Jacobo grew up in the state of Jalisco in western Mexico, home to the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel. Never comfortable in school, he had a violent childhood: at one point, his mother held his hands over an open flame after he allegedly pushed a classmate.
Now 17, Jacobo claims he didn’t. But at 12, he was recruited to commit his first murder for the cartel. “They are going to look for children who are in the street and who need money,” he recalls. “When I was 12, I became something of a hit man. “
Jacobo told his story to Reinserta, a Mexican nonprofit group that has withheld the full names of the youths because all of them are minors, are currently being held in juvenile facilities, and most fear reprisals from gangs.
“A neighbor asked me, ‘Do you want to earn some money?’ “. Growing up in a home where his family could rarely make ends meet, the answer was obvious. “I said yes. Who doesn’t want the money? But the $ 1,500 he earned didn’t last long; he developed a habit of meth, in part to calm the psychological effects of it. ‘it was.
In his mid teens he tortured members of rival cartels for information, killed them and chopped up their bodies or dissolved them in acid, now on the outskirts of Mexico City.
It was his last job that had done it; the cartel ordered him to commit a murder in public, with numerous witnesses. The police came looking for him and he went into hiding. The cartel contacted him to tell him that he wanted to change hiding places, “but it was a trap,” he recalls. No longer useful – like so many street-level disposable drug dealers, lookouts and hitmen – the cartel wanted to get rid of him.
“When I showed up at the meeting place, they started shooting me,” said Jacobo, whose last name was withheld due to his age. “I was shot in the head, in the back, in the abdomen.” Left for dead, he miraculously survived and is currently serving a four-year juvenile murder sentence.
Mexican laws allow sentences of three to five years for most young offenders, which means almost all are released before the age of 21.
Reinserta works to prevent young people from being recruited by drug cartels and to find ways to rehabilitate them if they have already done so.
It’s hard work in Mexico; although he is alive, Jacobo is still afraid; he knows from his own work for the cartel that he is everywhere, and will stop at nothing. “Now I’m just a target to be eliminated, a minor irritant to one of the most powerful cartels in the country.”
Marina Flores, researcher for Reinserta, said the study suggests that some common myths about children in drug cartels are not true.
While children almost always use drugs and drop out – or are kicked out – of school before joining a cartel, membership in local street gangs no longer seems to play a big role. Cartels in Mexico recruit children directly as soon as they leave school.
“Street gangs are not a prerequisite for them to join organized crime,” Flores said. “We find out that as soon as they are taken out of school, they immediately get into organized crime.”
The Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico reports that between 2000 and 2019 in Mexico, 21,000 young people under the age of 18 were murdered in Mexico and 7,000 disappeared.
The group estimates that around 30,000 young people were recruited by drug gangs in 2019.
Reinserta says children are frequently recruited into cartels by other children their age; drug use is one way to recruit them, but the cartels also use religious beliefs and a sense of belonging that children cannot get elsewhere. Combinations of poverty, abusive homes, and insensitive schools and social agencies play a role.
In the report released on Wednesday, Reinserta interviewed 89 minors held in juvenile offender facilities in three northern border states, two central Mexican states and two southeastern states. Of the 89, 67 young people said they were actively involved in cartels. The average age when they came into contact with the cartels was between 13 and 15 years old. All had dropped out of school and all ended up using guns.
Drug cartels find children under the age of 18 useful because they can go unnoticed more easily and cannot be charged as adults. They are initially used for street drug sales and as lookouts, but are often quickly promoted to act as killers.
In northern border states, children are drawn to a greater variety of drugs, get more weapons and other training from cartels, engage in a wider range of criminal activity, and speed up faster in violent roles as young people in the southernmost states.
For example, Orlando grew up on the streets of northern towns like Ciudad Juarez, after escaping from an orphanage. Between the ages of 10 and 16, he estimates that he killed 19 people, most of them on the orders of the Sinaloa cartel.
Now, at 17 and serving a four-year sentence for homicide, he says, “I don’t know any other way to live than to kill people. “
Like Orlando, Iván grew up in a northern border town with a father who worked for a cartel.
But Ivan did not suffer from poverty or abuse; he made the conscious decision to join the same cartel his father worked for.
“I was very influenced by the narco culture, I liked the corridos, the series (televised), the guns, the trucks”, he recalls.
At the age of 11, he was working as a cartel killer, hacking or dissolving the bodies of his victims. His first sight of corpses frightened him, but in no time “I felt nothing, no fear, no regret, no guilt, nothing”. Ivan is also serving a sentence for murder.
Reinserta offers possible solutions, including earlier attention for children, more leisure and learning opportunities and intervention to prevent domestic violence. The group also proposes to create a national register of children recruited by cartels, psychological attention for them and early and effective treatment of addictions.
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