Mexico's Lost Youth: Generation Narco

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Jesus Alcazar / AFP / Getty Images

Relatives of some of the 14 partygoers killed when gunmen broke into a home in Ciudad Juarez on October 23, cry during the funeral.

The grainy video of torture and murder looks like so many that have come out of Mexico this year: a bleeding man is tied to a chair; the victim screams for mercy; an assassin's hand swings in with a machete. However, when soldiers on Oct. 29 stormed a house in central Mexico where the snuff film was allegedly made, they uncovered a brutal detail. The gangsters behind the terror were not just veterans of the narco wars, but included several 18- and 19-year olds. The teenagers, paraded before the press with acne, scruffy hair and loud t-shirts, were also accused of hanging victims from freeway bridges, genitals sliced from their bodies.

The arrests highlight how a new generation of Mexicans is being swept up into the country's drug war as both killers and victims. The week before saw four massacres claiming a total of 44 lives, most of the dead under the age of 25. The youngest was a 13-year-old girl slain at a teenage birthday party in Ciudad Juarez; gunmen reportedly stormed the fiesta looking for a rival gang member and killed everyone in sight. Priests, politicians and pundits screamed that young people need to be saved from falling into crime and death. "This is not the will of God to take the lives of our young," said Father Roberto Ramos of a Juarez church attended by several of the party victims. "This comes from the sins of man."

At the heart of the problem is youth unemployment, which leads many young people to turn to organized crime for career opportunities. Mexican media talk about a new category known as los ni nis or "neither nors" — young people who neither work nor study. There is a heated debate here about how many ni nis there are. Mexico's National University claims there are several million, although the government retorts that there are only a few hundred thousand.

One of the largest populations of ni nis is in Ciudad Juarez, considered by many to be the most murderous city on the planet. A recent report financed by the government found that 120,000 Juarez residents between the ages of 13 and 24 — or 45% of the population — were in neither formal work nor school. Many live in slums spreading up hills on the west side of the city, home to workers in the struggling assembly plant industry. On a visit to the Juarez west side earlier this year, I heard young people relate how criminal cartels are one of the only organizations that offer them work. That mafia will now pay a young person $1,000 per trip if he or she smuggles drugs over the border; the youths say the drug gangs will fork over as little as $100 for someone to carry out an assassination. Sandra Ramirez, a social worker in the slums, confirmed these alarming numbers. "It is only them [the cartels] that are coming to these kids and offering them anything," she says. "They offer them money, cell phones and guns to protect themselves. You think these kids are going to refuse? They have nothing to lose. They only see the day to day. They know they could die and they say so. But they don't care. Because they have lived this way all their lives."

On Oct. 29, Juarez students demonstrated outside the Institute of Biomedical Sciences to highlight their lack of opportunities and vulnerability to mafia killers. However, that protest itself turned violent when federal police allegedly shot one of the students in the back. Mexico's security department released a statement saying that the two officers who fired bullets have been detained. The department said the cops were in pursuit of cartel assassins when they ran into the students. "Several of [the protesters] had their faces covered, so for that reason the federal officers got out of their patrol cars and fired some shots in the air as a preventive measure and warning," the statement said. The injured student is fighting for his life in a hospital.

President Felipe Calderón argues he is working hard to bring better opportunities to young people. He points out his government has helped create hundreds of thousands of jobs and estimates the economy will grow by 4.8% this year. (Last year, it shrunk by 6.8% amid the global recession.) Meanwhile, Education Secretary Alonso Lujambio says that teachers labor to ingrain good values in pupils. "It is only a minority [of young people] that do these terrible things, against human civilization," he told reporters after the week of massacres. However, he warned that parents also need to take better care of educating their children, especially the rising number of single working mothers. "They have to help us make a better social fabric."

One such working mother is 20-year old criminology student Marisol Valles. She has decided to become her kind of role model. Last month, she was sworn in as police chief in the community of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero, upstate from Juarez. The job went to a rookie because no one else had the courage for it. It was a forbidding job: the last police chief was kidnapped and decapitated. Valles' appointment has made her become famous as the bravest woman in Mexico. "I don't think age is important," she said after taking office. "What is important is what is going on inside... We have to have faith that we can do something about this security problem. We want to build a place where young people can fulfill their hopes and dreams."