Child assassinsThe success of last year’s Kony 2012 video demonstratred how averse we are to the notion of child soldiers: of corrupting a boy or girl’s innocence by thrusting them into combat. Less infamous is the phenomenon of child assassins. In Guatemala, two unidentified girls, aged 13 and 15, have been arrested after killing a man while a 10-year-old boy is suspected of approaching a cab driver and shooting him. Criminal organizations are hiring and training children, a minister claims, because they are exempt from prosecution.

Organised criminals have long been exploiting the benefits of school-age assassins. Minors kill hundreds in Columbia every year – hired by gangsters because their innocent appearance does not raise the suspicions of their victims as they approach, and because they demand lower salaries than men. And, besides, they bring their naive enthusiasm even to such an appalling task. As one mob boss put it of a young killer who was profiled in the New York Times: “if we ask Tiny to do something, he’ll do it right away”.

Unsurprisingly, the Mexican gangs have learned from previous battlegrounds. Thousands of minors, it has been alleged, work for the cartels. Even U.S. citizens, disaffected in border towns and cities, have been lured into their grasp. Rosalie Rita was a 13-year-old boy when he was initiated into the Mexican Gulf Cartel. “I thought I was Superman,” he said of his first killing.

Western audiences have enjoyed Battle Royale and The Hunger Games: stories in which children are extracted from social institutions and thrust into a world of violence that reduces them to a state of primal viciousness. One need not resort to fantasies to conceive of such conditions, though. Alonzo Salazar, a Columbian journalist and one of few people to explore the phenomenon, wrote, a year after Pablo Escobar’s death, that kids had been raised in streets where murder was almost quotidian; authorities were only glimpsed suppressing or enacting violence and fathers were lost inside a daze of substance abuse or, in many cases, simply lost having abandoned their bewildered children.

Young boys, with no one to guide them along a safe path and no inspiration to seek it for themselves, found meaning and support within some of the few remaining social structures. This also reflects realities of life in much of Mexico and, indeed, inner-cities in America and even Europe.

While I am dubious about consequences of drug liberalisation, nothing highlights the appalling futility of the “War on Drugs” so much as the fact that a policy justified on such grounds as protecting children from being seduced by narcotics has ensured that kids are being attracted to that deadliest of intoxicants: murder. They are caught between forces of prohibitionism that have abetted the expansion of underground crime and forces of modernity that have allowed their families to drift away from them and leave no one to hold them up lest they fall in.

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