Ciudad Juarez – It has been nearly four years, but the sound of children playing is slowly beginning to replace the ubiquitous sounds of gunfire in this city.
With more than 10,000 murdered since 2007, and random barrages of gunfire plaguing neighborhoods, it has not been easy for children to head out on the streets to play
"Nobody really did anything at night and we all stayed in or close to our houses," said Brian Zuniga, 16.
Now with a 40 percent drop in killings in just one year, children are ending a self-imposed period of hibernation and are returning to the parks.
Skateboarding as an urban playing activity is beneficial for kids because it works as a positive escape route.
- Monica Chavira, Mental Health Consultant for the Pan American Health Organization
One of the most popular is a large skate park on the east side of the city, a short distance from the border fence connecting the city to El Paso, Texas.
Young skaters roll into smooth concrete bowls and ramps that both parents and health officials see as a constructive and positive way to keep children away from drugs, gangs and crime.
"Skateboarding here gives us something to do instead of crazy stuff," Zuniga said, adding that the negative influences for teens are still prevalent in his neighborhood.
Ciudad Juárez is still a major conduit for drugs being moved from Mexico into the U.S. and the allure of the country’s cartels, which yield considerable power and wealth in the city, is still very powerful to young people.
Zuniga took a break from skateboarding in the hot late afternoon sun to find a two-foot sliver of shade against a ramp where he sat next to his father, Jesus, who accompanied his son to the skate park.
"This is great for the kids to have, they have a lot of fun here," Jesus said.
He admitted that being a parent in Ciudad Juárez is not easy but now that the violence has subsided it is easier for the kids to get outdoors.
In 2008, Ciudad Juárez initiated “Reclaiming Public Spaces,” a project that includes the remodeling or construction of parks, community centers, skateboard parks and extreme sports parks.
“One of the psychosocial benefits is to feel safe again, reclaiming public spaces helps people feel like a community again, the busier the place, the more appealing for the youth and the safest people feel,” said Monica Chavira, M.A., Mental Health Consultant for the Pan American Health Organization. “There is more opportunity for social interaction with other youth which helps develop trusting and cohesive communities.”
Sports, like skateboarding, is providing the children of Juárez an alternative to the violence surrounding them, Chavira said.
“Skateboarding as an urban playing activity is beneficial for kids because it works as a positive escape route where the community and all the skate park users begin to take ownership of their park and take care of it themselves,” she said. “In this individual activity there are no organizing factors limiting the creativity of the individual and it can become a highly motivational sport that encourages perseverance and discipline.”
Just the fact the kids can now enjoy skateboarding at all hours of the day is a monumental achievement for the city.
"Most people come here when the sun goes down and it gets a little cooler out," Zuniga said. "We can be here pretty late and nobody bothers us."
Joseph J. Kolb is a regular contributor to Fox News Latino.