The term “child soldiers” usually conjures thoughts and images of children in North Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Asia. Over the past decade, the southwestern U.S.-Mexico Border region has made alarming steps to join the club.
Recently, a rash of videos and photographs circulated on social media from Mexican cartel-controlled accounts depicted children holding and firing military-grade weapons. Many do not recognize this is actually propaganda used to recruit juveniles on both sides of the border.
In 2006, Mexican cartels began transitioning from organized crime into full insurgencies. The Calderon administration was forced to deploy its military due to the destabilizing power wielded by cartels. Child soldiers became an integral part of the cartels at that time. The United Nations previously stated that 3,664 minors were apprehended between 2006 to 2010 and that an estimated 1,000 died in conflict.
By 2010, some cartels were already morphing into terrorist organizations capable of committing mass murders of migrants and Mexican civilians. The United States border was also affected by the cartel allure as juveniles were recruited at increasing levels. Gabriel Cardona and Rosalio Reta are two of the most publicized U.S.-born soldiers of the Los Zetas Cartel, who operated internationally. Both were born and raised in Texas. They first began running drugs across the Rio Grande as teens before being sent to a cartel training camp in Tamaulipas under the tutelage of Colombian and Israeli mercenaries. Cardona later admitted to investigators that he committed his first murder at 13. At one time, these juvenile assassins lived in a safe house in Laredo, Texas, between targeting orders. Both are serving life sentences for murders in Texas and Mexico.
The boys’ story is not isolated. By 2011, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) had become so concerned over the issue that in a press release, they offered a rare glimpse at the escalating problem by providing statistics. The Texas border region represented 9.7 percent of the state’s population, yet since 2009, it accounted for 19.2% of Texas’ juvenile felony drug referrals and 21.8% of all juvenile gang referrals. In one Texas border county, more than 25 juveniles were arrested for drug trafficking within a year. It went on to describe several incidents including two Texas teenagers lured to Mexico where they were kidnapped, beaten, ransomed, and released in a remote area along the Rio Grande. That same year, DPS apprehended a 12-year-old boy in a border county driving a stolen truck containing more than 800 pounds of marijuana.
In July 2019 as conflict erupted in Tamaulipas between the Cartel Del Noreste (CDN) and Gulf Cartel (CDG), investigators noticed a surge in the recruitment and arrests of juveniles working with CDG. A 12-year-old male was arrested while acting as a lookout. During a search of the teen’s backpack, authorities found two tactical vests, a ballistic plate, a loaded magazine, and other items.
Part of the recruiting process in Texas involves inviting teens to parties at residences. Once there, prospects are pressured by others with easy money, alcohol, and free drugs. They are reassured that because they are juveniles, police will release them almost immediately. The 2018 action film sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado dedicated significant runtime and plot points to this kind of process in the form of a teen boy from south Texas who is recruited to work for a fictionalized version of the Gulf Cartel.
While U.S. teens are lured with promise of access to easy drugs and money, Mexican teens are primarily targeted from impoverished neighborhoods who see the narco lifestyle as more achievable than becoming a lawyer or a doctor. Pop culture influences also factor more south of the border.
As violence and murders in Mexico continue to break records, the consequences spread beyond the border. One fact is certain: the child soldiers of today are the cartel leaders of tomorrow.
Jaeson Jones is a retired Captain from the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division and a Breitbart Texas contributor. While on duty, he managed daily operations for the Texas Rangers Border Security Operations Center.
Ildefonso Ortiz contributed to this article.