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.”
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.
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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SOURCE: VICE, Nathaniel Janowitz