“Any guy who is desperate knows where to go to sell drugs on his own account,” says a young man from Torreón, Coahuila, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. He was filling gas tanks at a station in the northern city until he lost his job in the crisis triggered by COVID-19.
Just over a quarter of the adolescent workforce in Mexico lost their jobs during the first months of the pandemic, according to data from Inegi, and although jobs are beginning to recover, the country faces an unprecedented economic debacle in its modern history.
From January to September of this year, the gross domestic product (GDP) contracted 9.8 percent, compared to the same period in 2019.
COVID-19 has not only caused health havoc in Mexico as it is the country with the death rate highest in the region and one of the highest excess death rates in the world, but threatens to exacerbate another long-standing epidemic of violence and illegality.
According to a recent Bloomberg ranking of 53 countries, Mexico is currently the worst place to weather the global pandemic.
After looking for work for several months without success, the 21-year-old from Coahuila returned to his old occupation: selling drugs. He acknowledges that this is a setback in his life plans and even in his health, given that in his adolescence he developed an addiction to methamphetamine.
Having a legal job would help you stay sober and focused on what you love the most, music. But getting such a job in a violent environment that calls him and in a job market that rejects him for his lack of experience and skills is almost impossible.
The phenomenon of young people who neither study nor work has long-term negative effects on productivity, wages and employment opportunities in people’s lives, says Rafael De Hoyos, professor of economics at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). ) in a report on this phenomenon.
“The kids who leave school are because they have a job, an opportunity or a precarious, poorly paid, and unstable job,” says the academic in an interview. “It’s not because they want to stay home and do nothing.”
The Ministry of Public Education (SEP) estimates that about 8 percent of young people at a higher level have dropped out of school so far after the pandemic.
With school dropout, young people limit the salary they can access. Those who drop out due to need or lack of interest in traditional education take precarious jobs that they can easily lose, says De Hoyos. Once this happens, they almost never return to the classroom.
According to Inegi, young people between 20 and 29 years old receive an average salary of 5,952 pesos per month, while those between 30 and 39,724 pesos. Both are amounts that, according to specialists, are precarious and do not prevent the young population from seeing crime, illegality or informality as an option.
In addition, the pandemic is estimated to make the path even more difficult. According to the OECD, people aged 25 and under are 2.5 times more likely to lose their job right now and earn up to 9 percent less income from their first job than other young people their age in previous years.
In Mexico, in the first quarter of the year, prior to the hardest hit of the confinement by the pandemic, 290 thousand 176 young people between 20 and 29 years old lost their jobs, the age group hardest hit in that period.
“It has to come from somewhere,” says Rogelio, a 28-year-old resident of the Pensil neighborhood, in the Miguel Hidalgo mayor’s office of CDMX and who asked not to reveal his last name. Before the pandemic, he says, he was employed at a Telcel care center, but after being fired in the summer, he turned to illegality to pay alimony for his 6-year-old daughter.
He is currently working with a friend, distributing pirate merchandise in different markets and flea markets in the capital. “I don’t feel so good, but it pays and it doesn’t pay so bad,” he says.
Violence has a high economic cost for the country. In 2018, it cost him 1.5 billion pesos, according to a USAID study. If this trend is not reversed, the cost of crime could represent 24 percent of GDP by 2030.
In March, when the government advised the monitoring of confinement measures, the number of intentional homicides reached the highest point since June 2018. Gender-based violence also rebounded.
During confinement, 911 calls increased by around 20 percent, attention to victims increased in state and municipal instances, and the National Shelter Network registered an increase of more than 70 percent in its services compared to the same period of 2019 After falling in April due to the closures of the pandemic, crimes of the common jurisdiction rose and are on the way to exceed the figure of last year.
“If you compare the crisis of 2009 with what is happening now, there are many red flags,” says De Hoyos in an interview. The economist found that the homicide rate on the country’s northern border tripled in the period from 2009 to 2013 and that there was an increase in young people who neither study nor work.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Mexico will recover the economic level prior to the pandemic until 2025. And the effect on employment and its precariousness could be severe and there are already signs of it.
Some, like Rogelio, the former Telcel employee in the country’s capital, have even been lucky to have found a job in the informal sector.
According to the most recent data from Inegi, until the end of October there were 29.7 million people working in the informal sector, 2.4 million more than in July of this year, but almost 1.3 million less than in October 2019.
“Informality used to be a valve that absorbed downturns in the economy. How? Many sold food, for example, in government offices or provided other services, ”says Gabriel Lozano, JP Morgan chief economist for Mexico. “With offices closed, with thousands confined, with less traffic, the number of communicating vessels in the economy decreased.”
There are other data that alarm Lozano: the service sector, which absorbs the largest number of young people, has been the hardest hit in the crisis. In addition, the shadow of a second and tougher wave of infections would lead to the closure and eventual bankruptcy of more work centers. On the other hand, underemployed people in Mexico, those who could work longer hours but cannot find where, is high.
According to Inegi, this group represented 15 percent of the economically active population in October, while a year ago it was 7.8 percent.
The economist also pointed to the fall in inflation in services, especially education, which for him is a sign that in the medium term several private educational institutions in the country could go bankrupt and leave with more precarious or lower quality options to thousands of children and youth.
The result? “There is a very great stress situation among the younger population, of a lot of uncertainty”, Lozano mentions.
“The urgency of income, in the absence of economic stimuli for the unemployed during the pandemic, could lead many to work in informal sectors with a greater degree of negative social impact, towards different criminal activities.
With such an uncertain future, JP Morgan considers reducing, for the first time in years, its expectation of potential growth in Mexico from just over 2 percent to between 1.5 and 2 percent.
Wipo, a 20-year-old resident of the Alianza Real neighborhood in Monterrey, miraculously survived a gunshot to the forehead, according to the doctors who treated him. The bullet was not his first brush with death in a neighborhood divided by gangs.
“They call me the immortal,” says Wipo, who asked to be referred to by his nickname, from the house where he lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter. “For the month it was already like nothing.”
The Alianza Real neighborhood dominates the headlines with news of shootings, assassinated youths, assaults and visits by rulers to the area.
It is not unusual for the children in the Alliance to start selling drugs from the age of 10, to meet entire families who enter that business and to girls of twelve or thirteen with children, says Wipo of the neighborhood where he grew up. By the age of 14 he was already joining gangs and 6 later he had already had friction with death.
“Many young people experienced very strong violence in 2009 and 2010,” explains Miguel Díaz, General Director of Supera, a civil organization that works to assist and rehabilitate high-risk youth in different neighborhoods of Monterrey.
“Boys were born, raised and have developed in these circles of violence,” he said. Supera reached out to young people in conflict with the law, like Wipo, and began to empower them through art, music, sports, photography and other creative activities.
Wipo has sold drugs practically his entire life. His dad was the one who established him in the business. “It is the most common thing that happens in the colony, all those who sell started because their bosses put them to sell,” says the young man.
Once he started having disciplinary problems at school, his dad told him to drop out and help him move the drug. This is how he began to sell and consume marijuana, stone, glass and toluene.
“Exclusion hurts more than poverty. Young people have aspirations, but they don’t find opportunities ”, explains Díaz. “They aspire to stop selling drugs, but they say: ‘If I stop selling drugs, how do I make money?’
The forgetfulness in which young people find themselves precedes the pandemic, it is not new. Neither is the inaction of the authorities for decades, a trend that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador seeks to reverse.
During his campaign, López Obrador promised that he would tackle the problem of violence at its roots instead of fighting violence with more violence, as he has said countless times in press conferences.
For this, he created ‘Young People Building the Future’, a social program aimed at young people who do not study or work through which the government pays 3 thousand 748 pesos, a salary higher than the minimum wage, to young people between 18 and 29 years old for do an internship in a company for a year
The program aims to equip young people with the experience and skills necessary to enter the labor market but does not necessarily address the problem of unemployment. This reality is reflected in its budget, which has been reduced twice, before the contingency and after the country went into crisis. Only a small fraction of the 1 million scholarship recipients of the program have found work.
To reach the goal of the 15.5 million jobs promised in the campaign, the federal government estimated a growth of the Mexican economy of 4 percent per year, far from the contraction seen in the two years of the López Obrador government. Still, the president continues to promise job creation.
In April, in the midst of a pandemic, López Obrador decreed that two million jobs would be created just at the peak of job losses. The unemployment rate went from 4.7 percent in April to 5.1 percent in September among economically active people aged 15 years and over, according to the Inegi Telephone Survey of Occupation and Employment.
The experience in the labor market of young people in risky situations is often poorly paid, short-term and in the informal sector, said José Reveles, author of several books on cartels and drug trafficking in Mexico.
In regions of Guanajuato, Guerrero and Coahuila, for example, criminal groups hire young messengers, hawks or spies for a salary, and thus they are recruiting them, says Reveles. The simple act of buying them a cell phone can be attractive enough to pull.
“Criminal activity does increase out of necessity,” added Reveles. “There are going to be more guys incorporated into crime.”
Neither the young man from Torreón, the one from CDMX or the one from Monterrey had heard of ‘Jóvenes Construjando el Futuro’.
None of them seem to recognize the systematic violence that drives them to criminality. For them unemployment and tragedy are your fault, a flaw in your character. They acknowledge the lack of opportunities, precarious salaries, violence, and the presence of criminal groups and gangs, but ultimately it is up to you to get ahead.
The young man from Torreón found a job in an electronics store, but continues to look for other options because the salary he is paid is not enough. The goal is not to go back to the same thing, sell drugs, consume, and end up like some of his friends: dead or in prison.
Rogelio longs to be able to go back to work in a ‘decent’ place, which allows him to go to sleep peacefully because he is not doing anything illegal or running the risk that one bad day someone will harm him or his family. In a recent second interview, her spirits had fallen further after she didn’t receive work calls from at least five sites she applied to and her sister lost her job at a veterinary clinic. She asked him to involve her in the merchandise delivery he carries out, but so far the young man has refused.
In Monterrey, Wipo started a construction job and continues to explore photography with the support of Supera. Completing the technical high school you left half-way is not in your plans for full-time employment. Her goal is to continue in photography to teach classes to young people in her community.
Wipo does not know when he will overcome his addiction or if his life will be attempted again, but he is young and does not lose hope. “I feel good things are coming,” he said at home surrounded by his family. “We all want the best for our children and I want my daughter to be proud of me.”