Chihuahua, one of the Mexican states hardest hit by drug-related violence in recent years, is looking to recover public spaces and rebuild its torn social fabric through a new reading-promotion initiative.
Launched this week, the project aims to bolster a sense of community by installing small, open-air libraries known as "Paralibros" in public squares.
The idea is based on a similar program set up by Colombian non-governmental organization Fundalectura in Bogotá in the late 1990s, when that city was recovering from a period of sky-high violent crime rates and looking to return public spaces to ordinary citizens.
The new Chihuahua libraries contain a range of titles that can be checked out, from classics of world literature to self-help guides, works to assist aspiring entrepreneurs, poetry collections and books geared for children and adolescents - the main target audience for an initiative that has thus far been launched in seven of Mexico's 32 states.
One Paralibro was opened Tuesday in Chihuahua city's Plaza Merino, just five blocks from the spot where Marisela Escobedo - an activist seeking justice for the 2008 murder of her daughter, Rubí Marisol - was killed on Dec. 16, 2010.
The National Council for Culture and the Arts' deputy director general for reading promotion, Socorro Venegas, told Efe that the key to the project is the figure of the "reading mediator."
These reading promoters are given a training course and paid a small stipend to manage the Paralibros, which are to serve as centers of cultural invigoration.
"(The mediators) are people who are looking to heal themselves and heal their surroundings. They come from civil society with very difficult pasts ... people with hope who see books as a vehicle (for change)," Venegas said.
One such mediator is Isabel Batista, of the small Chihuahua highland town of Creel, where a group of armed assailants killed eight people on March 15, 2010, in an attack that bore the hallmarks of organized crime.
A mother of two, she has been a librarian in the town for the past eight years, a period in which criminal gangs at various times have effectively replaced the state and imposed their own law.
She said her life was shattered 16 months ago when her son, 22-year-old Carlos Gibran, disappeared without a trace on the Creel-Cuauhtemoc highway.
Batista said she harbors anger but also remains hopeful. Although she wants to know what happened, she said she can't put herself at risk because she has a 16-year-old daughter who depends on her.
She said she wants things to change in Mexico and feels that can only happen if more work and opportunities are available for young people and they can dream of other worlds through reading and seek opportunities to transform a wounded society into something better.
"A book teaches you to see life in a different way, to know that for readers there's the hope of other possibilities," she told Efe.
Venegas said it is regrettable that in several parts of Mexico some of the volunteers who were managing reading rooms, another project similar to the Paralibros initiative, had to abandon their communities.
"I know of the case of a family that fled the La Ladrillera neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez (Mexico's murder capital) and went to Durango due to the violence. They didn't close, they took the books to their new home," she said.
Nearly 300 reading rooms exist in Chihuahua state, which now has taken its reading-promotion efforts a step further with the installment of 11 Paralibros in different cities and towns.
Chihuahua has accounted for around 30 percent of the roughly 50,000 drug-related killings reported in Mexico since December 2006, when newly inaugurated President Felipe Calderón militarized the struggle against heavily armed cartels by sending army soldiers and federal police to drug war flashpoints.