, the city of 1.3 million was widely deemed the most dangerous place on earth. Murders shot above 3,111 in the worst year, 2010. In 2022, Juárez reported 1,045 homicides, a 26% reduction compared to the previous year.

A study by the World Health Organization found that youth violence is a global public health problem that ranges from bullying and fighting and can escalate to severe sexual and physical assault and homicide.

“Worldwide, an estimated 200,000 homicides occur among youth 10 to 29 years old each year, making it the fourth leading cause of death for people in this age group,” the study showed, noting that youth homicide and non-fatal violence often has a lifelong impact on a person’s wellbeing. 

The foundation – a sister organization to the Paso del Norte Community Foundation and the Paso del Norte Health Foundation in El Paso that work together to improve the quality of life in the region – searched through available programs and partnered with Coaches Across Continents to find a way to help the youth of Juárez.

 A United Kingdom-based nonprofit, Coaches Across Continents teaches active citizens and strengthens organizations to create sustainable social impact in their communities.

“They reach underserved communities, and it’s not about learning something that’s in the school curriculum,” Mendoza said. “It’s about learning topics that are important for their health, human development, communications, and tough topics that sometimes they don’t have the tools to manage.”

Children participating in Escuelas de Bienestar pose after receiving a donation of soccer balls from the One World Foundation. The balls are designed to withstand the roughest playing conditions without going flat. (Courtesy Luis Mendoza / Fundacion Paso Del Norte)

Coaches Across Continents is partnering with FPDN to train physical education teachers in Juárez so that they’re able to meet the needs of their students while addressing challenging topics such as human rights, drug use, drug prevention, sexual health, violence and emotional health and well-being.

“It’s a train-the-trainer model to teach teachers on how to use play to develop those life skills and to address social topics that are hard to talk about in other educational settings,” Mendoza said. The teachers are going to talk about nutrition, mental health, human rights, women’s rights, and other topics, in addition to sports.

Physical education teachers are oftentimes seen as less sophisticated than other educators. However, Mendoza said these educators need to be acknowledged for their impact on their students.

“The power that PE teachers and coaches have on the development of children and youths is enormous,” he said. “We have learned that they want more training to diversify their classes, so they’re not only focused on gym class but on sports and play. They want to be able to use their tools to strengthen abilities and skills.”

Since the inception of Escuelas de Bienestar in 2017, 303 participants have joined the program impacting 77,018 school children in Juárez. About 60% of those enrolled in the program work as PE teachers, while the remainder is church youth groups, community centers and other groups that work with children regularly.

The trainers sign-up for a three-year commitment and receive training on developing games to use with their students while receiving support from the foundation.

“After those three years, the data shows us that (the trainers) already know how to make up games by themselves without the accompaniment of the Fundacíon or coaches and they are able to improvise,” Mendoza said.

As part of the three-year commitment, participants must attend at least one yearly training where Fundación Paso Del Norte facilitates members of Coaches Across Continents who fly across the globe to offer training in Juárez.

“They would work with my program officer and my coach locally, and both of them would deliver the training for teachers,” Mendoza said. “In this four-day training, these two coaches are in charge of facilitating the whole methodology.”

Besides the in-person training, participants have access to an international information hub where members from all over the world upload new games, materials, tools and resources for all to use and incorporate into their classes.

Mendoza said connecting with Coaches Across Continents was an easy process resulting in a fruitful relationship.

“Usually, they want to work with communities that have a challenge in human rights and social development with some sort of a problem that the sports and games could be useful to use as a tool,” he said. “It was not difficult.”

The lack of resources for teachers is a worldwide phenomenon affecting instructors in lower-income places the most. Escuelas de Bienestar is conscious of this when offering training to ensure the programs succeed with their available supplies.

“We would have loved to give every school that we work with a full kit of PE class material,” Mendoza said. “We couldn’t do it with every school, but we did invest resources to fully equip 20 schools in Juárez. And every teacher participating in our program gets a donation of soccer balls that (don’t go flat).”

A coach with Escuelas de Bienestar works with schoolchildren in Juárez to tackle life issues while having fun. (Courtesy Luis Mendoza / Fundacion Paso Del Norte)

The organization received 5,000 soccer balls from the One World Play Project, 4,200 of which have been distributed throughout the program.

“[Sting, the singer] started this organization with the objective of getting soccer balls to the poorest communities and underserved communities around the world because he believed that playing could change the world,” Mendoza said.

The One World Futbol, the project’s flagship product, is an ultra-durable ball that doesn’t need a pump and never goes flat, even when punctured. Its design allows withstanding the most demanding playing conditions.

“The organization understands that the context of the kids is so different,” Mendoza said. “We have kids that play in the streets.”

In 2023, FPDN is reviewing the previous years of the program and learning how to continue helping the children of Juárez. It plans to survey program participants and other instructors outside of its network to evaluate its impact and identify resources and tools they have. From there, it will make adjustments. 

“This year, we are very excited to explore how the program could be sustained in the community in one way or another,” Mendoza said, adding that the foundation plans to host one workshop in 2023 as opposed to the three it held in previous years. 

Based on the findings for this year, the program will be updated and modified to provide support year-round available for every teacher in the country to access it and learn from the years the program operated.

“We don’t want to mention it as an exit strategy or as it is phasing out,” said Mendoza. “We prefer to communicate that this year we’re exploring how the program can become self-sufficient at some point with the help of teachers and community.”

This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...