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In Mexico, children are being dragged into the nation's bloody drug war. Middle-school-age kids are working for the cartels as couriers, lookouts and even assassins. Others are being killed, injured and orphaned in the crossfire. In the past, drug violence was usually confined to battles between the gangs and security forces. Now, even toddlers are been targeted in attacks that commonly use military-style assault weapons.

But children's advocates say there's a broader danger for Mexico's young. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Mexico City, once children start working for organized crime, they usually can't escape.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Before he was arrested, many people here thought El Ponchis was an urban legend. There were reports on the Internet of a vicious, young killer, maybe 12 years old, working as a hit man for one of the drug cartels. The kid turned out to actually be 14. In a videotaped confession, Edgar Jimenez Lugo, also known as El Ponchis, admitted to killing four men just outside Cuernavaca. I slit their throats, he told his interviewers. I didn't know what I was doing.

Jimenez said he was forced at the age of 11 to work as an assassin for a faction of the Beltran Leyva crime syndicate.

Ms. VERONICA MORALES (Children's Rights Network): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Veronica Morales, with the Children's Rights Network, says the violence created by organized crime affects the lives of kids across Mexico. In some parts of the country, violence is so prevalent that parents don't let their children go outside to play. In Juarez, the public schools train students in how to dive to the floor if gunmen start shooting.

With more than 35,000 people killed in drug-related violence over the last four years, thousands of kids have been orphaned. Others have themselves been injured or killed. Last month in Acapulco, two boys - aged 2 and 6 - were found shot to death along with their grandmother.

Morales says the juvenile murder rate in Mexico has skyrocketed since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in December of 2006.

Ms. MORALES: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Murders among 15- to 17-year-olds jumped more than 150 percent, she says, between 2006 and 2008. And attacks in which kids are either directly targeted or caught in the crossfire have only increased since then.

One difficulty in shielding children from the violence is that many are directly involved in the drug trade. The Children's Rights Network estimates that 30,000 Mexicans under the age of 18 work for the cartels. Girls often repackage wholesale quantities of narcotics for sale on the street. Young boys work as falcons or lookouts. Teens are used to carry shipments across the border.

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BEAUBIEN: Mexico's minimum wage is just $5 a day. The drug cartels, with their billions of dollars a year in revenue, regularly offer $100 or more to smugglers. Assassins get a couple thousand dollars a hit. And the cartels' pool of potential employees, particularly among the young, is huge.

Fifteen-year-old Salvador Perez Lopez is selling flowers on the sidewalk in downtown Mexico City.

Mr. SALVADOR PEREZ LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Perez says sales are slow right now. Gripping a bundle of burgundy roses, he says people seem to have lost their love for flowers.

Perez works on this street corner from 9 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night. His patron provides the flowers and his lunch.

Mr. PEREZ LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Depending on how much he sells, he can make 100 or 150 pesos a day, Perez says, or roughly $8 to $12. What he really wants to do is go back to school, he says, but right now he needs to work to pay for his food and a place to sleep.

Alejandro Nunes Medina, who runs a home for street kids called Casa Alianza, says it's very easy for young people who are already living on the margins of society to get involved with organized crime.

Mr. ALEJANDRO NUNES MEDINA (Casa Alianza): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Young people, Nunes says, fail to perceive the potential consequences of criminal activity. They only see the potential reward.

He says this is a normal thought pattern for a teenager. But he says around Mexico's murderous drug gangs, this is a very dangerous way of thinking.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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