Crime organizations in Mexico are increasingly recruiting children and adolescents to use as ‘disposable labor,’ taking advantage of the lack of effective government programs to protect the most vulnerable.
An estimated 30,000 children and adolescents were actively working with crime organizations in Mexico in 2015, according to a report by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
By late 2018, the figure was believed to have risen by 150 percent, reaching around 460,000 children, according to Mexico’s public security minister, Alfonso Durazo.
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Crime organizations are recruiting children as young as nine to act as lookouts and informants and to transport drugs. At 12, they are used to guard safe houses and at 16, they are forced to carry out more violent, often armed, crimes such as extortion, kidnapping and murder, according to a study by the Network for Children’s Rights in Mexico (Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México – Redim). Girls are usually forced to package and transport drugs and sexual abuse is commonplace.
Children and adolescents are often forced to take on tasks that are particularly dangerous and put them at risk of arrest, the IACHR investigation also found.
Redim’s Director Juan Martín Pérez García said figures show the situation is deteriorating across the country with adolescents increasingly arrested for crimes involving arms, drugs and kidnappings.
“The forced recruitment we see in Mexico is similar to the situation in Africa and Colombia with child soldiers. All groups use them. The fact that an increasing number of adolescents is being arrested on serious charges shows crime groups are using them in greater numbers,” he told InSight Crime.
Authorities in Mexico do not keep a centralized record of cases of child recruitment but civil society organizations say the practice has grown, especially in areas where crime groups have strengthened their presence.
Ten percent of the 50,000 children and adolescents from across Mexico who took part in an official survey in 2012 said criminal groups tried to recruit them. Nearly 18 percent of them lived in the state of Chihuahua.
In that state, which alongside Sinaloa and Durango is known as the “Golden Triangle”, children and adolescents are forced to work in the marijuana and poppy fields and in synthetic drug labs. In the southern state of Guerrero, young children are recruited to work at poppy plantations.
“Children as young as eight are recruited to lance the poppy bulb (to extract the sap which is then used to make opium) because their hands are small, which helps with the very fragile bulbs,” Pérez García told InSight Crime.
Children and adolescents are also particularly affected by Mexico’s rising violence with an average of four violently killed every day, up from previous years, according to the latest report from UNICEF.
InSight Crime Analysis
Powerful crime organizations operating in Mexico rely on cheap and disposable labor to carry out their illegal activities efficiently and extend their power and reach. Tragically, vulnerable children and adolescents provide the perfect “labor force.”
This dynamic is not unique to Mexico.
From the street gangs in Central America to crime organizations in Brazil’s favelas and Argentina’s impoverished barrios, crime groups often recruit marginalized teenage men with a promise of belonging, power and money – or they simply force them to join. Young girls are usually persuaded or forced to join these groups as mules or sex slaves.
One of the best-documented cases in Mexico is that of Edgar N. Jiménez, alias “El Ponchis,” a fourteen-year-old boy who in 2010 confessed to killing four people on the orders of the South Pacific cartel. He had been recruited into the cartel at the age of 11, was reportedly illiterate, and was released in 2013 before being sent to live in the United States with his mother.
Pérez García says his organization has documented a change in recruitment dynamics over recent years. Back in 2011, a lot of this recruitment happened through existing gang members bringing in their younger relatives, he explained. But more recently, however, criminal organizations are using more sophisticated techniques. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation, for example, has been accused of recruiting young people using social media under the false pretense of offering legitimate jobs.
In 2014, the Gulf Cartel was trying to recruit young people in Mexico City using colorful leaflets.
Authorities across the Americas are responding to this crisis in similar ways. Instead of increasing investment in social programs to help vulnerable youth, many are debating expanding “tough hand” security policies.
But Pérez García doesn’t believe this will matter as criminal groups are not recruiting children because they might avoid lengthy prison sentences.
“The groups are not looking to develop new leaders. They don’t lose anything if the kids are arrested or killed because they can just recruit new ones. And if the groups think the minor has exposed then, they just kill them,” he concluded.