by Chris Hawley - July 8, 2010 12:00 AM
Republic Mexico City Bureau
Republic Mexico City Bureau
MEXICO CITY - Schools across Mexico are teaching students to dive to the floor and cover their heads as urban gunfights between drug gangs multiply in the violence-torn country.
At least nine shootouts have erupted in school zones since mid-October, three of them in the past month. On June 15, soldiers and gunmen battled for an hour just 60 feet from a preschool in the central town of Taxco.
Several Mexican states are now requiring "shootout drills" and are incorporating them into summer teacher-training courses, which begin next week. School ends Friday in most of Mexico.
"We're in a situation like nothing we've ever lived through before, and we need to make sure the children are safe," said Juan Gallardo, director of school safety in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
Drug-related violence has reached record levels in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón launched a military crackdown on the cartels in late 2006. As of Monday, there had been 5,775 drug-related murders in 2010, up from 2,275 in all of 2007, according to an unofficial tally by the Reforma newspaper.
Shootouts have become common as drug gangs ambush government forces and each other in an attempt to control smuggling routes and, increasingly, local drug sales. Last week, 21 gunmen died in a shootout between gangs in a rural area near the Arizona border.
Although attacks rarely target schools, educators are worried students could be caught in the crossfire. On March 19, two college students were killed by stray bullets as they left a study session in the prestigious Tecnologico de Monterrey university in the northern city of Monterrey.
Gunbattles erupted near public schools on June 18 in the western town of Bellavista and on June 24 in the northern city of Apodaca. In Apodaca, police evacuated two elementary schools and a preschool.
After the June 15 battle near the preschool in Taxco, the southern state of Guerrero held shootout drills in several schools and ordered training for all 52,400 teachers in the state.
New guidelines instruct teachers to bring all students indoors, lock their classroom doors and keep the children away from windows. Children should lie on the floor and cover their heads with their hands to protect themselves from flying glass or chips of concrete.
Above all, children should not take pictures or video of the shootout.
"The first thing the kids want to do is take pictures to post on their social networks," said Erika Arciniega, director of crime prevention for the Guerrero state police. "We don't want them to become targets."
In Nuevo León state, where the college students were killed in the crossfire in March, education officials are preparing a video teaching children how to protect themselves during shootouts, state Education Secretary José González told reporters. Officials also are distributing manuals with instructions for surviving a shootout.
"Upon hearing gunshots near the school zone, the teacher will immediately order all students to lie with their chests to the floor," the guide says. "Avoid visual contact with the aggressors."
Not everyone thinks such training is a good idea, said Angel Carrillo, principal of the Rafael Briceño Elementary School in the western city of Colima.
"Some of the parents think it scares the kids too much," Carrillo said.