Teens quickly climb the ranks in Mexico's drug war
The pictures are alarming: Teenagers posing with their friends much like any student would do.
But these teens — some who appear to be under the age of 12 — are not wearing school uniforms or athletic apparel.
They are wearing combat gear and carry assault rifles.
With small frames and baby faces, the boys who proudly display their weapons could be the child next door in a different environment. However, these teens are paid to protect drug territories and loads as well as kill rival cartel members in border cities like Reynosa, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo.
As Mexico’s violence between cartels continues to rage on, older, more experienced gunmen are being killed off, leaving their spots to younger, inexperienced sicarios — cartel hit men — who are not even old enough to legally drive a car, said George W. Grayson, a professor at the college of William and Mary and the author of "The Executioner’s Men," a book about the history of the Zetas, their members and their operations.
"... In the past ... you spent years building your way up and underwent rigorous training to be a sicario," Grayson said. "Now because of the short lifespan of a sicario, a young man can become one very fast and with little to no training. If they survive long enough, they can achieve a leadership role in a matter of months."
With the high attrition rate in Mexico’s drug cartels — particularly within the Zetas — there is rapid upward mobility to the point that even law enforcement officials may not be able to identify key players, Grayson said. That’s because just months before, a rising player wasn’t anyone special.
The ability of the Zetas to recruit teenagers has been a lifeline for the organization, which seems to have a limitless supply of young men willing to take up arms. On the downside, their inexperience and young age often leads to a quick death.
"With little training and a weapon, they want to show their machismo," Grayson said. "You have 15-year-olds who are facing off against hardened Mexican marines."
The phenomenon of the baby sicarios has a direct correlation to unstable family life, said Luis Rosas, a former Mexican army officer who now conducts crime prevention and youth outreach seminars.
The factors that push a teenager to join a drug cartel in Mexico are very similar to the factors that push an American teen to join a street gang, Rosas said.
"This is something that while in the military I saw quite a bit of and is the reason I hold my seminars," Rosas said in Spanish. "I talk about family values and respect because whether through a divorce or some other factor that leads to a broken family, you have these kids that grow up without a positive role model."
The development of a teen in those crucial years without a role model pushes him to seek out that family environment with other teens of the same age. It typically takes them to the streets, where they form a certain type of brotherhood by watching one another’s backs, Rosas said.
Once on the streets, the teens are easily recruited by the flashy lifestyles of drug runners, who live in a fantasy world of money, power and women — all of which are things a young mind craves, the former military officer said.
"I’ve talked in primary and secondary schools where I’ve had kids as young as 10 tell me that they want to be narcos," Rosas said.
The situation worsens when, at their still young age, they suddenly have drugs, alcohol and sex at their disposal, Rosas said, explaining why it’s so hard to rescue a teen from that lifestyle.
"They are typically recruited as lookouts and paid anywhere between 500 pesos to 1000 pesos ($39 to $78 per week), which to a teen is a lot of money," Rosas said. "After they do that for a while, they get a stolen truck and a cheap gun and forget it. These kids think they are Tony Montana (the lead character in the movie Scarface)."
These are 14- and 15-year-olds who will not hesitate to pull the trigger on a gun and kill just about anyone, he said.
Organizations like the Zetas use kids like cannon fodder, sending them almost into certain death as they face off against hardened soldiers, Rosas said. The group’s leader saves his seasoned fighters for personal protection.
"Then you have the soldiers picking off these gunmen who may already be considered veterans, who have killed several people, but they are in fact still little boys," the former military officer said.
Ildefonso Ortiz covers courts, law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at Iortiz@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4437.