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Mexico nightclub tragedy caused by inept police and an ignored youth, advocate says

June 25, 2008 |  9:36 am

P6232087 A tragedy in Mexico City last weekend, in which 12 people were suffocated or trampled to death in a bungled police raid at the News Divine night club, was due to an inept police force and a lack of public policy directed at the city’s youth, says a sociologist and longtime activist for youth-related programs.

Héctor Castillo Berthier, who runs the youth culture center Circo Volador (Flying Circus) in Mexico City and has worked in youth programs for more than 30 years, said in an interview Tuesday with La Plaza that the capital’s police are not trained to deal with adolescents and young adults. That’s part of a wider failure to integrate young people into Mexico’s public and political life, he said.

“Mexico doesn’t have a defined public policy for its youth. They aren’t part of the public agenda or the political agenda,” said Castillo Berthier, speaking in his cluttered office in the run-down neighborhood of Lorenzo Boturini.

Last Friday evening, dozens of riot police descended on the News Divine club in the working-class Nueva Atzacoalco district of Mexico City to investigate reports of underage drinking and drug use. A stampede ensued as the crowd, some members as young as 13, tried to leave the club. In addition to the nine youths who were killed in the crush, three police officers died of asphyxiation. 

Mexico’s legal drinking age is 18.

“Why did they want to detain 300 youngsters?” Castillo Berthier asked rhetorically. “What purpose does it serve? What are they expecting to find through detaining 300 youths?”

The incident has provoked widespread condemnation of police tactics and sparked a political crisis for popular left-leaning Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard. As the L.A. Times’ Ken Ellingwood reports today from Mexico City, on Tuesday police officials fired 17 officers in connection with the botched raid.

“The firings came as newly released video footage showed police officers blocking exits as hundreds of young patrons tried to flee,” Ellingwood reports.

In the days following the tragedy, there’s been little analysis in the Mexican media of some of the long-standing, underlying tensions between Mexico’s youth and its notoriously ill-paid, corrupt and heavy-handed police force, as well as other law-enforcement entities.

In 1968, when student demonstrations and riots were breaking out across the globe, hundreds of peaceful protesters, many of them young students, were massacred by army troops and undercover law enforcement agents in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco (see this Los Angeles Times report on that subject).

“What the youths chanted in 1968 and what they chant today is exactly the same,” said Castillo Berthier. “In the poorer neighborhoods the youth call the police ‘the law’. So when you’re in a poor neighborhood and you learn ‘the law’ is the police, and the police are corrupt, then the law loses all its significance.”

Castillo Berthier, who organizes get-togethers for rival gang members, said that afternoon parties such as the one raided last weekend are common.

Although he blamed police tactics for the deaths, he said that Mexico needs to ask itself a bigger question.

“What kind of citizens are we constructing?” he said. “We’re creating citizens who have to be alert and cautious of the police because they’re going to beat them and detain them, and they’re going to arrest them illegally.”

Castillo Berthier said that while Western European youth know their rights in dealing with the police, Mexican youth do not.

“Here, you confront a power that has the right to overpower you, be what may,” he said.

“How do you learn that -- what you have the right to and what not? How is it that the police can come and arrest you in a place where you’re drinking and dancing?”

“We have to stop thinking of the youths as the future -- they’re the present of today,” said Castillo Bethier.

“And today, we have to try and take action on this.”

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Photo: Héctor Castillo Berthier, who runs the youth culture center Circo Volador (Flying Circus) in Mexico City, said in an interview Tuesday with La Plaza that the capital’s police are not trained to deal with adolescents and young adults. Deborah Bonello / La Plaza

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