Images of children as young as six toting machine guns have gone around the world, but they are only the latest worrying development in the rapidly shifting criminal landscape of the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico.
On January 18, ten musicians belonging to the Nahuas Indigenous community were attacked and killed in Chilapa, Guerrero. The attack was blamed on Los Ardillos, a criminal group long entrenched in the area, by the Attorney General’s Office of Guerrero.
As an immediate response, the Chilapa branch of an Indigenous militia known as the Regional Coordination of Community Authorities-Founding Peoples (Coordinadora Regional de Autoridades Comunitarias-Pueblos Fundadores - CRAC-PF) presented 19 children, aged between six and 15, as the newest recruits to defend the communities against recurrent attacks by Los Ardillos, reported Proceso.
"Every three or four days, criminal groups are threatening us with invading our community," Bernardino Sánchez Luna, a founder of the CRAC-PF militia, told Vice in early February. "We are preparing the children, so that if they lose their fathers or mothers, they can defend themselves."
This is not the first time children have been drafted to fight against Los Ardillos and their deadly rivals, Los Rojos. In May 2019, a video of children carrying weapons was released by an indigenous militia from Rincón de Chautla, in the municipality of Chilapa.
In a state where indigenous communities have long had to defend themselves, Los Ardillos stick out as a relentless oppressor. In October, a few short months after the first video of armed children circulated, at least 150 Ardillos members reportedly stormed into Rincón de Chautla and were confronted by 30 CRAF-PF militia members in a clash that left two dead, Sin Embargo reported.
In January 2019, another clash between Los Ardillos and community police in the communities of Zoyapesco and Rincón de Chautla left 12 dead and two injured, Guerrero’s state security secretariat told Jornada.
InSight Crime Analysis
For over 20 years ago, Los Ardillos have been dedicated to drug trafficking in the mountains of Guerrero. But as the heroin trade has begun drying up, the group has sought to branch out.
Heroin still remains a steady earner, even if it's not from what it was, and opportunities for mining and even political control beckon. "There's a cluster of incentives (for Los Ardillos attacks on indigenous communities). While the overall poppy market has shrunk, controlling these lands still means getting to make money from protection. Secondly, mining has become a key conflict driver in many parts of Guerrero," said Falko Ernst, senior analyst for Mexico for the International Crisis Group.
"La Montaña is no exception, entailing clashes between armed groups pushing for aggressive exploitation and indigenous populations looking to defend their lands," Ernst told InSight Crime.
Back in 2015, reports also emerged of Los Ardillos ramping up their involvement in alternate criminal economies although extortion and kidnapping had always been part of their modus operandi.
Los Ardillos' ambitions have not expanded further than Guerrero and they have fought a decade-long turf war there with an offshoot of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, known as Los Rojos.
After the Beltrán Leyva Cartel disintegrated, its control of Guerrero faded with it, and Los Ardillos emerged as a strong pretender to the throne. The group was reportedly founded by a former policeman, Celso Ortega Rosas, alias “La Ardilla” (The Squirrel), who grew poppy in Quechultenango, Guerrero, just 45 kilometers by road from Chilapa. After Ortega Rosas was murdered in 2011, three of his sons took over the group and continued the war with Los Rojos.
The video of the armed children may have triggered a change, however. At a press conference on January 31, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador commented on the news directly, calling it “an abuse.” He promised to deal with the issue. The local governor, Héctor Antonio Astudillo Flores, visited Chilapa in early February, and the National Guard has been deployed in the area.
Since then, a tentative agreement has been reached to disarm the 19 children, pending the release of jailed members of the indigenous guard and a guarantee of access to education for the young people in the community, Sánchez Luna told the press on February 11.
This is not the first time a security response in Mexico has been formulated based on a viral news story. In 2019, López Obrador sent in the National Guard to deal with the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, a group dedicated to oil theft in Guanajuato, after their leader directly threatened the Mexican president and his troops.
But Ernst is pessimistic about the chance for change. "We're miles off from a real strategy to turn things around in Guerrero and I don't believe the images of child soldiers will change this," he said.
For him, a successful intervention would require a "type of Marshall Plan" addressing economic factors, providing physical protection to the most vulnerable populations, addressing permanent corruption, and rebuilding the entire state security apparatus from scratch.