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Not long ago, all headlines out of Ciudad Juarez screamed bloody drug war murder. Now something unexpected is happening in the Mexican border town. Homicides have plummeted. Some who fled have returned. Sports clubs keep kids out of gangs. GlobalPost went to find out if this amazing recovery is built to last.

(Julian Cardona/GlobalPost)

Gang violence abating, Juarez kids find a safer line of scrimmage

With their winning football team Jaguares, Mexico’s bad news city can’t lose.

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — With a chill wind blowing from north of the US border, scores of teenage boys are running through drills and scrimmaging on a jarringly green sports field in Ciudad Juarez.

These are the Jaguares (pronounced ha-GWAR-ehs, which means Jaguares), an American-style football club that in recent years has become a prominent symbol of this crime-bloodied border city’s struggle to reclaim normality.

Watch GlobalPost video: Clear eyes, full hearts in Juarez

They became infamous when two team members were killed and three wounded in a massacre at the nearby Villas de Salvarcar neighborhood in January 2010. The Jaguares’ quarterback took three bullets in a leg.

Many of the 10,000 people murdered in recent years in Juarez were boys and young men from rough neighborhoods, caught up in gangster life. They were kids all too similar to those practicing this night.

The killings transformed a pastime into an obsession for Coach Fernando Gallegos, 50, his assistants, the players and their parents.

Julian Cardona/GlobalPost

“It’s not a team. It’s a family, a way of life, of seeing the world,” says Edgar Rivas, 23, a state employee and eight-year team veteran who plays on the Jaguares’ university-level squad and helps coach younger players.

“People talk badly about Juarez, but there are many good people here,” he says. “The Jaguares are a way that we can change things.”

Juarez has calmed. But it isn't cured. Many fear it could easily slip back into chaos. Some, like Coach Gallegos, bet that sports can channel the city's youth toward a gentler future.

“Look at them, peaceful and worn out and happy,” Gallegos, a fervent Pittsburgh Steelers fan, says of the players toward the end of a recent practice.

“That’s the important thing. Keep them focused on good things instead of the gangs. Until they’re old enough to be safe from temptation.”

The Mexican government donated artificial turf to cover the stony dirt field where the Jaguares long played and practiced. In 2011, the former first lady dedicated a shrine at the field to the slain players and two other murdered students from the high school many Jaguares attend.

Such guilt-fueled largesse has evaporated.

The players still use helmets and pads castoff from wealthier teams. Parents maintain the field with donations and their own labor. Fundraisers such as bake sales pay for team trips. Gallegos and other team coaches volunteer their time and money, lots of both.

Though not nearly as popular as “futbol,” or soccer, American-style football is played across northern and central Mexico. NFL games draw huge television audiences across the country and play on the screens of Mexico City cinemas. The Super Bowl is nearly as big an event in many parts of Mexico as it is in the United States.

The Jaguares are three teams for different age groups, from as young as 5 to 22 years old. They practice two nights a week, from 8 until 11. Games are on Saturdays. Older players study either in high school or university. Many also work jobs, leaving scant free time.

“We are going to be here as long as we can, as long as necessary,” says Adrian Cadena, whose 17-year-old son, Rodrigo, was one of the two players killed. “I am doing this so that another father isn’t awakened with news that his son is dead.

“In each of these kids I see my boy,” he says.