Drug Wars: When Children are Caught in the Crossfire
He is known as El Ponchis, The Cloak, and his arrest in December last year set off another barrage of headlines on drug-related violence in Mexico. What could be a more compelling story than a 14-year-old boy who allegedly served as a hitman for a drugs cartel.
“How many have you killed?”
“How did you execute them?”
“I slit their throats.”
This was his confession in front of a TV camera. He was flanked by armed military men as the media swarmed and took pictures of him. He was arrested along with his 19-year-old sister in an airport in Mexico as they were about to board a flight to Tijuana and cross into the United States where their mother lives. Last February, he was formally charged with homicide and will be tried in a juvenile court, facing a maximum of three years in prison.
While this story may be shocking, it is hardly unusual. Young people in Mexico have been victimized by drug trafficking, not just as innocent casualties but as perpetrators of violence and drug trade. Some reports say that kids as young as seven years old are already recruited as lookouts to spot the police or rival gangs. They comprise the pool of young “talents” and will eventually take on more dangerous responsibilities as they grow older and become more experienced. Mexico’s National Institute of Criminal Science also reports that the fastest growing rates of drug addiction are among children aged 12 to 17.
Kids are lured into local gangs with drugs and the prospect of raking in a lot of money. For those who live in poor neighborhoods with no access to education and dim chances of getting decent jobs, joining the drug trade is often seen as the most attractive option. It is difficult for them to imagine an alternative when local gangs and drug cartels have dominated their communities as they are growing up. Violence and grisly murders are happening so often that it is almost inevitable to become desensitized to them. They have become so common that committing these acts won’t seem so gruesome anymore.
Even innocent games in the playground have become tainted with the reality of drug-related violence. Some children in elementary schools would role-play shooting encounters between the police and the drug cartels, wielding their toy guns with confidence and vigor. In some games, the drug traffickers are portrayed as the good guys.
It is right to recognize that the drug problem in Mexico is more than a security issue; it is also an economic and social issue and should be addressed as such. By all means, strengthen the military and police forces, intensify the crackdown on drug criminals, and employ the powers of the state to ensure the safety of the people. But strengthen the education system as well, make sure that young people don’t remain trapped in the cycle of poverty, and provide timely interventions for at-risk and vulnerable children. Let us not wait for yet another headline of a 14-year-old who confesses to slitting people’s throats.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons via Knight Foundation. The drug-related violence in Tijuana has become so pervasive that not even schoolchildren can escape it.