Cartels Are Hiring Kids to Be Hitmen

The trend of children and teens being recruited to kill by the cartels is widespread in Mexico, and the government is struggling to prevent or stop it.

Dec 8 2021, 12:00pm

TIJUANA, Mexico — Juan was 15 when he was recruited by a drug cartel during his first semester of high school to sell methamphetamine. Less than a year later, older members of the cartel came to him after school with a new assignment: They gave him a gun and photos of a rival cartel member who was selling drugs on their turf.

“I went to the place I was told,” he said quietly, fidgeting in his chair. “There, I killed him.” 

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It wasn’t even his first kill for the cartel, but after he became a full-fledged “sicario,” or assassin, Juan said that he “felt different from the others” and that he “didn't want [the other students] to know what I did after school.”

“It became normal. No one knew anything, not my family, no one,” Juan told VICE World News in an interview at the Tijuana youth facility.

Now 18, Juan, whose name has been changed, is in a youth correctional facility and is soon to be released after spending two years behind bars for being caught for killing a member of a rival cartel. His case exemplifies a worrying trend in Mexico’s ongoing drug wars—the increasing conversion of youngsters, some as young as 10, into killers. This sicarización of children has become widespread in Mexico, and until recently the government was doing very little to stop it.

Juan pulls cinnamon rolls out of the youth facility's kitchen where he's serving a sentence for murder. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

In September, the Network for Children's Rights in Mexico (REDIM is its Spanish acronym) released a new study estimating that 30,000 children were already working for the cartels by 2019 as lookouts, street-level drug dealers, or sicarios, and another 250,000 were at risk of being recruited.

This recruitment adds to the threat children already face from the violence that has engulfed Mexico: An estimated 21,000 children were murdered in Mexico between 2000 and 2019, according to REDIM

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But minors aren’t just showing up in the crosshairs—they’re also often the ones pulling the trigger for organized crime.

Until recently, children looking for help to escape coercion by criminal gangs had few options. “In the end, most of the recruited girls, boys, adolescents could have been saved along the way if there had been any vision toward improving their living conditions,” said Tania Ramírez, the director of REDIM.

The Mexican government has done little over the years to stop kids from being recruited into organized crime. In the spring of this year, the government formed a national observatory to address the issue, although it's unclear what steps it’s actually taken so far. To address the problem independently, the state government of Baja California built a military academy on the outskirts of Tijuana with plans to expand, and local organizations dedicated to fighting sicarization rely on donations and international grants, or just pure grit, to continue their work. 

This has urgency in Tijuana, the scene of an ongoing street war primarily between the Sinaloa Cartel, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (or CJNG), and the remnants of the Arellano Félix Cartel, which are mostly selling methamphetamine and heroin laced with fentanyl. The battles have turned Tijuana into one of the deadliest cities in Mexico, with the country’s highest death toll between 2018 and 2020. 

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Juan said he joined up with a cartel after his father became addicted to meth and abandoned the family. He was convicted for one murder, but Juan insinuated that he’d committed more. He said the cartel paid him a weekly wage of roughly $250 a week. For each “event”—a word he vaguely used to refer to murder—he got a bonus of $500 to $750, depending on whether he worked alone or with accomplices. Juan suspected that the cartel used him and the underage hitmen in his cell as assassins because they receive shorter prison sentences. 

Virginia Acosta, the psychologist at the Tijuana youth facility for the past 29 years, has seen how spiraling drug war violence has affected the teens she treats. They used to be involved in petty crimes and drug use, she said. Now it’s murder and drug dealing.

“Most of the guys come precisely from broken families. Very dysfunctional, where there is a history of drug use by their parents, their siblings,” said Acosta. “The pressure of the environment is decisive in their conduct.”

While the Tijuana youth facility is less forbidding than typical Mexican prisons, which are often overcrowded and lawless, its barred windows and barbed-wire walls are intimidating. Its buildings are mostly barren, except for a mural depicting a young person standing between two worlds, one filled with shadows and darkness, another with light and beauty.

Juan said he plans to stay away from the cartel because he'll end up in prison for much longer if he’s caught committing a crime as an adult. He hopes to finish high school and study to be a nurse or paramedic. But he’s apprehensive about his release.

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“Well, I'm not ready. No, the truth is that I am not prepared,” he said, nervously tapping on the table as he spoke. “But I know that when I am offered a job or easy money, I will remember what I went through here and I know that I don't want to go back.”

At Tijuana’s youth correctional facility, a mural depicts a child standing between two worlds. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

‘Hugs, not bullets’

Guillermo Ruiz, the then-attorney general of Juan's state, Baja California, strolled through a spacious former prison in an arid stretch of land outside the border city of Tecate, about two hours inland from Tijuana, on a recent day in July. Ruiz—who resigned this week after a change in the governorship of the state—had a plan to prevent more children ending up like Juan. With funding from private donors, the state government will turn the massive complex into a U.S.-style military academy for teenagers at risk. 

More commonly known around the region as “Titi” Ruiz, he wore an expensive-looking suit and Ray-Ban shades. His dyed black hair was slicked back, and a gold watch poked out from under his cufflinks. 

Ruiz is a larger-than-life figure in Tijuana, an attorney who won human rights and environmental cases before he became a defense lawyer with a list of unsavory clients, including a member of the Arellano Félix cartel. In his first stint in public office, his background across the legal spectrum convinced him of the need to stop children from getting involved in crime. 

A newly minted member of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party, Ruiz mirrored some of the president’s own contradictions on security policy. López Obrador won a landslide victory in 2018 on a promise to fight crime by attacking its root causes, especially poverty—a slogan he summarized as “Hugs, not bullets.” 

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But then he ramped up the military’s involvement by replacing the federal police with a militarized national guard, a strategy that has so far failed to stem record levels of homicides. López Obrador has concentrated social spending on just a few programs, with little attention on children at risk from the cartels, and he has cut funding to nonprofits.

Titi Ruiz tours a prison that is being turned into a military academy for kids at risk. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

Ruiz bristled at the notion that turning the abandoned prison, with its high walls and guard towers, into a military academy would reinforce the militarization model.  

“It has nothing to do with that,” Ruiz said. “The entire formation of an adolescent is at risk. If they are left alone, where are they going to go?” 

“This is to train them to be civil people, well-mannered, who are respectful of adult laws, of human rights,” he said. “We must shape them.” 

The academy will be the state’s second, after a flagship school that opened in 2020 on the outskirts of Tijuana, and between the two the state intends to provide dormitory living and full-time classes for over a thousand teens. The goal is to open more schools to reach 7,000 children around Baja California.

Ruiz said Mexican teens who grow up with absentee parents or relatives who are addicts or criminals develop “a whispering hatred that they feel for society, toward those who caused it. It does damage.” These vulnerable kids are the ones who drug cartels target, he said, and “to rescue them, you have to get them out of there.”

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The only requirement for entry is that the child has to come from an at-risk neighborhood. The school provides strict discipline and a higher-quality education than many public schools, as well as on-site psychologists and emotional counseling. It’s unclear what will happen to the project now after Ruiz stepped down on Dec. 7.

A mural on a wall inside the prison turned military academy depicts President López Obrador with other prominent historical leaders of Mexico. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

‘Cannon fodder’ for cartels

Miguel, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, completed 10th grade at the Tijuana military academy in the marginalized Natura neighborhood where he lives and returned for 11th grade. 

“I’ve learned a ton, a new form of discipline,” the 16-year-old said. There was no support in Natura for children surrounded by criminal gangs. An 11-year-old boy from his church was recently murdered, perhaps by cartels. 

The military academy gave Miguel a way to separate himself from his childhood friends who now work for the cartel or are addicted to drugs. 

Large-scale projects like Ruiz’s are far and few between in Mexico. It’s mostly been achieved because of its reliance on a mix of state and outside funds. On a federal level, there is no concrete program for at-risk children.

López Obrador’s government has instead focused on a program called “Youths Constructing the Future,” which is an effort to find employment for people aged 18-29. But the president’s strategy does little to help children get to that point.

At a Reinserta employment workshop, people recently released from prison remove Jenga blocks with questions taped to them that quiz the participants on what they’ve learned. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

Underage kids are “cannon fodder” for organized crime, said Saskia Niño de Rivera, the co-founder of the Mexican nonprofit Reinserta, one of the few organizations trying to create programs for at-risk youths, along with youth offenders in prison and those who have recently been released. 

"Youths Constructing the Future is just a job placement project. And the problems of mental health, addictions, poverty, are much more complex than just saying, well, what you need is to work,” said Niño de Rivera.

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Reinserta released a study in October comprised of interviews with 89 kids in youth facilities around Mexico, of which 67 said they'd been actively working with drug cartels before their arrest. The average age that they began working with organized crime was between 13 and 15, although the study included interviews with children who claimed they were carrying out murders and disposing of bodies for drug cartels as young as 10.  

“I believe that it is precisely this population that is completely forgotten by the state. There has been such a fear of getting into the issue of adolescents who commit serious crimes,” she said. 

For Niño de Rivera, the solution is twofold: It involves stopping children from being recruited by organized crime, and helping those who’ve been released reintegrate into society. That means offering more recreational and learning opportunities for young children in dangerous areas, along with help for kids from families fractured by domestic abuse. Funded by local and international donations, the group also urges the government to create a national registry of children who have been recruited by cartels, and provide special psychological attention to help them reintegrate.

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In April, Mexico’s top security official, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, made a promising move when she announced the formation of the National Observatory for the Prevention of the Recruitment of Minors by Organized Crime. Both Niño de Rivera and REDIM’s Ramírez are part of the group. But so far the observatory has not instituted any firm plans.

Mexican NGO Reinserta teaches former young offenders recently released from prison about “machismo” in a therapy session. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

During a Reinserta workshop focused on emotional intelligence and machismo in Mexico City, an instructor quizzed three young men to name examples of “micromachismos.”  One of them ventured a response. “To be with a friend and see a woman, and laugh and ogle the woman,” he said.

“That’s exactly it,” the female instructor replied.  

Omar, whose name has been changed, finally felt emotionally ready to re-enter society after two years in Reinserta’s reintegration center. For people recently released from prison, it’s like finding an oasis in the house in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood where the nonprofit runs its program.

Youths attend workshops from boxing to radio broadcasting, along with different forms of therapy. 

Omar had been involved in organized crime since his early teens but was caught and imprisoned in his 20s. Now 30 years old, he worries his own children, aged 13 and 14, could be recruited too. 

“Because of what I learned here, when there’s an issue or conflict, I’ll try to sit at the table with them. I don’t want to imitate what my dad did,” Omar said. His father, who had worked in a cartel, physically abused him, his siblings, and his mother. 

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He’s changed his phone number twice since leaving prison to avoid old friends.

“Before I'd heard words about values, but truthfully, I didn't know what they meant,” Omar said. “I'd hear words like ‘empathy’ or ‘patience’, and maybe out of pain or fear, or in order to not feel ignorant, I shut up.”

Members of a military-inspired after-school program for at-risk youths crawl on their hands and knees during an exercise in one of the most dangerous parts of Mexico. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

‘They killed one of my friends’

In the northern Mexican state of Zacatecas, nearly two dozen teenagers crawled along a dusty trail. Laura, 14, grit her teeth as stones dug into her elbows and shins, persevering to cross a pylon marker and finish the drill before she collapsed. 

Laura and the other kids, most aged 11-17, were members of a military-inspired after-school group called the Legionarios, which was celebrating its one-year anniversary with a camping trip outside Fresnillo, one of the most dangerous cities in the country. But the weekend was also tinged with grief. 

“They killed one of my friends a little while ago. He used to come here too,” Laura, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said later that mid-August day.

A month earlier, gunmen entered the house of her friend Henry and shot him dead along with two other boys. The teens were three of 21 people murdered across Zacatecas during an especially deadly 24-hour period in July. The unsolved murder of three children barely registered because it happens with such chilling frequency. 

The ragtag Legionnaires club in Fresnillo is one of the few projects around the country that do that sort of outreach. The kids had all gone out to train together the day that Henry was killed. When Laura found out the next morning, all she felt was complete confusion: “How? I just saw him. He was fine yesterday.”

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A 14-year-old boy from Laura’s school recently told her he’d been carrying out hits for the cartel because “his family was very poor.” She hoped to resist the temptations and dangers of crime, maintain her focus at school through the discipline of the Legionnaires program, and perhaps go on to study “childcare, dentistry, or psychology.”

Laura gives another member of the Legionnaires a pound after successfully finishing a particularly difficult exercise. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

The Legionnaires—named after the Roman Empire’s infantrywere founded in the summer of 2020 by Daniel Rivera, a former Mexican army soldier. Rivera, 32, is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down after he was shot in the back during a train robbery. He was working in private security protecting Mexico's rail system when a train heist took place and a colleague of his working with the thieves shot him in the back. 

“That's why I dedicate myself today to instilling respect, loyalty, in young people, so they don't sell themselves out. Because this guy did sell himself; he sold himself for a few pesos,” he said.

“The idea of [The Legionnaires] project isn't for [the kids] to join the army in the future. It's so that in their future life, they will be leaders, responsible young people, respectful in their jobs, whatever their job,” Rivera said. “To be people in control of their own lives.”

The group of kids has fluctuated over the past year, with some dropping out, unable to handle the strenuous program. At its peak, Rivera said 50 kids would turn up for the regular workouts he runs in the streets of Fresnillo. Fewer than two dozen kids came along on the camping trip, and for many of them, it was their first time ever spending a night under the stars.

Daniel Rivera founded the program for kids after becoming paralyzed when a co-worker betrayed him. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

His gruff voice boomed commands and encouragement through a bullhorn as the children jogged in an infantry formation at a ranch a couple of miles off one of the highways leaving Fresnillo. 

The rural areas surrounding the city are some of the most treacherous in the country, where competing drug cartels operate training areas and safe houses in a war between the Sinaloa Cartel, CJNG, and remnants of the Zetas Cartel. Other criminal groups also operate in the area. 

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It was the first time the Legionnaires had gone camping in around half a year because it had taken Rivera months of scouting to find a place where he felt he could keep the children safe for an overnight camping excursion.

Numerous narco-camps have recently been busted by authorities in the area, and the criminal groups sow horror by abandoning dead bodies in the arid terrain or hanging them from nearby bridges.

Between drills, the kids sat around their tents where they'd prepared to spend the night. They brought very little: eggs, beans, and tortillas. Rivera had confiscated “contraband” like cellphones and snacks, with the exception of a few marshmallows for the campfire. The campers learned to turn tarps into shelters during intermittent rainstorms, and how to cook over a small fire.

The death of young Henry, the boy from the Legionnaires murdered a month earlier, “was a really difficult blow,” Rivera said, adding that Fresnillo over the past three years had become filled with fear. The criminals “don't mind taking innocents away, young children, mothers. They just took one of my guys.”

Henry wasn't the first. Two other boys who dropped out of the program were also killed in the past year. Rivera just hopes to get the other kids out of their teenage years alive.

Daniel Rivera teaches the kids how to make fires and cook the necessities, and for many of the inner city kids, it’s their first camping trip ever. (Photo: Nathaniel Janowitz for VICE World News.)

A few lawmakers have tried to tackle the dangers children face in Zacatecas. In September 2019, Mónica Borrego, a Zacatecas City teacher turned local deputy, led a group of state legislators to propose a children's rights initiative

To support the bill, she presented a study of over 500 children around the state that showed that 80 percent of children surveyed had suffered some type of violence. Another 30 percent agreed that their schools had been infiltrated by gangs, while 29 percent said they'd taken a weapon to school.

Her bill was never truly considered, Borrego said, despite all the evidence she presented. 

The solutions are not simple, she said, because the main concern is raising children’s self-esteem, when they “feel like they don't fit into society.” Instead, she said, they need to be told “that they can enter and be valuable within a healthy society.” 

“That is not done with a spot on the radio but with effective programs of social workers, rehabilitation clinics, and recruitment programs for young people as well,” she said. “Just like [the cartels] are recruiting them to be the sicarios.” 

Nathaniel Janowitz also reported from Mexico City and Fresnillo, Zacatecas.

Tagged:

worldnews, world drugs, world conflict

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