Children in Mexico: Criminals or victims?

A 14-year-old boy was found guilty last year of torturing and beheading at least four people for the South Pacific drug cartel.

Story highlights

  • The past year has seen numerous headlines of children being arrested in Mexico
  • At least 30,000 of them are involved in organized crime, says a nationwide group
  • The group says these children should be treated as abuse victims, not criminals
  • It is urging the government to rehabilitate the children and protect them

At least 30,000 children in Mexico are involved in some sort of organized crime, according to a nationwide alliance of civic and social organizations.

The Child Rights Network in Mexico says many of these children are taking part because of death threats or because of economic and social necessity. It is urging the government to start recognizing them as victims of child abuse.

"The drug cartels are not training them to be ringleaders," spokeswoman Veronica Morales said. "It is a new form of abuse in which they are being used to commit an offense, to violate the law and to deceive authorities."

In the past year, there have been numerous headlines of children being arrested in Mexico.

Perhaps the most high-profile case involved a 14-year-old boy known as "El Ponchis" ("The Cloak"). He was found guilty of torturing and beheading at least four people for the South Pacific drug cartel.

A month after the boy was sentenced to three years in a correctional facility, a 13-year-old girl was captured in the state of Jalisco and accused of being part of the Zetas drug cartel.

Authorities said the girl was receiving 8,000 pesos a month -- almost $800 -- for being a lookout. She would let gang members know who was entering and who was leaving Luis Moya, a municipality in north-central Mexico.

In January of last year, a 15-year-old boy was captured in Jiutepec, just outside of Mexico City. During an impromptu news conference on the street, the child confessed that he was a lookout for the South Pacific cartel. He said he was collaborating with the cartel because of death threats.

Children are easy prey for organized crime because they lack opportunities, said José Luis Cisneros, a sociologist at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City.

"Socially, (the children) see the violence as the only way to make people respect them -- and as a way to exercise certain power, something that has been denied to their families," Cisneros said.

While the Child Rights Network in Mexico said it has documented at least 30,000 kids involved in some criminal group, the Mexican government said it has not. According to the Agence Presse-France, the government told the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child that it doesn't have information about minors involved in criminal or armed groups.

A legal gap for children?

Civil organizations in Mexico also said law enforcement officials are violating children's rights when they make arrests.

The Child Rights Network in Mexico said it is common for many child suspects -- like the 14-year-old assassin and the 15-year-old boy in Jiutepec -- to be presented to the media without respect for their privacy or their presumption of innocence.

"A youth criminal justice law does not exist," Morales said. "There is a proposal in review in the Congress, but even that one has significant omissions.

"The (United Nations) Convention (on the Rights of the Child) points out that the children have to be treated and not necessarily imprisoned after having committed a crime."

Arturo Argente, director of the law faculty at the Monterrey Institute of Technology of Higher Education (Toluca Campus), agrees that Mexican authorities must protect a child's identity and guarantee that a process will follow "from a child-abuse angle, as a kid who has been working at an illegal business." In addition to that, he said, the children must receive psychological treatment and be taught to respect the law.

Morales is calling for a comprehensive law that would "give attention to the kids" with specialized courts, judges, lawyers and specialists.

"When there is a child involved in some organized crime act, there is never a suitable investigation," she said. "The authorities justify that it is a drug-trafficking crime and it is treated as a regular case."

Experts note that arrested children are not the only young people affected by organized crime.

In the past five years, from December 2006 to December 2011, at least 1,188 children have died because of armed clashes, according to the Child Rights Network in Mexico. That represents about 2.5% of the estimated 47,515 drug-related deaths over the last five years reported by Mexican authorities.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child confirmed that up until 2010, 1,000 children had died in acts linked to organized crime.