Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

MEXICO: The Children of the Drug Trade – a New Trend

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Aug 26 2003 (IPS) - Mexican drug traffickers have begun recruiting children and teenagers to smuggle drugs into the United States or sell them on the local market.

Although relatively few such cases have emerged, the number of minors caught dealing or smuggling drugs, especially along the border with the United States, is growing.

Along the border between El Paso, Texas in the United States and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, authorities arrested 86 minors for smuggling drugs between January and July, compared to a total of 93 in all of 2002.

Experts say the government should pay attention to the trend, which reflects a new strategy that the drug mafias have begun to use in the past few years.

The drug traffickers pay 300 to 1,000 dollars to minors between the ages of 10 and 17 to smuggle drugs into the United States, over the roads that link the two cities, the Mexican consul in El Paso, Juan Carlos Cué, said last week.

Local authorities in the two cities, where the cross-border movement in goods and people is heavy, have launched a bilingual ”Live Without Drugs” campaign in schools and the media.

León Contreras, a researcher who specialises in drug trafficking issues, told IPS that the recruitment of children and adolescents to traffic or deal drugs is a new phenomenon in Mexico, unlike other Latin American countries, where such practices have been seen for years.

Up to the 1990s, the drug mafias were either concerned about further damaging their reputations by recruiting children, or were not confident in the reliability of minors, he said.

But police controls have become more and more strict, and have led drug gangs to resort to the new strategy, which is landing many minors in prison, as the adults who hired them slip away.

The new campaign in the border area is aimed at ”informing youngsters that they are committing a serious crime when they traffic drugs, and that the fact that they are minors will not keep them from going to prison,” said Alberto Alvarez, a spokesman for the local judiciary in Ciudad Juárez.

The evidence indicates that the drug gangs are now using youngsters mainly between the ages of 14 and 17, who can drive vehicles in which drugs are hidden into the United States.

The goods are then delivered – to adults – in El Paso parking lots. The payment varies, depending on the amount of narcotics smuggled across.

Minors up to the age of 15 who are caught receive sentences of nine months to a year in Mexico. But in the case of 15 to 17-year-olds it is up to the judge to decide if they should be tried as adults, in which case they can face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.

Youngsters in the border region are highly vulnerable to falling prey to drug traffickers or child pornography rings, warns UNICEF, the United Nations children’s fund.

There are powerful cartels operating in Mexico, which are the source of a large part of the drugs consumed in the United States, the world’s leading market for narcotics.

But the cartels also supply the local market. In the Mexican capital, police have arrested dozens of young drug dealers doing business in high schools and the streets.

For example, in areas like the Mexico City district of Gustavo Madero, ”I believe 80 percent of small-time drug dealers are minors,” said Bernardo Gómez, director of public security in that neighbourhood.

Authorities in the district of Iztapalapa have even nabbed several seven and eight-year-olds selling drugs in parks.

On Aug. 12, Mexico City councilman Víctor Hugo Gutiérrez Yáñez of the small Convergence party sent the Secretariat of Education a request that drug tests be included among the requirements for registering for school, given the evidence that drug use is on the rise among minors.

The Attorney-General’s Office and System of Integral Development for Family Welfare (DIF) have had an agreement since 2001 for assisting child victims of the drug trade.

”Children who are involuntarily involved in the drug trade require specialised treatment after they find themselves in traumatic situations like the arrest of their parents, or when they themselves are arrested because they were used as ‘mules’ (couriers) for smuggling drugs,” states a DIF study.

But Mexico’s anti-drug campaigns focus on combating drug abuse across-the-board, rather than specifically dissuading minors from taking part in the illegal business, said Contreras, the author of several studies on drug dealing in Mexico.

There are millions of minors at risk of falling into the illegal trade in Mexico, where one-third of the population of over 100 million is under 14, and more than half lives below the poverty line. Drug gangs find their greatest opportunities to recruit youngsters among the poorest strata of society.

The government must take the phenomenon of child and adolescent traffickers and dealers seriously, before it becomes a major problem, like in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, said Contreras.

Minors account for an estimated 60 percent of the 10,000 people involved in the drug trade in that Brazilian city, according to a study released last year by the Viva Rio Foundation and the Higher Institute of Religious Studies.

For those youngsters, to kill or be killed is a dilemma they face on a routine basis, says the study.

In Mexico, there are an estimated 570,000 habitual drug users, and the average age of initiation into drugs is 12.

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