The Youth Armies of Drug Cartels

By Dialogo
October 01, 2011

Since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, more than 50,490 people in Mexico have fallen victim to violence related to organized crime. During this same time period, murder rates within the country have virtually doubled on a yearly basis which indicates that organized crime related violence is spiraling out of control. Furthermore, the fact that 2011 murder statistics are on track to exceed those reported in the last four years. Still, no one really knows how many henchmen cartels require to work as hit men and to distribute drugs within Mexico and Central America. Drug consumption and its sale are directly related to organized crime, but it is a problem that is largely ignored, given the focus on eradicating drug cartels. Eduardo Medina Mora, the former Attorney General of Mexico, agrees that drug use increased steadily in the past decade. He attributes this problem to the fact that the only drug issue addressed concerns trafficking to the U.S. During the time President Calderón has been in office, a record 78.3 tons of cocaine and 4,380 tons of marijuana have been seized. However, in the last six years, addiction rates have grown by 78 percent.
Still, new and growing addiction problems are causing security issues within the country that can no longer be ignored. The fact of the matter is that Mexico has a drug problem, and at its center is an army of young adults who act as consumers, retailers and cartel employees.
In 1993, elementary and high school surveys throughout the country reported that approximately 3 percent of students were using cocaine; by 2006, this number jumped to 15 percent. Mexicans consume an estimated 70 to 80 tons of cocaine yearly. Mexico City alone demands 22,727 kilos, representing a profit of $30 million per month for the drug cartels.
The Force Behind the Addiction

Reasons behind the growing addiction problem can be attributed to a high domestic demand that has made it profitable for cartels to sell drugs within the country. A second reason for growing addiction problems is that drug cartels commonly use drugs as payments for their workers or as a means to convert them into addicts. Throughout Mexico, an estimated 35,000 drug distribution points supply drugs to addicts. Genaro García Luna, the secretary of public security in Mexico, asserts that small-time drug trafficking has permeated society, and that housewives, young adults and criminals alike are involved in the trade. Points of sale can be found in hotels, bars, and nightclubs, but sales from homes are not uncommon.
In terms of epicenters for internal drug trafficking problems, Mexico City leads the way. Since 2002, small-time drug trafficking has increased 756 percent there. A survey published by the Mexican newspaper Reforma reported that 43 percent of respondents within the Federal District confirmed that small-time drug trafficking was common. Profits from this area generate an estimated $200 million yearly, confirming that it is a profitable and expansive enterprise for the drug dealers. The states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Jalisco are also known to have extremely profitable internal markets.
Security Issues Associated with the Internal Drug Market
The increased violence associated with Mexico’s internal drug trafficking indicates this security issue is overlooked. Those areas with the highest volume of internal drug trafficking also have the highest rates of violence. Take, for example, the epicenter of drug trafficking in Mexico City: Tepito, Iztapalapa, the Historic Center, Roma and Lomas de Chapultepec. Those neighborhoods also have the highest number of reported murders, kidnappings and violent robberies in the city.

The diverse crowd involved in drug trafficking is also contributing to the increase in violence that threatens national security in Mexico. In Mexico City, a new trend is the recruitment of indigents to sell drugs and to act as “hawks,” serving as the eyes and ears of the sellers. The benefit of using these individuals is that they know the ins and outs of neighborhood activity, given that they are on the street all the time.
Although recruitment of the homeless is a recent trend, recruitment of young adults has been continuous. Organized crime groups enlist adolescents and teenagers to sell drugs and act as lookouts. The intention of recruiting children is that they will become addicts themselves who have no choice but to work for the cartels. And, what other option do they really have to get ahead? If these kids worked normal jobs, they would make about $4 per day. As a drug cartel employee, they can earn up to $27 per day.
A Focus on Youth
Carlos Cruz, director of Cauce Ciudadano A.C., a nongovernmental organization that helps young people in Mexico, has found that the age of youths joining criminal organizations gets lower every day. A decade ago, new recruits were between 20 and 35 years old. Now, recruits range in age between 12 and 15. The recent arrest of a 14-year-old Beltran Leyva hit man, known as “El Ponchis,” serves as a clear example. He started working as a hit man at the age of 11 and stated that he was often given drugs and alcohol so that he would become an addict.
According to Cruz, the economic crisis has also made recruitment easier — financially strapped parents often look the other way when their children join these groups. But Víctor Clark Alfaro of the Binational Center for Human Rights makes an important point that these parents must face the fact that these young people are in perilous situations. The children are not recruited to engage in white collar crimes such as money laundering or to establish relations with business people or politicians. Instead, they do the dirty work that includes selling and transporting drugs and, lately, the work of hit men.
They Are Born Surrounded by Violence
Luis Astorga, author of El Siglo de las Drogas: El narcotráfico, del Porfiriato al Nuevo Milenio (The Century of Drugs: Drug Trafficking from the Time of Porfirio Diaz until the New Millennium) looks to history to explain the phenomenon of recruitment. The states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Durango, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua are the oldest drug-producing and trafficking regions in Mexico. This activity goes back at least 70 years, and drug trafficking is so deeply rooted in these areas that the population sees it as a way of life. For this reason, Astorga believes that a person who shares this cultural affinity with those who recruit is more likely to join the ranks of organized crime groups.
Astorga explains this idea with an example: “If I take a child to a ranch in the mountains of Badiguarato, Sinaloa, where for several decades, most of the population has been involved in the drug trade, you can be sure there is a 99 percent chance that child will become a trafficker.” The tragic thing is that there are more and more ranches, villages and cities where drug trafficking is part of the culture and where children are brought up surrounded by violence and stories of traffickers. New areas involved in this type of activity include communities in Michoacán and Guerrero. These are places, Astorga notes, where the state has no presence and where government social programs have been absent.
Lost Generation
The proliferation of 35,000 small drug-selling points, or “narco tienditas,” within the country provides insight into just how many kids are actually employed by the cartels, given that each of these sites requires a lookout. Normally, lookouts are the most basic component of the organization and little training is needed. A child sitting around on a bike in a neighborhood is much less conspicuous than a grown man or woman doing the same thing; therefore, kids are chosen to fill these roles.
Turning this situation around is imperative. If this does not happen, future generations could be destined for a life of crime because they lack better options. Children mimic what they see and hear, and right now, Los Zetas, murders, and drug trafficking are all the rage. This is what children talk about and imitate.
Drug trafficking in Mexico and the violence associated with it are problems that are being addressed. The immediate response has been implemented, but it has failed to encompass the new and growing problem of an expanding cartel workforce and a new generation of drug abusers. Possible reconciliations for this trend could include basic programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and more employment opportunities for high-school-age children. Starting with the basics and moving on to broader measures is the best step to take, considering the massive amounts of work that need to be done.
However, if the basic issues regarding drug consumption and child labor associated with organized crime are not addressed, future generations stand to continue the trend that has already been set in place. The result will be that the violence and instability associated with organized criminal activity will continue to flourish.