Between 2008 and 2011, Ciudad Juarez, which sits on the Mexico-United States border, was the epicenter of a fierce turf war between some of the Latin American nation’s most notorious drug cartels. The number of homicides in the city topped 3,000 in 2010, yet the psychological scarring this left on infants growing up amid the violence had until now remained largely undocumented.
However, a new study that appears in the journal Salud Mental has indicated that the emotional and cognitive cost paid by young children in the city may be extremely high, with many having developed mental health problems as a result of their traumatic early years.
To conduct the study, researchers used a scientifically-approved questionnaire called the Pictorial Child Behavior Checklist (P+CBCL), which provides details about certain key symptoms associated with a range of emotional and behavioral problems. By compiling data collected at the height of the violence, the team was able to compare the rates of mental health problems among 316 children from Ciudad Juarez with the same number of children from neighboring city El Paso, Texas, across the border, which saw only five murders in 2010. All participants were between the ages of 18 months and five years at the time the data was recorded, and all were from families classified as low-income.
Since all children involved in the study were from impoverished backgrounds, the researchers could rule out economic factors as potential drivers of the differences between the two groups. Rather, they attribute these differences to exposure to violence, since the Ciudad Juarez group were surrounded by cartel-related brutality while the El Paso group were sheltered from this.
Analyzing the data, the team found that the children from the Mexican side of the border scored higher in every single category of the P+CBCL than those from El Paso. These include factors such as aggressive behavior, attention problems, anxiety, and depression.
It must be noted that the children who took part in the study were not directly asked about their personal level of exposure to this violence, so it is not known how many of them were directly affected by it or to what extent.
However, lead researcher Marie Leiner told IFL Science that, given the widespread prevalence of violence in Ciudad Juarez at the time, all residents were at least indirectly affected by it to a much greater degree than those from El Paso.
“The city was completely bombarded with daily news about murder, decapitation, bombings, and the children were constantly exposed to this type of violence. They were living in a warzone,” said Leiner.
"When children are continuously exposed to violence and chronic stress, their neurological and physical development can be disrupted, so they are likely to develop chronic diseases or psychosocial problems such as aggression, obsessive compulsive disorder or a deficit of attention," she continued.
To treat this problem, Leiner insists that psychotherapy may provide a vital piece of the puzzle, although she stresses the importance of tackling the issue at its source by implementing social education policies that teach children the right lessons before they become influenced by violence.
"The first thing we have to do is talk to children about what we are going to do to keep them safe, and introduce them to pro-social behavior – which is kind of the opposite of what you do when you expose them to violence."