Pedro Carrizales is not your run-of-the-mill politician.
The 39-year-old father of three, who is better known by his nickname “El Mijis,” won a seat in the San Luis Potosí state Congress in Sunday’s elections but his background is likely to be vastly different from those who will join him there.
Carrizales didn’t prepare for a life in politics by studying law or another academic pursuit or by working his way up the hierarchy within the machinery of a political party.
Instead he cut his teeth on the streets of the state capital, first as a member and later as a leader of local gangs. El Mijis admits himself that he was a young hothead on the wrong path in life.
But following the death of his mother, Carrizales gave up a life of drugs, street violence and crime to help young people who were heading down the same path that he once did.
In 2002, he joined a San Luis Potosí group that is dedicated to helping the city’s youth to lead more positive lives and since 2009 has led the anti-violence organization known as Un Grito de Existencia (A Shout of Existence).
He often gives talks at schools to warn students about the dangers of drugs and abandoning their education and has also created a range of social programs aimed at reducing gang-related violence.
But even though he has fought for positive change, social justice and better lives for youth for more than 15 years, his election as a state congressman has been controversial, and this week it triggered a barrage of posts on social media that saw #ElMijis become a trending topic on Twitter.
There have also been reports that Carrizales was imprisoned for crimes that he allegedly committed in his less than exemplary past.
But the congressman-elect, who ran for office under the banner of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Together We Will Make History coalition, told the newspaper El País that the reports are wrong.
“It’s false. I’ve never been in jail although . . . police have arrested me during raids,” Carrizales said, adding “I’ve never shot a gun.”
In a separate interview with Buzzfeed News México, El Mijis explained that eight or nine years ago police arrested him at his home on a charge of the attempted homicide of four people.
However, he denied any wrongdoing and explained that there was no evidence to convict him of that crime nor was he convicted of participating in the burning of a vehicle, of which he was also accused.
Instead of judging him on his appearance or actions in the distant past, El Mijis urged the public to form an opinion about him based on his recent work.
“I’m not going to say that I come from the cradle of Moses . . . but a lot of things [said about me] were false. I ask society to look at my work. I now have international prizes for my work with Un Grito de Existencia,” he said.
Contributing to the public perception of Carrizales is that, in many people’s minds, he still looks like a gang member.
El Mijis has 11 tattoos on his arms and chest and he continues to dress as he has done for much of his life: with a kerchief around his neck, a check shirt or singlet and sometimes baggy jeans.
But Carrizales brushes off the criticism and says it is not the first time in his life that he has been judged by and suffered discrimination because of his appearance.
“They’ve called me naco [low-class/ghetto], cholo [half-caste or gangster-like in appearance],” he said.
Carrizales told El País that he had planned to run as an independent but was subsequently approached to join the Morena party-led coalition, which was not only the vessel that swept López Obrador to a landslide victory in the presidential election but also won majorities in both houses of the federal Congress
“I can’t deny that López Obrador was a boomerang of support [for me] but I’ve done a lot of work that backs me up. I’m not from Morena, I was nominated by the PT [Labor Party],” he explained.
One of the first initiatives he plans to propose as a lawmaker is a policía de barrio, or neighborhood police force, so that young people are not criminalized based on their appearance.
“A few years ago, a security guard mistreated a dog and a lot of people were outraged. When they kill a chavo banda [young person with a stereotypical gangster-like appearance] they say, ‘he was surely on the wrong path.’ We have to change that,” Carrizales said.
“There should be more cultural and sporting activities [for young people]. We’re going to show that with work, the chavos banda can also do a lot of [positive] things,” he said.
The future congressmen estimated that there are more than 1,000 gangs in the state, each with at least 30 members, meaning that “we’re going to have a very big job” but he also stressed that everyone deserves a second chance.
“. . . I have diabetes and I have seen death many times. I got stabbed because I was a gangster, they butchered my liver, punctured my lung . . . I’ve been beaten, received death threats and now that I contested the election I was targeted again, but I haven’t cracked.”