A human rights group on Thursday slammed an armed vigilante group’s training of children to use guns in a violent region of Mexico after images of the armed minors as young as five years of age sparked widespread consternation.
The video footage and photos of small children bearing rifles in the southwestern state of Guerrero were the latest shock to a country that has become increasingly accustomed to troubling news after two years of record levels of violence.
One day after the group revealed that it was using children as young as six as ‘recruits’ for armed defense patrols, Mexico’s president said Thursday that drug cartels too are recruiting ever-younger kids.
The whole issue has sparked a debate in Mexico over the use of children in armed confrontations, with rights groups saying the practice threatens not only kids’ safety, but their mental health.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that because social programs are giving more youths opportunities to study or work, drug cartels are having trouble finding gunmen, leading them to recruit children.
A boy looks on as he holds a makeshift gun as the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC-PF) community police force teaches a group of children how to use weapons on Friday
The young boys were gathered at a basketball court in the village of Ayahualtempan, a town in the violence-torn region of Guerrero State, Mexico
A boy holds a makeshift rifle while standing at attention during weapons training at a local basketball court on Friday
‘The gangs are having trouble getting hit men, so they are recruiting more children and young people, because there is competition,’ López Obrador said.
‘The thing is, the social programs are giving youths more options, and that is leading them (gangs) to get desperate, and they are looking to reinforce themselves with kids’.
López Obrador said ‘the key is to attack the root causes, to stop the breakdown of families, to strengthen values and material welfare, to give attention to young people’ to avoid them being recruited.
The issue came to a head Wednesday, when a vigilante group in southern Mexico publicly displayed a troop of 19 armed, masked children who had been recruited to act as ‘community police’.
The children appeared to range in age from about 5 to 15, and they carried shotguns and rifles. Some of the very youngest carried sticks instead of guns.
They performed rifle drills on a road in the township of Alcozacán in southern Guerrero state.
In a nearby town, a local drug gang had killed 10 men and burned most of their bodies, and vigilante organizers said the kids were needed to guard their villages against the drug gang.
The CRAC-PF vigilante group trains children as young as five so they can protect themselves from drug-related criminals groups operating in the area
The children cover their faces while undergoing weapons training in Guerrero State, Mexico, on Friday
A human rights group on Thursday slammed the CRAC-PF community police force for using children
The head of the Guerrero state human rights office forcefully condemned the vigilantes, saying they were exposing the children to danger
Children lie down on the pavement as they are taught to use weapons in the village of Ayahualtempan on Friday
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said Thursday that drug cartels too are recruiting ever-younger kids
Others blamed the local government for being ‘systematically negligent in guaranteeing minimal conditions of welfare for these communities and in defending the rights of children’ in the conflict-torn area
Drug gang violence has been so bad in Guerrero that thousands of residents have fled remote communities across the state and now live as internally displaced persons
A young boy is seen above aiming a makeshift rifle during weapons training exercises at a basketball court in Ayahualtempan
The recruits were also paraded through the Alcozacan community where roads have been blocked after the ten members of the band ‘Sensacion’ were murdered.
Prosecutor Jorge Zuriel de los Santos Barrila alleged the musicians had been attacked by a criminal gang called ‘Los Ardillos’ whilst travelling in two vans to Alcozacan.
Reports state when the band saw they were being attacked they sped up but one van was hit by a grenade, killing five men, while the other band members had their throats slit.
A 15-year-old boy was among the victims.
The head of the Guerrero state human rights office forcefully condemned the vigilantes, saying they were exposing the children to danger.
‘We categorically reject the involvement of minors in security roles that put their physical safety, their lives and their development at risk,’the office said in a statement.
But the prison and youth advocacy group Reinserta Un Mexicano A.C. said the Guerrero state government’s position is irresponsible because authorities there ‘have been systematically negligent in guaranteeing minimal conditions of welfare for these communities and in defending the rights of children’ in the conflict-torn area.
Bernardino Sanchez Luna, one of the leaders of the community police, told local media ‘they have seen the government has no skill or interest in defending indigenous people from criminal gangs. ‘
The vigilantes belong to the Regional Council of Community Authorities, a split-off from a decades-old force known as the CRAC
Since the 1990s, the groups have mostly policed remote indigenous hamlets where regular police seldom venture
Lightly armed community police have been drawn into the dispute with drug gangs in Guerrero State, Mexico
Traditionally, community police are supposed to combat minor crimes like fights and public intoxication with traditional indigenous punishments like temporary arrest or community service in lieu of fines
The Mexican government says more than 61,000 citizens are missing – the vast majority of them victims of the country’s grinding war with powerful drug gangs that have grown more violent
Children play basketball during a break as they are tought to use weapons in the village of Ayahualtempan, Guerrero State
One of Mexico’s poorest states, Guerrero has long been one of the most violent regions of the country, which was on track to register a record number of homicides last year
Guerrero State is known for opium poppy cultivation. A number of armed groups operate in the mountains
Drug cartels have zeroed in on Guerrero State due to the high demand for heroin in the United States
He said the children had been recruited to encourage politicians to visit the community and attend to their requests.
Mr Luna said the children under 12 are only being trained but those aged between 12 and 15 would be armed and guard the villagers.
He also said the children, 66 of whom had been orphaned in the recent violence, needed weapons to prevent them from being kidnapped by gangs.
Currently, Mr Luna said, children in the area only attended primary school as they were too scared to leave their communities to attend secondary school.
The images, which showed around 20 children doing military style drills, emerged days after 10 local musicians were murdered by suspected cartel hitmen in Chilapa de Alvarez, one of the most violent municipalities in Guerrero
Prosecutor Jorge Zuriel de los Santos Barrila alleged the musicians had been attacked by a criminal gang called ‘Los Ardillos’ whilst travelling in two vans to Alcozacan
Reports state when the band saw they were being attacked they sped up but one van was hit by a grenade, killing five men, while the other band members had their throats slit
The government of the state told local media ‘we are calling the community police to respect, according to the law, the human rights of the children’.
During 2019, it’s estimated that 90 people died each day in Mexico from cartel-related homicides.
Drug gang violence has been so bad in Guerrero that thousands of residents have fled remote communities across the state and now live as internally displaced persons.
For example, the vigilantes said many of the children who have been recruited can’t continue their education beyond grade school because they are afraid to leave their towns to travel to the nearest middle school.
The vigilantes belong to the Regional Council of Community Authorities, a split-off from a decades-old force known as the CRAC.
Since the 1990s, the groups have mostly policed remote indigenous hamlets where regular police seldom venture.
While the community police are supposed to combat minor crimes like fights and public intoxication with traditional indigenous punishments like temporary arrest or community service in lieu of fines, they have been drawn into the dispute with drug gangs.
The vigilantes are fighting the violent Ardillos drug gang, which has been blamed for the Friday killings of 10 area men.
But some say the vigilantes themselves have had ties to rival drug gang, the Rojos.