War Turning Mexican Kids Into Targets — Or Killers

May 1, 2011

Jason Beaubien

In Mexico's drug war, children are getting increasingly sucked into the violent narcotics trade. Middle school-age kids are working for the cartels as couriers, lookouts and even assassins. Others are being killed, injured or orphaned in the crossfire.

In the past, drug violence was usually contained between gangs and security forces, but that's changed. Recently, even toddlers have been targeted in attacks involving military-style assault weapons.

Children's advocates say the broader danger for Mexican kids is that once they start working for organized crime, they can't escape.

The Teen Assassin

Before he was arrested, many people here thought El Ponchis was an urban legend. There were reports on the Internet of a vicious young killer, maybe 12 years old, working as a hit man for one of the drug cartels.

The kid turned out to actually be 14. In a videotaped confession, Edgar Jimenez Lugo admitted to killing four men just outside Cuernavaca. "I slit their throats," he told his interviewers. "I didn't know what I was doing."

Jimenez said he was forced — at the age of 11 — to work as an assassin for a faction of the Beltran Leyva crime syndicate.

Living With Violence

The violence created by organized crime affects the lives of kids across Mexico, says Veronica Morales with the Children's Rights Network. In some parts of the country, violence is so prevalent that parents don't let their children go outside to play. In Juarez, the public schools train students in how to dive to the floor if gunmen start shooting.

With more than 35,000 people killed in drug-related violence over the last four years, thousands of kids have been orphaned. Others have been injured or killed. Last month in Acapulco, two boys, aged 2 and 6, were found shot to death along with their grandmother.

Morales says the juvenile murder rate in Mexico has skyrocketed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in December 2006.

Murders among 15- to 17-year-olds jumped more than 150 percent, she says, between 2006 and 2008. Attacks in which kids are either directly targeted or caught in the crossfire have only increased since then.

Lured By Money

One difficulty in shielding children from the violence is that many are directly involved in the drug trade. The Children's Rights Network estimates that 30,000 Mexicans under the age of 18 work for the cartels. Girls often repackage wholesale quantities of narcotics for sale on the street. Young boys work as "falcons," or lookouts. Teens are used to carry shipments across the border.

Mexico's minimum wage is just $5 a day. The drug cartels, with their billions of dollars a year in revenue, regularly offer $100 or more to smugglers. Assassins get a couple of thousand dollars a hit.

And the cartels' pool of potential employees — particularly among the young — is huge.

Salvador Perez Lopez, 15, who sells flowers on a sidewalk in downtown Mexico City, says sales are slow. "People seem to have lost their love for flowers," he says, gripping a bundle of burgundy roses.

Perez works on this street corner from 9 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night. His "patron" provides the flowers and his lunch.

Depending on how much he sells, Perez can make 100 to 150 pesos — about $8 to $12 — a day, he says. What he really wants to do is go back to school, but right now he says he needs to work to pay for food and a place to sleep.

Alejandro Nunes Medina runs a home for street kids called Casa Alianza. He says it's very easy for young people who are already living on the margins of society to get involved with organized criminals.

"Young people fail to perceive the potential consequences of criminal activity," he says. "They only see the potential reward."

This is a normal thought pattern for a teenager, he says, but around Mexico's murderous drug gangs, it's a very dangerous way of thinking. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.