Mexican Drug Cartels Recruiting Young Men, Boys Nearly 2,000 people have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez in the past 14 months, many of them just boys. Some 80 percent of the victims are younger than 25, and social workers say the violence is fueled by cartels recruiting younger members.
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Mexican Drug Cartels Recruiting Young Men, Boys

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Mexican Drug Cartels Recruiting Young Men, Boys

Mexican Drug Cartels Recruiting Young Men, Boys

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The soldiers in Mexico's drug wars are getting younger and younger. In Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, many of those doing the killing -and many of those being killed - are teenage boys. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is going to Mexico tomorrow, where she'll be talking about this increasingly vicious drug war. Today, we continue our series on the drug cartels with a story by NPR's John Burnett about the child soldiers of Juarez.

JOHN BURNETT: This is the city where broad-daylight murders and robberies have become as commonplace as fender benders, where there are so many homicides, the new morgue is planning to double its size, where people are so scared, even the mayor moved his family across the river to El Paso.

(Soundbite of volleyball match)

BURNETT: These teenage boys playing volleyball are central to the violence that has made Juarez one of the most dangerous cities in the hemisphere. They are residents, or inmates, at the School of Social Betterment for Minors on the outskirts of Juarez. They're bad boys - murderers, robbers, thugs and drug dealers. They're just the kind of kids the cartels are looking for.

Soto, Daniel, Hector and Gerardo sit around a picnic table at the school in a blustery wind. They wear hoodies and sneakers, and have crooked teeth. They grin self-consciously.

SOTO: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Little assassins.

SOTO: (Through translator) Sicaritos are children who are assassins, 13 or 14 years old. They give them a weapon to use. It's easier for a boy. If he's older, he thinks too much; he may think about the consequences. But when you're young, you think you can take on the world.

BURNETT: Soto is 18. He says he's committed so many crimes, he can't remember the first one. All four teenagers insist they never joined the cartels. Nonetheless, they all seem to have a thorough knowledge of their workings. Like every other young person in this story, they won't give their last names.

This is Daniel, 16, followed by Soto.

DANIEL: (Through translator) To be an assassin, you can't think. You just do it, grab a pistol and go kill somebody, or whatever. It doesn't matter if you die or not.

SOTO: (Through translator) If you don't have a mother or a father, no one to believe in you, then it's easier to fall into this, to be a delinquent.

BURNETT: Mexican drug cartels recruit children under 18 for the same reasons that armed forces conscript boy soldiers in Sierra Leone and Somalia: their immaturity produces fearlessness. And for a young boy at the margin of society, cartel membership brings instant respect.

SOTO: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: You go with the guys who have the most power, money, connections and influence, says Soto. Gerardo, 15 and pimply, adds, when you run with those people, nobody says anything, especially not the police because they're working for your patron, too.

Teresa Almada is the longtime director of a youth development center in Juarez called CASA.

Ms. TERESA ALMADA (CASA): (Through translator) There are thousands of candidates in this city for recruitment because of their level of social exclusion. They're young and poor and disposable.

BURNETT: The growing number of lawless youth in Juarez is intimately connected to the proliferation of narcotics. Juarez has now replaced Tijuana as Mexico's most drug-addicted city. A crackdown by U.S. and Mexican authorities has choked traditional smuggling routes. Consequently, the cartels have flooded the local market with marijuana, cocaine and heroin. More young people are selling, and using, than ever before.

Carlos is a freckle-faced heroin addict — 18 years old, though he looks much older. He hangs out with other junkies near the market in central Juarez.

CARLOS: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Carlos says he came to Juarez last year from Guadalajara with the intention of sneaking into the United States and looking for work, but he couldn't get past the Border Patrol. So he stayed in town, where he lives in a grim, abandoned building reeking of human waste. He squeegees car windows and steals to get the money to buy the fixes he needs to shoot up every six hours.

CARLOS: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: He says the heavy army and police presence in Juarez has made it harder to score, but his slurred voice and glassy eyes indicate that it's not impossible.

The city's noble-sounding colonias, named for Mexican presidents — Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Plutarco Elias Calles, Adolfo Lopez Mateos — seethe with poverty and drugs. They are the incubators of gangs whose members, in turn, have become what one social worker calls cannon fodder for cartel franchises like La Linea, Los Aztecas and Los Mexicles.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

BURNETT: This prosperous, industrial city was supposed to be the economic model of a stable middle class. Migrants from throughout Mexico flocked here to work in the foreign-owned assembly plants. But the city cannot accommodate its 1.3 million residents. There aren't enough public schools, parks or youth programs. The children of the barrio are raised by siblings or in the streets, and they're ill-suited to repetitive work in the factories, or classroom study.

One out of three kids does not go to middle school, and attendance in high school is half the national average.

Into the void have stepped the cartels.

TONY (Former Gang Member): (Through translator) Organized crime figured out the potential of young gang members and started recruiting. They realized that these boys could easily be channeled to do bad things, like homicides and assaults, you know? The government's lack of commitment to young people in Juarez is to blame. These boys wouldn't end up like this if the system provided healthy activities for them.

BURNETT: Tony is a 26-year-old, former gang member. He works with a youth group called Alta Tropa, the High Crew. They use creativity such as graffiti art, break dancing and hip hop as an alternative to gang-banging.

(Soundbite of hip-hop music)

BURNETT: Tonight, they've gathered in a ramshackle house as a full moon rises over the desert metropolis. A big boy named Xavier, in baggy shorts and a backward baseball cap, performs while his homeys smile approvingly.

Ciudad Juarez finds itself in a perfect storm for the conversion of young men into criminal psychopaths: poverty, insufficient schools, broken homes, a pervasive culture of violence and the seductive, omnipresent pull of the narco-mafias. At least these kids are trying to save themselves.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of hip-hop music)

MONTAGNE: Our series continues tomorrow. We'll hear about the drug cartel's operations inside the United States, and you can trace that activity with the help of a map at our Web site,

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