Mexico's young hitmen are both victimizers and victims, experts say

Mexico City Some 5,000 young men are imprisoned in Mexico after being convicted of serious crimes, with 22 percent of them serving time for murder, a high number that obscures an even more painful reality.

Many of these youths and teenagers fall in the trap of organized crime as a result of family troubles, poverty, dropping out of school or addictions, and they see themselves pushed to commit crimes that will brand them for life.

"Most of these kids who join organized crime live in hell," a former juvenile offender known as "El Maru," who is now an outreach facilitator for the social organization Cauce Ciudadano, told EFE.

"They are in shock and never imagined they would have to kill or dismember a person," he said.

"They are victims of abandonment by the government, their families and their communities although, at the same time, once they become criminals, being neglected does not exempt them from legal accountability," Juan Martn Prez, executive director of the Mexico Children's Rights Network, or Redim, said.

The other incarcerated minors have committed violent robberies, carried banned weapons, stolen vehicles, participated in kidnappings, been involved in drug trafficking or joined organized crime groups, official figures show.

In Mexico, everyone remembers the boy known as "El Ponchis," a child involved in organized crime since the age of 11 and who, after being arrested in 2010 at age 14, confessed to beheading four people on the orders of a Pacifico Sur drug cartel boss.

"Child assassins are deemed disposable because organized crime groups neither scout for new leaders nor serve as a 'training camp,' so that, as they grow, they become 'better.' Children are used and disposed of," Prez said.

The emergence of drug cartels over the past decade changed everything.

"The code was broken and gangs were broken," El Maru said. "I can tell you that 5 percent of my 'homies' (friends) have been used by organized crime. Many are dead, many are in prison, and others continue operating," El Maru said.

In this atmosphere of violence, a portrait emerges of young assassins, most of them males, as individuals who are both victimizers and victims who risk being killed by their employers if they try to leave the criminal life.

Currently, adult criminals are kept separate from juveniles in Mexico's prisons, with young offenders being incarcerated in rehabilitation centers.

An Inter-American Human Rights Commission study, however, found that imprisonment leads 80 percent of young inmates to commit crimes again.

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