Poverty and lack of opportunity are supplying Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations with waves of fresh recruits. However, the government has shown little interest in addressing social issues in its assault on crime

Although many Mexicans have grown somewhat accustomed to reports of violence in the media, some in the country were shocked last month by the capture of six teenage recruits during a June 15 raid on a Zetas training camp. Especially alarming was the testimony by sixteen year-old Maria Celeste Mendoza, who — during one of Mexico’s routine post-arrest press conferences in which the suspects are presented to the media — cheerfully said, “I’m a hit woman for the Zetas.  I spent two months in training and I’ve only been one for three or four days.”  According to Mexico’s El Universal, Celeste and the five other adolescents who attended the camp (four of whom are women) were paid 12,000 pesos a month, an amount which is more than three times as much as most Mexicans make in the same period.

Officials have arrested a number of these “youth assassins” in recent months, indicating that this phenomenon is on the rise.  In March, a court in Aguascalientes sentenced a fifteen year-old who allegedly worked as a foot soldier for the Gulf Cartel in Quintana Roo to a year in prison. Last December, the country was captivated by the case of “El Ponchis,” a fourteen year-old boy who authorities say is responsible for killing and beheading at least four enemies of the Beltran Leyva Organization in the state of Morelos.  The boy’s trial began this week in Cuernavaca, and AFP reports that more than 60 witnesses are expected to testify against him in the case.

Although there are no official statistics on the number of youths working for Mexico’s cartels, the Mexican newspaper Reforma reported in April that officials have charged 214 minors with involvement in organized crime in 2010, up from only eight in 2007, according to data from the attorney general’s office.  In total, 1,107 adolescents have been detained by Mexican police in the past six years, and 339 of them were formally accused of belonging to criminal groups.

While there are several likely explanations for this phenomenon, most analysts agree that Mexico’s abysmal youth unemployment rate is a major contributing factor.  As Victor Clark-Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, recently told Reuters, organized crime has become a “job provider” for those in the country with little alternative means of employment. According to Clark-Alfaro, “Since 2000, the age at which people start getting mixed up in organized crime has fallen, and in the last few years, the age has dropped to about 17 or 18.”

Recently, Mexico’s Assistant Secretary of Education Rodolfo Tuiran claimed that there are an estimated 7.3 million Mexicans between the ages of 12 and 29 who are unemployed and are not in school, which amounts to more than 20 percent of the country’s youth population.

Despite the fact that these “ni-nis” (so labeled because they neither study or work, “ni estudian ni trabajan”) are widely dismissed as simply lazy by many in Mexico, evidence suggests that this trend is due to a serious lack of investment in social programs at the state level. Diana Carbajosa Martínez, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Mexico) Research Institute on Universities and Education, told El Universal that only five states offer social programs specifically targeting this issue: Chihuahua, Baja California, Tlaxcala, Guerrero and Hidalgo.  Meanwhile, the two states with the highest numbers of jobless youths are Chiapas and Michoacan, and the complete lack of such programs there puts youth unemployment at more than 25 percent.

As InSight Crime has reported, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been repeatedly criticized for his security strategy, which many believe prioritizes capturing and killing cartel leaders, known as “high value targets.” Instead, these critics, who have largely joined under the banner of Mexico’s “peace movement,” argue for a more comprehensive approach to Mexico’s security crisis, with an emphasis on the socioeconomic factors which influence crime.  This argument has largely fallen on deaf ears, as Calderon and others have pointed out that addressing poverty and inequality will do nothing to impact the illicit narcotics industry, which is estimated to rake in around $40 billion a year.  While this may be true, it is difficult to make the case that Calderon’s strategy has actually resulted in increased security in the country, considering that killings related to organized crime are up by 16 percent this year.

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