SCOTT SIMON, host:
Most journalists develop a shield to cope with emotionally draining stories. That didn't come easily for producer Marisa Penaloza on a recent assignment to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She was working on a story about teens swept into organized crime.
MARISA PENALOZA: I've covered some pretty horrible stories in my career, and I've worked in Juarez several times before. This time, though, the city hardly felt like the Mexico I know. I was born and raised in southern Mexico, exposed to all things Mexican, including its cruel class divisions.
Perhaps it was different this time because our subjects were so young and so hopeless. Correspondent John Burnett and I met baby-faced teens as young as 15 years old who had become mixed up in organized crime.
(Soundbite of barking dog)
PENALOZA: We visited poor neighborhoods with no paved roads, parks, libraries or sufficient schools, but where young people can buy drugs easily. We went to a juvenile prison and met young men at a picadero, a drug house. We stood outside the dilapidated house talking to an 18-year-old heroin user with a freckled, lifeless face. The stench from the building was pushed out by the wind, a mixture of dead animal and human waste.
We met Tony, a 26-year-old former gang member who now helps find alternatives for barrio kids who are being recruited by organized crime, younger and younger.
TONY (Former Gang Member): (Spanish spoken)
PENALOZA: In the past, the cartels would hire young men to sell drugs exclusively, says Tony. But for the last three years, when a kid is hired by organized crime, he's hired to do everything: assaults, executions, distribution, and transportation of drugs to the United States.
Tony's words are stuck in my mind, along with the images of pimple-faced young men we met. They seem to see death as part of the gamble, not afraid.
I always find a way to chill on hard assignments, but Juarez wouldn't let me. I found myself seeing a sicarito, or child assassin, in every young male. Not too far from our hotel, at a main intersection in broad daylight, a prominent lawyer was assassinated. That's what was different in Juarez this time around.
Marisa Penaloza, NPR News, Washington.
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