CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The front entrance of the Elena Garro Kindergarten in Ciudad Juarez looks just like any other: its rainbow-colored gate leads to classrooms decorated with homemade art.
But when it opened last month, a sign hung on the exterior wall: if you don't pay, we'll hurt the kids and you.
Nobody knows for sure who left the message here and at a handful of other schools throughout the city — there have been no arrests — but everyone says they have an idea: the drug traffickers who have wreaked havoc in this scruffy border town and beyond.
Residents here are accustomed to brutality. And since Mexican President Felipe Calderon essentially declared war on drug traffickers two years ago, dispatching troops across the country, violence has exploded.
This year more than 5,300 have been killed nationwide — double the number from last year.
It has reached a fever pitch in Ciudad Juarez, which has registered about one-quarter of all executions this year, or about 1,400.
The majority of violence is contained among rival gangs, but innocent bystanders are not just increasingly in the crossfire, they are caught in the web of activities that criminals depend on to supplement their salaries — becoming victims of threats, extortion, and even kidnapping.
"Our schools started receiving threats last month," says Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, who quickly sent cadets and police officers to the 900 schools in the city to bolster security and subdue parents' fears. "In the past six weeks, extortion of business owners has become our most important problem."
For months, residents here have shuttered their windows and stayed in at night. But now many have a sense that even the most basic daily activities — taking their children to school, going to work, even walking down the street — are being restricted.
And targeting children is a troubling new low.
The note at the Elena Garro school, on a piece of paper taped up on Nov. 12, created a panic among parents, says the director, who refused to give her name because she says she is no longer giving interviews, except to set the record straight.
She says she did not close the school — despite media reports to the contrary — but that 20 percent of parents have kept their children home since.
One mother, who did not want to share her name out of concern for her family's safety, refused to bring her son to school for a week after the note was posted.
She only changed her mind when police cadets started patrolling.
A similar sign was hung seven blocks down the street where her daughter attends elementary school: she has not brought her daughter back since. "Now we can't even be sure they are safe in school," she says.
Mayor Reyes Ferriz sent some 400 cadets and police officers rotating among hundreds of buildings in the city.
He also had "panic buttons" installed in schools that ring authorities directly. He says he will review the security plan in 2009 but says he expects threats to dissipate: he says they are directed at teachers who earn extra money in December because of their yearly Christmas bonus, which is typically a month's pay.
Schools, however, are not the only targets these days. Journalists, doctors, and any type of small-business owner is vulnerable. In recent months, restaurants, dance halls, and some gymnasiums have been burned to the ground. Many store owners have fled to the US, say residents across town.
"Merchants feel fed up, frustrated, and extorted, they feel helpless because they don't feel there's any recourse," says Ricardo Ainslie, an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, who is writing a book about Mexico's war against the drug cartels. "And [cartels] mean business. They carry out what they threaten to carry out."
The incidents in Ciudad Juarez have created fear well beyond those schools threatened. "It has created a psychosis," says Nivardo Jabalera, director of the Junior High School 3042 in Ciudad Juarez, which he says has not received any threats. He says the school has used the opportunity to discuss delinquency — including holding conferences with local authorities.
But it's also generating a cultural shift in Mexico that might be harder to turn back. Juan Daniel Acosta, a director of a secondary school in Chihuahua City, says one of his students posted on the Internet her pride that her father is a narcotrafficker. Mr. Acosta's wife, Irma Leticia Navarro, teaches at the local elementary school. She says that kids are taking turns playing executioner and victim; a first-grader recently stated his wish to become an assassin when he grows up.
Ricardo Ravelo, an investigative journalist with Proceso magazine, says that children in states torn apart by the drug war now idolize and imitate narcoculture. "The narcos are powerful, untouchable, undefeatable," he says. "For these children, it's not very important to them to study or imagine themselves on a career path. For them, the attractive path is drug trafficking and its personalities."
(Jonathan Roeder contributed from Mexico City.)