Climbing Beyond Cartels

How rock climbing is saving youth from gangs and drug cartels in Mexico

Imagine as a kid never having been told that he or she could become something in life. Then add extreme poverty, domestic abuse, gang violence, and drug cartels to your experience of everyday life. Now try to imagine where you would have ended up in life.

This scenario is the reality of many Mexican youth and helps to explain why there are now 30,000 child soldiers in Mexico. With few opportunities, little hope for the future, and no one to encourage more positive life pathways, many youth see working for the drug cartels as the only way of escaping poverty.

However, in Monterrey, Mexico, one of the cities hardest hit by drug violence, the organization Escalando Fronteras (Climbing Borders) is exposing youth to a different reality. The organization is using climbing and the outdoors to empower and build the skills of at-risk youth in order to get them away from drugs, gangs, and organized crime. Instead of ending up as crime statistics in the drug war, the youth of Escalando Fronteras become leaders and agents of positive change in their neighborhoods and for all those around them.

The idea for the organization emerged while Nadia Vázquez and I, both climbers and social scientists, were conducting research on youth involved in gangs and drug cartels in Monterrey, as well as child soldiers in the Congo for their respective master’s and PhD theses in 2013. With the help of social anthropologist, Nicklas Karlsson, local climber Ramón Narváez, professional climbers Tiffany Hensley and Gareth Leah, and with some gear donations from DMM Wales, Mad Rock Climbing, ClimbTech, and Hanchor, the organization began a pilot project in January 2014.

Initially our team worked with 50 youth (boys and girls aged 7-18) from one of the most marginalized areas of Monterrey, the neighborhood Lomas Modelo, taking them climbing to local gyms as well as to the various world-class climbing destinations in the area such as Potrero Chico, la Huasteca, and el Salto.

Getting to the top of a climb breeds a real sense of accomplishment in these youth. They prove to themselves that through their own willpower and determination they can accomplish what they thought was previously impossible. This is the first step in building the self-confidence of these youth and showing them that they can do a lot more than they thought was possible with their lives.

The effects of climbing, the outdoors, and the supportive sense of community that the sport fosters have had a host of positive effects on the youth of Escalando Fronteras. Many have distanced themselves from gangs or given the gang life up altogether. Others have given up selling drugs and all of those youth in the pilot project are now currently in school.

The plan is to continue working in Monterrey, also while expanding to other parts of Mexico and Latin America, such as Caracas, that are characterized by gang membership and youth violence.

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None of these kids has ever been told that they can be something. No one believes in them. Many of them hear the words “sí puedes” (you can do it) for the first time in their lives while climbing a route. Climbing shows these youth that they can get to places on the rock and in life that they previously thought were unreachable.

These youth are a boundless and potent source of ideas, creativity, multiculturalism, and promise. They are the future of this globalized world, and if we want to resolve the many issues that confront us, one of the most basic steps, according to the team at Escalando Fronteras, is giving these youth a positive space to grow, develop, and become catalysts of positive change for all those around them.

Boosted by the positive results of of the pilot project, Escalando Fronteras launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $30,000 dollars by January 5, 2015. The money will allow the program to create a cultural and climbing center where 1,000 of Monterrey’s most at-risk youth will have access to climbing as well as tutors, mentors, and job training by the end of 2015.

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