In a lawless stretch of western Mexico, children as young as 6 are taking up arms against organized crime.
This week, 19 children were conscripted into a vigilante group that for years has been battling drug gangs in restive Guerrero state. Images published by local journalists of the initiation ceremony — in which uniformed, rifle-wielding boys performed military-style maneuvers — drew outrage across Mexico, with human rights officials condemning the exercise as child abuse.
A leader of the vigilante group said in a phone interview Thursday that an increase in violence in the region and the absence of government intervention have left the community with no choice but to arm even its children.
“They must be prepared,” said Bernardino Sanchez Luna, who founded the self-defense group known as the CRAC-PF. “If they are afraid, the criminals will kill them like little chickens.”
Two of the children who were trained were 6, Sanchez said. The oldest member of the group was 15.
Over the last seven years, dozens of “community police” forces have emerged in Guerrero, laying claim to a constitutionally protected right that allows indigenous groups in the state to create systems of self-governance.
They say they are defending themselves against local criminal gangs that control drug smuggling routes and extort money from businesses in the region. Critics claim the vigilantes are frequently involved in criminal activity.
Sanchez said his group, which patrols the rural highlands east of the city of Chilpancingo, decided to begin training children in self-defense after the Jan. 17 killing of a group of indigenous musicians.
The 10 musicians were returning from a performance in two vans when assailants struck in the town of Chilapa, according to state prosecutors. The musicians were stabbed and their vehicles and bodies set on fire.
In a news conference Wednesday, Guerrero’s attorney general said the state is pursuing six suspects who belong to a criminal group named Los Ardillos. The group has been accused of other attacks in the region, where a drop in poppy prices in recent years has left criminals scrambling for non-drug-related sources of income.
After the musicians were killed, residents responded angrily, blocking roads and demanding that the government intervene. They were particularly upset about the death of the youngest band member, who was 15, Sanchez said.
When it comes to violence in the region, “nobody, not even a child, is off-limits,” he said.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected in 2018 on a promise to combat crime by giving poor Mexicans better economic opportunities.
That strategy, which he dubbed “hugs, not bullets,” has so far been unsuccessful, with the country reporting more than 35,000 homicides last year.
Asked about the child soldiers in Guerrero, Lopez Obrador questioned whether the vigilante group that had recruited them was a legitimate self-defense organization and then returned to his security strategy, which he said will make it so young people don’t have to take up arms.
“I insist, we’re going to move forward,” he said at his daily news conference Thursday. “We have to give options to children, to young people, to keep them away from weapons, keep them away from the violence, and that’s what’s being done.”
Mexican Security Secretary Alfonso Durazo said Thursday that the government would “review” whether the CRAC-PF should be allowed to continue bearing arms, especially in light of its recruitment of children.
“Not all of them have a legitimate origin or a legitimate purpose,” he said of Guerrero’s community police groups.
Human rights officials across the country condemned the enlistment of young vigilante soldiers.
“We strongly reject the involvement of minors in security tasks that put their development, physical integrity and life at risk,” Ramón Navarrete Magdaleno, president of the Guerrero Human Rights Commission, said at a news conference.
Under international human rights law, recruiting children younger than 15 into an armed group is a war crime. The practice is not widespread in Latin America, although guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, were known for employing child soldiers.
Sanchez said he was surprised by the swift criticism of his group and said officials should not critique groups that are only trying to protect children.
“They say we’re violating the children’s rights,” Sanchez said. “But it’s the criminals who are doing that.”
He said the children are being trained to use their weapons responsibly.
Before the ceremony Wednesday, he and other vigilante leaders spoke to the youths.
“Having a weapon is a lot of responsibility,” he said he told them. “You should only use your gun to defend your life.”
In one video taken at the ceremony, a boy who looked to be about 10 with a light blue bandanna covering half of his face told a journalist that he was happy to be participating and that he was there “to defend the community.”
Some analysts speculated whether the recruitment of child soldiers was a tactic used by the vigilantes to bring attention to growing violence in the region.
“I don’t think they’re serious about getting 6-year-olds to defend the town and even to defend themselves,” said Chris Kyle, an anthropologist and expert on Guerrero based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “This may just be a play to get media attention.”