Mexico’s Latest Recruits to Fight Cartels: Child Soldiers
In the midst of a cartel war zone children as young as six train to defend themselves against an army of encroaching sicarios.
RINCON DE CHAUTLA, Mexico―The children are drilling again. Marching in two-by-two formation, tramp-stepping around the concrete basketball court in this wind-swept Nahua village in the mountains of Guerrero state. They halt at attention, present arms with rifle-shaped tree limbs cut to size. Their instructor is a grown man with a real rifle, and he’s quick to call out any errors as he leads the mixed squad of boys and girls through maneuvers.
“We’re practicing to defend our town, so los sicarios [hitmen] won’t be able to kill us,” says Jeremías Ramìrez, six, during a break in the session.
“If they come, we’ll be ready for them,” says Angélica Flores, 12. When asked what she wants for her village in the future, she says: “Peace, justice, and to keep out the criminals.”
On the other side of the ball court, another unit of adult women is training. Unlike the children, they carry actual firearms, mostly hunting rifles and shotguns. Some have infants hung in the folds of their rebozos. They handle the firearms with a practiced ease, then they swing their babies around to breastfeed when the master-at-arms lets them fall out.
The women, children, and their instructors are members of the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC). Under Mexican law, indigenous peoples have traditionally been allowed to form policías comunitarias (community police) groups like CRAC. As cartel violence has surged in recent years, these comunitarios, as they’re commonly called, often constitute the only protection available against ruthless and predatory cartels. Rincón de Chautla and the surrounding pueblos―all of which sit on an important shipping corridor for drugs and other contraband―are no exception.
The ruling paramilitary cartel known as Los Ardillos first laid siege to Chautla in December of 2018. After about a month of low-intensity skirmishes, the gang attacked the village gates with some 150 sicarios on January 27. But CRAC leaders had overheard radio transmissions ahead of time and were able to assume defilade positions behind prepared breastworks. According to the people here, the resulting firefight left 12 Ardillos dead before the rest retreated. Only one CRAC member was wounded in the encounter.
But while they might’ve won that battle, the war is still up for grabs. Instead of backing down, the Ardillos initiated a prolonged campaign of terror and attrition in an effort to force the townsfolk and their neighbors to submit.
So far in 2019, about 50 people have been killed, disappeared, or detained—including at least nine Nahua children abducted and never seen again—and scores of families displaced in these rural highlands above the county seat of Chilapa de Àlvarez.
There have been seven Nahua murdered or abducted in the last month alone, five of whom were high-ranking members of the CRAC. Two of these were dismembered by the Ardillos and left in trash bags at the side of the road running into Chilapa city in late May. The most recent victim, a retired community policeman named Eugenio Máximo, was dumped just outside of Rincón de Chautla on June 2nd.
“There has been a declaration of war,” says Abel Barrera, director of the Mount Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights in Guerrero. “The Ardillos don’t like the indigenous [Nahua] peoples uniting against them, and they’re out for vengeance. The activists and leaders are killed to send a message to the rest of the community.”
Overall, some 1,200 people have perished, and at least 500 people have gone missing during the Ardillos years-long rise to power in the Chilapa area, according to official statistics. Independent observers like Kyle say the real number could be even higher.
“We’re not going to let them kill us like dogs,” Adela Rodrìguez, comandante of the women’s brigade and a mother of eight, tells The Daily Beast. “And it’s only fair that we women do our part. We want to show that we’re equal to our men. That we have the same rights and the same responsibilities,” says Rodrìguez, 34, who has engaged in live combat against the Ardillos.
“We would never kill just to kill. But if they attack here again, and some of them must die, so be it. These are difficult times for us, but we’ll protect our children and our homes no matter what.”
A rugged, mountainous state in southwestern Mexico, Guerrero is also one of the poorest parts of the country. About a third of the 3.6 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty, and large swaths of the interior are without public infrastructure or the presence of law enforcement, meaning bands of well-armed criminals enjoy unchallenged power in much of the region.
Faced with crippling poverty and the threat of neo-feudalistic narco-warlords, many in Guerrero have chosen to flee their homes in hope they’ll find better lives to the north, in the United States. In fact, U.S. agencies have deported more would-be immigrants coming from Guerrero than from any other Mexican state this year.
Guerrero is also home to a large population of indigenous Nahua peoples, who have lived here since before the Spanish conquest. The pocket of 17 allied Nahua communities that includes Rincón de Chautla sits clustered in the highlands above Chilapa de Álvarez. Situated in the state’s eastern mountains and about 200 miles due south of Mexico City, the confederated colonies call themselves the Pueblos Fundadores, which means both founding villages and founding peoples.
The Nahuatl language is still common currency among the Fundadores. Houses are built of carrizo cane and adobe, roofed with straw or hand-fired mud tiles or tin. People ride horses to work. The sweeping vistas dotted with ocote pine look idyllic, but the lack of state presence means little security and great economic hardship.
“The Nahua have faced political discrimination and social exclusion for the last 500 years,” says human rights activist Barrera. “Even today, their situation is precarious. Most families have little or no income, and this makes them vulnerable to infiltration by organized crime groups who look to prey on the weak.”
The Fundadores settlements used to be able to support themselves by selling agricultural products like corn and calabasa (melon) in Chilapa, the nearest city, but cheap imports flowing in on an improved highway system now limit such options.
“Once it became easier to import than to produce locally, these villages just lost their reason for existing,” says Dr. Chris Kyle, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert on Guerrero. The resulting existential crisis, he says, has touched off a “wave of depopulation.”
In many parts of Guerrero, small farmers who’ve stuck around have transitioned to growing poppies instead of corn. Poppy resin is the main ingredient in both opium and the more refined version, heroin, and widespread production in Guerrero has made the state a magnet for the some of the nation’s most powerful crime syndicates.
“Opium slowed the [depopulation] process,” says Kyle, but it’s also made farmers dependent on one cash crop. “There’s nothing else they have to offer that the outside world wants.”
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán sent a pair of high-ranking brothers from his Sinaloa Cartel to run operations in Guerrero in the early 2000s. Those black-market satraps revolted against Chapo, however, and went into business for themselves as the Beltran-Leyva Cartel. When the brothers were killed their monopoly fragmented, allowing independent gangs like the Ardillos to enrich themselves by taking over already established chains of production and distribution.
Unlike many of its neighbors, the Fundadores federation chooses to avoid all ties with the underworld and so has not taken up cultivating poppies. CRAC patrols are even known to set up checkpoints to seize contraband shipments and eradicate poppy plots they come across in the sierra. Unfortunately, their dedication to the straight and narrow has led directly to the ongoing showdown with the powerful Ardillos.
There were 8,493 murders in Mexico during the first quarter of 2019. That’s up by almost 10 percent from the same period in 2018 and on pace to be the bloodiest year since the start of the nation’s Drug War more than a decade ago. Guerrero perennially ranks at or near the top of the list of Mexico’s most violent states, and is designated a no-go zone for US citizens by the State Department. But the Chilapa region, where Rincòn de Chautla and her sister communities are situated, is especially deadly.
In 2017, at the height of the Ardillos’ offensive to wrest the city itself from a rival crime group called Los Rojos, Chilapa was home to a per capita homicide rate of 191 per 100,000, beating out other infamous murder capitals like Acapulco and Caracas.
“Those are war-zone numbers,” says Kyle. With a population of just 127,000 people, he says Chilapa “would’ve easily been the most violent spot in the Americas” at that time.
The Ardillos eventually won the turf battle against the Rojos, and the murder rate in the urban center declined somewhat in the aftermath, Kyle says, because “there is no one left they need to kill.” Since then the conflict has migrated to the outlying communities in the municipality, like Rincón de Chautla, as the Ardillos seek to extend their influence. At least 50 percent of all heroin that enters the U.S. from Mexico comes out of Guerrero, and most of it moves north from the state overland. That means suppliers like the Ardillos need to control highway routes for shipping.
Ironically, a recent drop in heroin prices―due to U.S. drug users’ growing preference for synthetic opioids like fentanyl―could be driving the Ardillos’ expansion efforts as the cartel looks to diversify its income streams via kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and vehicle theft. Bringing the hub of Nahua towns under its thumb would eliminate troublesome CRAC checkpoints, and allow the cartel to tax the pueblos exorbitantly for its own brand of “protection.”
“The Ardillos hold complete control,” in the regions they’ve already conquered, Kyle notes, and goes on to list revenue inputs as varied as shaking down corporations like Pemex, running local chicken markets, and demanding tribute from university faculty.
“Cartel activity is so much bigger than opium now,” Kyle says.
Right on the border between the CRAC-confederated communities and cartel country sits the tiny hamlet of Tula, with about 90 residents. From the outskirts of Tula, across the withered foothills, you can see the first sheds and outbuildings that mark the current edge of the Ardillos’ empire.
The only road into Chilapa de Álvarez runs through the narco zone as well, meaning the city has become off-limits to upland residents unless they’re willing to risk their lives. It’s planting season now, but the corn fields around Tula remain unplowed and unplanted due to a lack of seed and fertilizer.
“If we go into Chilapa they’ll grab us,” says Celestina Morales, 53, during a meeting of the village council to discuss security concerns. Morales goes on to cite the fate of her recently murdered son as an example of what could befall any of Tula’s residents. “He went there to shop and never came home that night. And the next day they brought him back to us cut up into little pieces.”
On May 23 the car carrying Morales’ son, regional CRAC comandante Bartolo Morales, was forced off the road while returning to Tula after a grocery run with another comunitario. Both men were found chainsawed to bits on the morning of the 24th.
“We can’t go into town to buy supplies, or to sell what we produce,” Señora Morales says through her tears. “The children are out of schools, because they teachers are afraid to come here. The puesto de salud [rural clinic] is closed for months. Now the rains come. But if we can’t plant we can’t harvest, and we’ll have nothing to eat all winter. Why doesn’t the government do anything to help us?”
That seems to be the question of the hour. In village after village visited by The Daily Beast, the citizens shuffle timidly forth to pose some version of this same query. One CRAC officer, who asks that his name be withheld for security reasons, says the comunitarios have offered repeatedly to work with local law enforcement to rein in the cartel, but their offers have been rebuffed.
“We know these hills, and everyone in them. Who the Ardillos’ commanders are. Where the sicarios live. The jefe of jefes is named Celso Ortega Jiménez, and his finca [ranch] is just a few miles from here. His brother Bernardo Ortega Jiménez is the politician who protects them and the whole world knows this to be true. So how is it that the police, the army, do nothing against them?”
The answer, in short, seems to be a combination of fear and corruption. Or what Adam Isacson, chief security analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, calls “the plata o plomo [silver or lead] pattern.”
“Local security-force units are very likely to be on the take,” writes Isacson in an email. “But either way, honest soldiers and police who would refuse bribes and go after the Ardillos’ leaders know what would happen to them and their families if they did so.”
The combined effect, Isacson writes, is that officers “often just focus on keeping order—patrolling, responding to domestic situations, going after petty theft—while avoiding antagonizing criminal bosses.” That means “the population is left unprotected” from the cartel’s predations.
Guerrero specialist Kyle agrees with Isacson, and also suggests that the Ardillos have become so powerful that at the level of state politics the direction of the plata, or bribes, has been reversed. Nowadays “if you want to take office, you pay them,” the cartels, Kyle explains. This also works as a disincentive for prosecution.
“Authorities who relied on criminal bosses to get elected in the first place are naturally fearful to betray them,” he says.
Back in Rincón de Chautla The Daily Beast is granted access to an alleged halcón, or spy, for the Ardillos. The halcón was captured by comunitarios in the no-man’s land near Tula and brought to the CRAC headquarters for safe keeping.
The young man gives his name as Claudio Tecoral and says he’s 18. He sits sullen and defiant in the low-raftered main room of the barracks, backlit by a shaft of white light that filters in through the glassless, metal-shuttered windows. The prisoner wears a camouflage-print Nike cap and a long-sleeved black t-shirt with a snarling panther design across the chest.
When asked about the charges against him, Tecoral admits he’s been living in a former Fundadores town called San Marquitos, which has fallen under control of the Ardillos. He was captured the same day Bartolo Morales and his driver were found shredded on the roadside, and just a few miles away from the crime scene, but he denies the charge that he was responsible. Answering a question about his alleged involvement in their gruesome deaths he says:
“I don’t feel guilty. Or not guilty. I don’t feel anything at all.”
State authorities have demanded Tecoral be turned over to them for questioning, but the CRAC deputation has so far refused. They’ve given up captured Ardillos before, they say, only to see them released again without being charged.
“I just want out of here,” Tecoral says. “I just want to go back to my people.” But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, according to the Chautla comisarios. Under indigenous law the prisoner has been condemned to an extended “re-education” program, which involves manual labor and construction duties in and around the CRAC base. There’s no fixed limit to his sentence, and his release will depend on the speed and perceived veracity of his “character adjustment.”
Comunitario re-education initiatives, as well as the so-called “child-soldier” and all-female units, have been met with harsh criticism by Mexican authorities, who often accuse the indigenous police of endangering civilians by taking the law into their own hands. The comunitarios’ response is typically not to deny the danger but instead to point out that if officials were able or willing to control crime syndicates and establish a monopoly on the use of violent force, there would be no need for comunitarios in the first place.
CRAC dates back to the mid-1990s, but the movement really took off in 2012, under the leadership of U.S. citizen Nestora Salgado. She was labeled a vigilante and eventually jailed, apparently for humiliating traditional law enforcement branches by doing their job better than they could themselves.
Cleared of all charges and released in 2016, Salgado recently was elected to Mexico’s National Senate. Her victory did much to legitimize CRAC efforts, and the movement’s own internal democratic mechanisms, based on the Nahuas’ traditional assemblies, have helped keep the community police forces from becoming top heavy or despotic.
CRAC is “a local, village-based entity,” says anthropologist Kyle. “They work hard to keep it from becoming hijacked” by aspiring or ambitious players.
In many parts of the state, the comunitarios provide the only law and order to be found in danger zones with little or no formal police or military presence.
“The Ardillos would make slaves of us all,” says Chautla comisario and drill instructor Bernardino Sánchez Luna, after he’s finished putting the kids’ brigade through its paces.
“They want us to work for them, to be part of their criminal organization, but we refuse. In the villages that have already fallen they recruit new sicarios from among the young,” Sánchez adds, leaning on his rifle as he watches his trainees getting up a game of hoops.
“They’re forced to join or be executed,” he says.
“We know we can’t trust the soldiers. Can’t trust the police. We know they work with Los Ardillos. Once we’re dead our children must know how to defend themselves,” Sánchez looks away from the scrimmage and shakes his head. “The government is never going to save them.”
In response to a query about the controversial move to train children to one day take up arms, Kyle frames it as a necessity.
“These communities are desperate,” he says, “and there’s no one to turn to for help.”
Human rights director Barrera calls the advent of the women and children units “a show of force meant to indicate that the whole community is united against the criminals.”
But all-female brigade commander Rodrìguez has an even simpler answer for CRAC’s critics.
“If those in the government don’t like women and niños training,” she says, “then let them do their job and protect us.”