The number of minors swept up in Mexico's drug wars -- as killers and victims -- is soaring, with U.S. and Mexican officials warning that a toxic culture of fast money, drug abuse and murder is creating a "lost generation."
Although the exploitation of children by criminals is timeless, authorities say the cartels are responding to new realities here. They have stepped up recruiting to replace tens of thousands of members who have been killed or arrested during President Felipe Calderón's U.S.-backed war against the traffickers.
The crackdown has led the cartels to diversify their operations, moving from the transshipment of narcotics to extortion, immigrant smuggling and kidnapping. It also has sparked intense rivalries, with youngsters serving as expendable foot soldiers in battles over trafficking routes to the United States and local markets that serve a growing number of Mexican drug users.
"The cartels recruit by first involving them in some drug trafficking, then in selling drugs and finally, in some cases for as little as $160 a week, they are given the job of tracking down people the cartel wants to assassinate," said Victor Valencia, public security secretary in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez -- Mexico's most violent city -- is located.
In the past year, 134 minors have been killed in drug-related violence in Juarez, according to El Diario, a local newspaper.
Young drug dealers often operate out of unlicensed addiction treatment facilities, which the cartels use as recruitment centers, frequently unleashing terror in those places.
In September, four masked men armed with AK-47 assault rifles stormed into the Casa Aliviane drug rehabilitation center as residents gathered for an evening prayer. The assailants found Eduardo Villalobos, 16, hiding in a cubbyhole. They pushed the youth against a wall and executed him alongside 17 others, before detonating grenades.
"It was bullets that killed him, because he was shot in the face and the head," said his mother, Dionisia Villalobos. "But he had little pieces from the grenades all over his body."
More than the violence, U.S. and Mexican officials and youth advocates said they fear that the rampant criminality is producing a generation that venerates cartel barons and views trafficking as a form of rebellion -- as well as an escape from poverty.
"What struck me most in the short time that I was in Juarez was not the threat of violence," said Carlos Pascual, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico. "It was the threat of what occurs if you lose a whole generation."
To counter the lure of the cartels, the U.S. State Department last month organized a meeting of international youth groups in Mexico City to encourage the use of social networks to oppose violence. The co-founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, was mobbed by students asking for advice on how to build online communities to distribute positive messages and counter the cartels' propaganda.
In Culiacan, a city in the western state of Sinaloa where many of Mexico's most notorious traffickers grew up, teenagers view the drug bosses as "heroes," said an 18-year-old woman who asked not to be identified. She said teenagers talk openly about the thrill of smuggling, work that can earn them about $500 a trip.
"Everyone around here talks about it, especially the kids," she said in an interview. "It's like -- I'm not sure how to describe it -- but they look at it like the ultimate wow."
Two years ago, traffickers met her in a dingy motel room along the U.S.-Mexico border. They taped two kilos of cocaine to her thighs, then concealed them beneath a billowing skirt. She walked through the Port of Entry at Nogales, Ariz., but was captured at a Border Patrol checkpoint south of Tucson. After serving six months in detention, she was deported.
Hundreds of minors, including U.S. citizens, some as young as 12, have been arrested this year for drug smuggling. In San Diego County, 26 minors were caught last year trying to bring drugs across the border; this year authorities have arrested 124.
"They'll risk their futures for an iPod," said Joe Garcia, a supervisory agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. "And there is almost an endless supply of teenagers."
According to Mexican authorities, La Familia, a cartel based in the southwestern state of Michoacan, recruits members as young as 14. The organization inculcates the youngsters with a radical religious doctrine that demands loyalty, a promise to respect women and children -- and a commitment to kill rivals.
The young gangsters emerge from a grim panorama marked by an absence of government authority. Calderón's wife, Margarita Zavala, said in October that 60 percent of Mexico's children live in poverty.
"In some parts of this country, it would appear that the only options for children are to immigrate to the United States or become traffickers," said Teresa Almada, director of the Center for the Assistance and Promotion of Children in Juarez.
In Juarez, where low-wage assembly plants called "maquiladoras" have been mothballed because of the recession, a third of all teenagers neither work nor attend school, according to census figures.
"These days, youths are joining the drug cartels at an ever-younger age because they're cheap," said Martin Barron Cruz, a researcher at the National Institute of Criminal Science in Mexico. "It is a question of the market. A kid of 15 ends up doing the same job as a 20-year-old, but for half the money."
"It is easier for the cartels to dispose of them when they are no longer needed," Barron said. "I say 'dispose' because, sadly, there's no other word for it. They eliminate them, often using another kid of the same age."
Prisoners are also getting younger, Barron said. The largest cohort of inmates is now 19 to 25 years old.
Chronic drug use has doubled since 2002 in Mexico. The fastest-growing addiction rates are among 12-to-17-year-olds.
At a detention facility for young murderers, rapists and drug runners on the outskirts of Juarez, a 17-year-old youth serving six months for selling guns said: "Young people sell drugs and weapons because they want to make the easy money." He complained that a person can barely live on wages paid at maquiladoras, where his mother makes $70 a week.
He described crime as "almost irresistible" for himself and his friends.
On a school night in Barrio Azul, a Juarez neighborhood of one-room cinder-block homes lighted by pirated electricity, a dozen children and teens stood in the shadows of an abandoned adobe house. Some were high from sniffing "agua celeste," or heavenly water, a sky-blue industrial solvent used as an inhalant and sold openly for a few dollars a jar. Nearly all said they were no longer in school.
Judith Olivas, 15, matter-of-factly said she has seen 10 murders in the past two years.
A convoy of masked Mexican troops passed by in open-air trucks, bristling with weapons. The children stared blankly. Asked how she felt about the soldiers, Judith said: "We don't like them."
By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
November 3, 2009
The Washington Postf