MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Once largely spectators to the deaths of hitmen, police and innocent bystanders, children are increasingly in the firing line of Mexico's drug war.
Minors initially made up a small proportion of the casualties in the conflict that has claimed 40,000 lives in 4 1/2 years, but the child death toll has risen sharply in recent months, as killing became more indiscriminate.
Well over a quarter of Mexico's 112 million population is under 18, and economists say the country risks squandering its future if President Felipe Calderon's government is unable to arrest the creeping slide of young people into the violence.
"This life is a disaster," said Agustina Carrillo, whose 17-year-old son was shot dead by a young drug dealer in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, epicenter of the drug violence and a key smuggling point for drugs into the United States.
Little official data is available on child killings, though government figures showed the number of murders of 16-20 year-olds in Chihuahua state -- home to Ciudad Juarez -- more than doubled to 386 in 2010 from 136 in 2008.
Grieving parents have used the media to pillory Calderon and his conservative National Action Party (PAN), which was hammered in a key state election this month.
Many joined a peace march that crossed much of the nation in June, urging the president to end the army-led conflict he launched soon after taking office in December 2006.
The United Nations this year urged Mexico's government to do more to investigate crimes against minors and improve scope for prosecution, notably against the army, which has also been blamed for killings.
Though he remains more popular than his party, Calderon's approval ratings have hit record lows, and last month he met victims of the drug war to apologize, only to be berated live on television by distraught mothers.
Most victims are between 18 and 35, though the lobby group Network for the Rights of Childhood in Mexico (REDIM) says some 1,300 minors have also been killed since Calderon's war began.
A REDIM report at the start of 2011 showed the violence killed 994 children until last November, or around 21 every month. In the eight months since, REDIM calculated about 300 more have died -- at an average of nearly 38 per month.
What particularly alarms analysts is that while many killings were once accidental, atrocities like dismemberment are now deliberately being carried out against children.
"A distinct trend is observable: at the start of 2010 many deaths were due to crossfire," said REDIM director Martin Perez. "Since then we can see organized crime has started to kill boys and girls to send messages to other cartels."
Many children fall victim to violence due to ties to family members mixed up in the narcotics trade, which is estimated to generate around $40 billion in revenues every year.
The chaos has left thousands of orphans struggling to survive across Mexico.
It has also drawn more and more minors into the killing, with girls as young as 16 now being trained as assassins by gangs.
According to REDIM, roughly 30,000 minors have been recruited by drug gangs, whose promise of easy cash has helped fill a gap in the job market for young people, rising numbers of whom lack proper schooling or regular work.
Javier Oliva, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said the increasing exposure of children to drug dealing and violence showed cartels were becoming more brazen and corrupt in their pursuit of profit.
"This is the level of violence you get for control of the drug market," Oliva said. "What I see here is a clear demonstration of impunity. They can do these things because there is no punishment," he added.
The government has pledged to improve Mexico's failing justice system, and the Supreme Court last week ruled soldiers accused of abuses could face trials in civil courts instead of closed-door military tribunals.
The changes came too late for Cinthia Salazar, who accuses the army of shooting dead her two sons Bryan, 5, and Martin, 9, at a checkpoint in northeastern Mexico last year.
"They took two of my children," she said. "Who's going to give them back to me? Nobody. I told them (the soldiers) not to shoot us because there were kids, but they ignored me."
Miguel Angel Gutierrez
Yahoo News 19th July 2011