They're cheap, willing and they don't get in trouble for killing people.
"El Ponchis", the 14-year-old cartel hitman. (Image via)
Obviously, Mexico is fucked. It has been for a while, and the violence that has tainted the country for decades continues to turn its streets into a battleground stalked by drugs cartels, corrupt police, anti-government protesters and science-hating anarcho-terrorists. Executed teenage assassins, confiscated narco-cannons and $47,000 (£31,220) cartel bounties placed on the heads of hackers are just a few examples of the madness that has taken place in Mexico so far this year.
Some more fresh bloodshed spilled through the municipality of Morelos a couple of weeks ago, when six people were found dead at the side of the road with torture wounds and bullet holes in their heads. Among the dead were a Los Zetas cartel hitman and his mother. The deceased assassin? Jose Armando Moreno, a 13-year-old boy who'd recently been detained by police and admitted to being involved in at least ten murders, three of which he'd personally dealt out himself.
Despite his outright confession, Moreno walked free soon after his arrest because, in Mexico, murdering, maiming and disembowelling people is cool as long as you're under the age of 14 – laws prohibit the incarceration of anyone under that age, no matter how grisly the crime. No wonder the cartels use them, hey?
Less than a month later, Moreno was lying dead in a ditch next to his mother and it took absolutely no one by surprise. Estimates state that roughly 25,000 children were linked to cartel activity in 2010, and that's a trend that looks set to continue. Think about it: If you're young enough to dodge prison, you've got no reason to start squealing about cartel affairs in a bid to escape jail time – they're like pre-pubescent, murderous diplomats, immune to prosecution no matter how terrible the crime might be.
Sylvia Longmire is a Mexican cartel expert and former Special Agent who's spent years on the border of Mexico advising security on the drug cartels. I spoke to Sylvia about the problem of young recruits being sworn into the ranks of Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Federation.
Sylvia Longmire. (Image via)
“Most of these kids are poor and have very few prospects in life,” she explained. “They see the glamour and easy money of the narco lifestyle and want to be a part of it. They get paid more money in a week just to act as a lookout than they might in several months in a legitimate job, and more for one hit than they might make in a year.”
Another young hitman just missed avoiding a prison sentence in 2011, as he’d already turned 14 by the time he was arrested. American-born "El Ponchis" confessed to murdering four people who were found hanging from a bridge, minus their heads. El Ponchis, who claimed to be under the influence of drugs and threat from the Zetas, will be released from prison next year.
“I was surprised to find out that Mexico refuses to detain juveniles under the age of 14 under any circumstances,” Longmire told me. “While I believe that needs to change, especially in light of how the trafficking landscape has changed in this direction, I don't know that it will have much impact on the cartel’s recruitment of young boys.”
Because recruiting young boys into their murderous ranks clearly doesn't quite reach the nadir of shittiness they're aiming for, the cartels are now going after local people on the internet who dared to complain about the fact their streets are often littered with decapitated heads and hacked-up dead bodies. In February, a Mexican arm of Anonymous – Valor por Tamaulipas (Courage for Tamaulipas) – started a Facebook page to track roadblocks, shootouts, kidnappings and other drug war battlegrounds developing in the border state of Tamaulipas. The cartels responded by putting a $47,000 bounty on their heads.
With more than 47,000 drug cartel-related murders in the last five years, the coincidence in numbers is nothing but a worrying omen for the Anonymous hackers. Those out for their blood have printed flyers stating that the reward will be handed to anyone who provides information on the hackers and their families, presumably leading to revenge exacted by an 11-year-old with a machine gun. Chances are the hackers are going to be relatively young, too, meaning the whole thing is children killing children at the behest of and as a result of some older men who don't give a shit about any of them. So I guess it's a bit like Battle Royale, only real and much more harrowingly awful.
And, as the past tells us, cartel threats aren't empty threats. The implications of cartels targeting anonymous hackers are clearly troubling: attempting to kill faceless voices from the internet demonstrates just how dedicated they are to bullying anyone brave enough to speak out into submission. And for a whole new generation of kids growing up in a country where cartel control is fast becoming the norm, any method they employ to further their grip probably isn't good news. The majority of the kids in Mexico aren't hitmen, of course – that would be insane. But while most of them play in the streets with skeleton dolls and catapults, the children of the cartels have their own toys to play with – not just machine guns, but air-powered narco-cannons too, which are used to fire bundles of weed over the border, ready to be picked up the other side and carted off to bagging factories in the US.
A narco-cannon found by the Mexican border.
So, with advanced narco-equipment, remorseless murder, a constant flow of drugs between borders and the involvement of more and more children, what's being done to stop, or even delay, Mexico's descent into chaos? Not a lot, from the looks of things. Enrique Peña Nieto, who assumed the presidency on December 1st, 2012, has already been accused several times of sweeping the problem under the carpet, instead speaking about how he wants to be a player in solving world issues.
Nieto's apparent disregard for the problems in his own back garden is allowing cartels to expand their business enterprises – most prominently the Sinaloa Cartel, who have set up bases in West Africa in a bid to gain easier access to European drug smuggling operations. Those bids have obviously paid off, as according to Longmire, Mexican cartels have already begun to hit the shores of the UK. “I do know that the Sinaloa Federation is heavily involved in trafficking cocaine into West Africa, then moving it through Gibraltar into Europe,” she told me. “They move lots of cocaine into the UK through Liverpool, as well.”
With that in mind, perhaps Liverpool's child gangs will be drafted in to assist the cartels with their business at some point in the near future, allowing them to monopolise the youth narcotic labour force both sides of the Atlantic. Just a thought!
That might sound dumb, but the tactic of employing young hitmen really doesn't sit well in the context of Europe's rife youth unemployment, either. For countries like Spain, where youth unemployment has hit an all-time high of 55 percent, making a quick buck in a trade that requires no qualifications would surely seem an appealing prospect.
So within the first couple of months of 2013, predictions for the future of Mexico's cartels can already be drawn. Their growing army of child soldiers and hitmen will leave them less susceptible to arrest further up the food chain, as well as helping them to expand into new territories, and their targeting of anonymous, outspoken locals demonstrates they're willing to silence even the most base-level of opponents by any means necessary, further cementing their grip over the country.
With an ever-expanding international drug-dealing network, almost daily acts of murder at home in Mexico and a swelling army of child soldiers that's only going to grow in tandem with the cartels' power and influence, it looks like 2013 is sadly set to be another year of the same horrendous cartel antics that the people of Mexico have been forced to get used to.
Follow Jake on Twitter: @OiJake
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