A report by Mexican researchers has revealed the extent to which young people currently imprisoned in the country are involved with organized crime groups.
The report, titled "Adolescents: Vulnerability and Violence" (pdf), was published by the Mexican National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Mexico – CNDH). It presents the results of a study carried out in 17 of the country's 31 states, and features the testimony of 730 adolescents imprisoned for violence-related crimes.
Thirty-five percent of the youths interviewed for the report stated they had been part of an organized crime group. Their testimonies help to highlight how and why they joined these criminal organizations, what tasks they performed for them and how they rose through the criminal groups' ranks.
Only 4 percent claimed they had been forced to join a criminal group. All the other testimonies indicate that the teenagers became involved with illegal gangs voluntarily, although they were persuaded to do so by the lack of other opportunities.
The key reasons that move youngsters to join criminal organizations are the ambition to enjoy the same lifestyle as the cartel's leaders, as well as the desire to be part of a group that can provide them with a sense of belonging and protection.
Other testimonies showed that being part of a criminal group was regarded as something normal, since many members of the adolescents' families and communities were also often involved in illegal activities.
"They look like a family to you, because you see in them what you did not find in your own family," said one of the inmates, originally from Veracruz.
On the other hand, some reports revealed cases in which underage youngsters asked criminal gangs to help them with personal problems, and were eventually forced to work for these groups in order to repay the favor.
"After his father took him away from me, I could not find my son anywhere. So I asked the Familia Michoacana to help me locate him, and they accepted, on the condition that I helped them with their kidnappings," an adolescent from the State of Mexico said.
These teenagers become part of organized crime gangs from a very young age. Often they begin by selling drugs or by working as lookouts known as "hawks." Depending on how their criminal careers progress, they can end up becoming hitmen or kidnappers. Many of the youngsters interviewed in the report said they were trained to use arms by former soldiers or policemen.
"When I turned 11, I joined the Cartel del Milenio, and by the age of 12, I was already living with them," recounted a young man from Guadalajara. "My tasks involved kidnapping, theft and executions."
Similarly, the report highlights that several of these adolescents had been given high-ranking positions inside the group, and some would even give orders to other members of the gang.
"I used to sell drugs. I was the boss of the area and had 17 people under me. I sold marijuana, cocaine and crack," claimed a 14-year-old girl from the state of Durango.
"A member of Los Zetas offered me work as a hawk; I was then head of hawks and eventually they made me take care of kidnappings, thefts and executions of hostages," an 18-year-old inmate from Tabasco told the researchers. "My group had 53 members."
InSight Crime Analysis
The fact that the majority of the youths interviewed had become involved with organized crime groups on a purely voluntary basis would seem to contradict the traditional narrative that criminal groups recruit underage kids through coercion.
This has to do with these youngsters' living conditions. One the one hand, as the study makes clear, the youths who were interviewed for the report were suffering from poverty and exclusion, and had very few chances for economic advancement. While 89 percent of those interviewed were employed, they argued they worked in precarious conditions and received low salaries.
As researcher Viridiana Ríos told InSight Crime last year, the problem in Mexico is not so much youth unemployment, but the fact that job opportunities for youngsters with poor economic backgrounds do not provide enough economic mobility. This is what makes the idea of belonging to an organized crime group rather appealing, as the revenues children can earn are much higher.
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At the same time, it is important to highlight that belonging to a criminal group has become somewhat normalized. On the one hand, some youngsters claimed their families were already part of a criminal gang before they joined, and others -- as was mentioned above -- stated they had reached out to the cartels to look for help to solve their personal problems. This suggests that some adolescents joined criminal groups because of their apparent legitimacy.
The participation of former soldiers and policemen in criminal groups also allows young people to adopt a cynical view of their illegal activities, as the difference between what is legal and what is not becomes somewhat blurred.
The normalization of criminal groups is also manifested in what has been called "narco culture," which the cartels have exploited to recruit new members, especially underage kids. The drug lords present themselves as men who escaped poverty and managed to find a place next to the country's richest elite. Their lifestyle becomes something that adolescents facing a future with very few opportunities end up aspiring to.