The Drug War’s Psychological Impact

Nearly every story about the drug war in Mexico begins with or eventually mentions statistics on the number of persons killed as a result of it. Far too little of them, however, consider the effects of the drug war on those who survive and continue to live through it.

Credit: (photographer unknown)

The issue is widespread across the entire country especially in areas such as Ciudad Juarez which have been wracked by violence, kidnappings, extortion, etc. more than most.

As Miriam Wells of Insight Crime points out:

One challenge that Mexico will likely face in the coming years is assessing the true extent of the psychological toll left by the drug war. Asides from enduring kidnappings, gun battles, and other very public displays of violence, many Mexicans must deal with the question of what happened to friends and relatives who have disappeared. The Attorney General’s Office has estimated that over 26,000 people were reported missing between 2006 and 2012.

A story in Al-Jazeera describes the mental toll on medical staff in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics in Juarez but also mentions how the drug war (a.k.a. narco war) has orphaned many children:

“Mental problems really started growing in Juarez three years ago,” says Pastor Jose Antonio Galvan, who runs a mental rehabilitation clinic on the city’s dusty outskirts.

He estimates that 300,000 people in Juarez are facing mental or spiritual illnesses.

“For every person who is executed here, 40 people, including friends and family members, are affected by the ripples,” says Galvan, describing the stress residents face.

Ten thousand orphans are victims of the narco war, he says. Ninety per cent find refuge with other family members, but the remainder become “the next generation of hit-men and criminal minds”.

Galvan explained the situation in Juarez in greater detail in a story in the Colorado Statesman:

In the last two years, there have been roughly 7,500 murders. That means that there are tens of thousands of survivors — family and friends — who are in mourning. In addition, thousands of orphans live on the streets or in tapias or abandoned houses. “They are children of sadness, of hate,” El Pastor says. Since they have no education, no work skills and no family support, they are easily recruited into the dozens of gangs that make Juárez so dangerous.

US News published a story on the mental effects the war, as well as poverty, and how it affects children in Juarez:

Researchers looked at the mental health of children and teens living in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in 2007 and again in 2010. All of the children were Mexican or Mexican-American and lived in homes below the poverty level. None had a history of diagnosed mental illness.

The psychosocial and behavioral scores of the children in El Paso did not change significantly between 2007 and 2010. However, the children in Ciudad Juarez showed significant increases in social problems, rule- breaking and aggression scores over the study period.

“There is cumulative harm to the mental health of children from the combination of collective violence attributed to organized crime and poverty,” study author Marie Leiner said in an AAP news release.

Ruben Villalpando of La Jornada published a story government research that discovered that 22,000 junior high/middle school students suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the drug war.

Adicionalmente, más de 22 mil estudiantes de secundaria sufren de estrés postraumático por el duelo de haber perdido a un familiar de forma violenta, presenciar una balacera, pasar por una escena del crimen o escuchar relatos similares.


Additionally, more than 22,000 junior high students suffer from post-traumatic stress caused by the pain of losing a loved one to violence, by witnessing a shootout, passing by the scene of a crime, or listening to stories of such events.

Studies into this topic are necessary not only to completely understand the effects of the war but also, and more importantly, how to better assist those hurt by it.

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