At a high school in Monterrey, Mexico, students walk through heavy iron gates on their way to class, passing walls riddled with bullet holes — daily reminders of the violent culture lurking beyond their classroom walls. Luis Alfonso nearly fell victim to the violence of Monterrey, but instead, found a path toward independence and prosperity, and is bringing other young people from his community along on the journey
Since 2008, violent turf battles between warring drug cartels have left their mark on Monterrey, a city of over 1 million people 135 miles from the U.S. border. Drug use and violence are everywhere, with more than 1600 gangs tempting young people who lack skills for traditional jobs to the high-paying, high-risk world of narcotics and crime.
The violence of the ongoing drug war is no longer exclusive to Monterrey’s streets — young gang members have infiltrated the city’s technical high schools, recruiting students to their organizations through threats and intimidation. Heavily armed police officers patrol campuses, but their ominous presence cannot prevent stray bullets from shattering classroom windows and frightening students.
For young people lacking the skills to find meaningful work, joining a gang can offer an easy, if dangerous, way to make money quickly. When life at home changed unexpectedly for Luis, he became an easy target for the gangs.
As a child, Luis formed a close bond with his father, who worked at a technology college and supported the family of 7. When Luis was 11, his father lost his job, left his family, and moved to the United States, where he worked in construction. The little money he sent back was not enough to support Luis and his 4 siblings, who depended on their mother for every expense.
After moving from a private to a public school when he was 13, Luis lost the motivation to apply himself in the classroom. Still angry and depressed about his father’s decision to leave, he grew distant from his family. He skipped classes and became involved with a small gang, eventually dropping out.
Luis returned to school at his mother’s insistence, but struggled to focus in the chaotic environment. He was eventually expelled. Almost 17 years old, with nowhere to go, Luis began to work at a local recreational park, using his minimum wages to support his aimless lifestyle.
School wasn’t the only thing Luis struggled with. He pushed his family away and fought with his siblings, including his twin brother Raul. After losing his job, Luis spent a year dependent on his mother, asking for money she could not expend. Struggling to support 5 children, she continued to urge Luis to go back to school and think about his long-term future.
“My constant struggle was to give Luis a long-term vision,” she said. “He was not interested and wanted to spend his money on his immediate desires.”
One day, fueled with anger and blinded by the violence outside his door, Luis raised his fist at his mother, ready to strike. He stormed out of the house and threatened to leave forever. That night, alone and away from his home, he realized he was hurting his family just as his father had 7 years before. When Luis returned the next morning, he committed to turning his life around and helping his family.
Around this time, a local high school had just adopted the ICT Networking and Entrepreneurship Skills Development program that combines Cisco Networking Academy coursework with entrepreneurship training. The partnership between Cisco, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Learning, and the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education aims to foster stronger and more resilient communities, give at-risk youth access to safe spaces, and build the ICT and entrepreneurship skills base in the northern Mexican cities of Ciudad Juarez, Monterrey, and Tijuana.
The program was designed to equip students like Luis to contribute to Mexico’s technology industry and escape the drug wars crippling their cities.
Luis’s mother, who had studied IT as a young woman and saw the value in education, visited the school to learn about the program. Luis followed his mother’s advice and enrolled in the Cisco IT Essentials course, which covers the fundamentals of computer hardware and software. He easily passed with straight A’s but was bored and saw little reason to continue. Luis’s mother urged him to take the more-advanced Cisco CCNA courses. There, he finally found his passion in the form of networking technology.
“Luis was like a rocket, but he was anchored, he was stuck,” his mother said, reflecting on his past troubles. “He didn’t know how to take off the straps holding him to the ground. Cisco helped him break free from those ties and take off.”
He passed CCNA 1 with high marks, then enrolled in CCNA 2, where he helped assemble laboratories and set up networking equipment for other students. “I felt like a child in a toy store,” Luis said. The Networking Academy courses didn’t just connect Luis to the world of technology — they gave him the confidence to pursue a better future for himself and his family.
After successfully completing the Cisco Networking Academy courses, Luis participated in the entrepreneurship component of the program to learn more about business development. “Cisco gave me the knowledge and skills to provide all of my business services,” he said.
Luis graduated in July 2014, at age 21, 1 of only 3 graduates to complete both the entrepreneurship training and networking skills courses. He was among the first 26 graduates from the ICT Networking and Entrepreneurship Skills Development program, which has expanded to include CCNA 3 and 4 training with subsequent generations of students.
Luis was also the first graduate from the program in Monterrey to receive a full 4-year scholarship from the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon (UANL) to continue his studies in networking technology and engineering. Each year, 3 top students from the ICT Networking and Entrepreneurship Skills Development program in Monterrey will receive scholarships. Luis is currently pursuing his education at the university, building his own company, and, perhaps most important, creating opportunities for other at-risk youth.
Luis started his own company, LR Comp, which provides networking support to registered companies. To grow his business, Luis worked as a part-time network administrator at a local private club in Monterrey, managing its networks and IP cameras. He needed to hire employees who shared his passion for networking technology, so he recruited 3 students who were enrolled in the same program he just completed.
By hiring and mentoring the 16- and 17-year-old boys, Luis is putting their skills to use in an area of Monterrey where at-risk youth typically don’t have such options. “I want to be an entrepreneur who provides opportunities,” Luis said. With their newfound jobs, the boys are making significantly more than the minimum wage and avoiding the gang culture while helping Luis grow his business.
“Cisco changed my life,” Luis said. “Cisco gave me the maturity to carry things, inspired my company, and inspired me.”