CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The number of minors swept up in Mexico's drug wars — as killers and victims — is soaring, with U.S. and Mexican officials warning that a toxic culture of fast money, drug abuse and murder is creating a "lost generation."
Although the exploitation of children by criminals is timeless, authorities say the cartels are responding to new realities here. They have stepped up recruiting to replace tens of thousands of members who have been killed or arrested during President Felipe Calderon's U.S.-backed war against the traffickers.
The crackdown has led the cartels to diversify their operations, moving from the transshipment of narcotics to extortion, immigrant smuggling and kidnapping. It also has sparked intense rivalries, with youngsters serving as expendable foot soldiers in battles over trafficking routes to the United States and local markets that serve a growing number of Mexican drug users.
"The cartels recruit by first involving them in some drug trafficking, then in selling drugs and finally, in some cases for as little as $160 a week, they are given the job of tracking down people the cartel wants to assassinate," said Victor Valencia, public security secretary in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez — Mexico's most violent city — is located.
In the past year, 134 minors have been killed in drug-related violence in Juarez, according to El Diario, a local newspaper.
Young drug dealers often operate out of unlicensed addiction treatment facilities, which the cartels use as recruitment centers, frequently unleashing terror in those places.
In September, four masked men armed with AK-47 assault rifles stormed into the Casa Aliviane drug rehabilitation center as residents gathered for an evening prayer. The assailants found Eduardo Villalobos, 16, hiding in a cubbyhole. They pushed the youth against a wall and executed him alongside 17 others, before detonating grenades.
"It was bullets that killed him, because he was shot in the face and the head," said his mother, Dionisia Villalobos. "But he had little pieces from the grenades all over his body."
More than the violence, U.S. and Mexican officials and youth advocates said they fear that the rampant criminality is producing a generation that venerates cartel barons and views trafficking as a form of rebellion — as well as an escape from poverty.
"What struck me most in the short time that I was in Juarez was not the threat of violence," said Carlos Pascual, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico. "It was the threat of what occurs if you lose a whole generation."