Jacobo grew up in the Mexican state of Jalisco, home to the Jalisco Nueva Generación drug cartel. He was never comfortable in school and had a childhood marked by abuse: on one occasion, his mother kept her hands on a flame after he allegedly shoved a classmate.

Jacobo, who is now 17, says he didn’t. The cartel recruited him to commit his first murder at age 12.

“They are penetrating the kids who walk on the street and need money,” he said. “At the age of 12 I became a kind of hired assassin.”

Jacobo told his story to Reinserta, a Mexican nonprofit group that did not reveal the full names of the youths because they are all minors, held in juvenile delinquency centers and most fear retaliation from gangs.

“A neighbor asked me ‘do you want to earn money?’ Jacobo’s family rarely made ends meet, and the answer was obvious. “I said yes, who would not want money.” But the $1,500 he earned didn’t last long. He started using methamphetamines, in part to quell the psychological aftermath of what he was doing.

By his mid-teens, he was torturing members of rival cartels for information. He killed them and then dismembered the bodies or dissolved them in acid on the outskirts of Mexico City, where he had moved.

His last job lost him: the cartel ordered him to commit murder in public, with many witnesses. When the police came looking for him, he hid. The cartel contacted him to tell him to change shelter.

“It was all a trap,” he remembers. Like so many teenagers who work as lookouts, hit men or selling drugs on the streets, he was no longer useful and the cartel wanted to get rid of him.

“When I got to the point of the meeting, they started shooting at me,” Jacobo said. “I was shot in the head, back and abdomen.” They left him for dead, but he managed to survive and is now serving a four-year sentence for murder.

Mexican law allows sentences of between three and five years for most juvenile offenders, so almost all go free before the age of 21.

Reinserta works to prevent them from being recruited by drug trafficking groups and looks for ways to rehabilitate them if that has already happened.

In Mexico, it is a difficult job. Jacobo is alive, but he is still afraid. He knows from his own cartel work that he is everywhere and does not stop for nothing. “Now I am just a target to eliminate, a stone in the shoe of one of the most powerful cartels in the country,” he said.

Marina Flores, a researcher at Reinserta, said that her studies suggest that some common places about boys who work in drug trafficking are not true.

Although they almost always use drugs and drop out – or are expelled – from school before joining the cartels, membership in local street gangs does not appear to be a deciding factor. Cartels in Mexico directly recruit children when they leave school.

“Gangs are not a preliminary step for them to enter organized crime,” Flores explained. “We are realizing that they are taken out of school, and they immediately go to organized crime.”

The Network for the Rights of the Child in Mexico estimates that between 2000 and 2019, 21,000 children under the age of 18 were murdered in Mexico and another 7,000 disappeared.

The group estimates that some 30,000 minors had been recruited by drug traffickers by 2019.

Inserta points out that boys are often recruited by other children their age. One way of doing this is drug use, but the cartels also draw on religious beliefs and a sense of belonging that children cannot find elsewhere. Another factor is the combination of poverty, abusive homes, and unresponsive schools and social services.

For a report published Wednesday, Inserta interviewed 89 young people at centers for juvenile offenders in three states on the northern border, two states in central Mexico and two others in the southeast of the country. Of the 89, 67 said they had been actively involved in the cartels.

The average age of contact with drug trafficking gangs was between 13 and 15. All of them had dropped out of school, and all of them ended up using firearms.

The cartels find those under 18 useful because it is easier for them to go unnoticed and the courts do not prosecute them as adults. At first they are used to sell drugs on the street and as lookouts, but are often quickly promoted to hitmen.

In the northern border states, boys are drawn to a greater variety of drugs, receive more guns and other instruction from the cartels, participate in more criminal activity, and get to violent tasks faster than youth in southern states.

For example, Orlando grew up on the streets of northern cities like Ciudad Juárez after escaping from an orphanage. He estimates that between the ages of 10 and 16 he killed 19 people, the majority on the orders of the Sinaloa cartel.

He is now 17 years old and is serving a four-year sentence for murder. “I don’t know how to live in any other way, other than killing,” he said.

Like Orlando, Iván grew up in a northern town with a father who worked for the cartel.

But he did not suffer poverty or abuse: He made a conscious decision to join the same cartel that his father worked for.

“I was very influenced by the narcoculture, I liked corridos, series, weapons and trucks (vans),” he recalls.

By the age of 11 he worked as a hit man for the cartel and dismembered or dissolved the bodies of his victims. The first time he saw corpses, he was scared, but in a short time “he no longer felt anything, neither fear nor regret, nor guilt, nor anything.” Ivan was also serving a sentence for murder.

Inserta proposes possible solutions, such as more rapid care for children, more recreational and learning opportunities, and intervention to prevent domestic violence.

The group also proposes to create a national registry of boys recruited by cartels and provide them with psychological care, as well as early and effective treatment against addictions.

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