Officials in Mexico City have launched a new program that will seek to impede criminal networks from recruiting minors across its center, suggesting the capital's government is taking an increasingly targeted approach to hamper the enlistment of children and teenagers in organized crime.
On November 12, Mexico City’s government announced the launch of “Barrio Adentro”, an initiative designed to curb the involvement of minors in criminal activities across its Historic Center.
Officials confirmed that from November 13, a brigade of over 200 specialized public servants would go from door to door in neighborhoods most affected by crime and violence to promote public social programs available to minors living in such zones, with the underlying aim of combatting youth recruitment by illicit groups.
On presenting the initiative, Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum stated tackling issues such as child recruitment goes far beyond police efforts.
“Not everything is the police, not everything is the Attorney General’s Office. A fundamental part is (paying) attention to causes”, she commented.
The program will be based on four central axes: incorporation of social programs and government support; education and training; sports, cultural and recreational activities and tailored prevention and monitoring. Youths in targeted neighborhoods will have the opportunity to partake in aerobics classes, chess and robotics workshops, while their parents may be helped with a temporary work program.
According to El Universal, program workers were met with a mixed response when they entered the Guerrero neighborhood in the municipality of Cuauhtémoc on the initiative’s first day. Some residents appeared to openly praise the program while others would not interact with members of its brigade.
The initiative’s launch followed the recent murder of two minors, whose bodies were found dismembered on November 1 after they had been presumably tortured and killed in the city’s Historic Center, according to El Universal.
InSight Crime Analysis
The targeted nature of Barrio Adentro contrasts with previous governmental responses to child recruitment in Mexico, which is perhaps a promising sign, given the nation’s long-term struggle with criminal networks enlisting minors.
Up until 2012, Mexico's government had firmly denied the existence of child recruitment by criminal groups in the nation.
But the Strategic Center in Justice and Law for the Americas A.C. (Centro Estratégico en Justicia y Derecho para las Américas A.C. — CENEJYD) estimated that, between 2015 and 2018, youth recruitment by organized crime groups in Mexico had risen by over 150 percent.
In Mexico City specifically, efforts to target the practice have previously been hampered by official denials of cartel presence. In 2014, the Gulf Cartel had been seemingly promoting itself to young people in the neighborhood of Tepito with colorful leaflets. In response, authorities claimed there had been no evidence of cartels operating in any part of the capital and simply said the matter would be investigated.
Government officials working at a national level have gradually taken broad steps to target the issue. They have tried “rescuing public spaces”, to prevent criminal groups from enlisting minors in such zones and previously reversed Mexico's long-standing objection to a United Nations resolution on child recruitment, essentially accepting governmental responsibility to target the issue.
In April 2019, the executive secretary of Mexico's public security system, Leonel Cota Montaño, called for a national observatory on youth recruitment by criminal groups to be set up alongside a prevention protocol.
However, Barrio Adentro’s launch suggests some officials are beginning to adopt a more targeted approach to combat the issue.
Mexico City's government does not plan to expand the program beyond its Historic Center — the public initiative will take a highly localized form which has scarcely been seen before.
The program will be needs-based with a focus on promoting pre-existing social programs to young people in some of the area’s most vulnerable communities, where child recruitment is most likely to thrive.
This is more likely to yield results than a broad-brushed national campaign which would more likely fail to account for the specific dynamics of criminal activity and associated recruitment which inevitably vary from community to community.
Juan Martín Pérez García, the director of the Network for Children’s Rights in Mexico (Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México – Redim), told InSight Crime the most successful way to tackle child recruitment is through a localized approach, adding this had been proven worldwide in countries such as Brazil where locally focused initiatives had worked well.
He explained how communities play an incredibly important role in combating recruitment of minors as it is those who live in a given neighborhood who may best identify vulnerable youths and seek to protect them.
Mexico City’s criminal landscape has been shifting significantly in recent months. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) has been striving to deepen its influence across the capital. Mexico’s foremost criminal threat has previously been accused of recruiting young people by using social media under the false pretense of offering legitimate jobs.
Alongside this, neighborhoods in the city’s Historic Center have been regularly contested in a bloody turf war between sworn rivals La Unión Tepito and Fuerza Anti-Unión, who both want to dominate the area’s illicit economies for drugs and extortion, making such zones rife for youth recruitment.
Pérez García explained how child recruitment had occurred in Mexico City for decades — notably in the neighborhood of Tepito where young people have been used by illicit organizations for a range of logistical purposes, such as transporting drugs, since the 1980s.
However, he claimed organized crime groups now wanted the public to see evidence of youth involvement in their work to provoke a sense of public terror, adding they had been attempting to achieve this through leaving the bodies of formerly recruited minors for display.