Three boys who loved the faux violence of one of the internet’s most popular battle royale shooting games were lured away from their families by a criminal network promising them glory and riches if they traded the make-believe for Mexico’s real-life world of violence.
Last Saturday in the town of Oaxaca, in western Mexico, the boys ranging in age from 11 to 14 were rescued after being enticed by Whatsapp messages on a group chat associated with the game Free Fire. The kids were allegedly targeted as potential cartel members due to their apparent interest in weapons.
One of the boys even went so far as to write his parents a note telling them not to worry; that he’d be sending home money soon, after having been hired to serve as a cartel spy for the equivalent of about $770 per month.
After traveling to a nearby bus station, the boys then journeyed to a safe house run by members of the Tamaulipas-based Northeast Cartel. They were later rescued by police officers who were able to track one of the boys’ phones. When the cops arrived at the safehouse they were told by a 19-year-old woman who is now in custody that a children’s birthday party was in progress.
“The woman lied to us at first, denying the presence of the minors in her residence. But when additional patrols showed up she grew scared. And eventually released the boys into our custody,” Oaxaca Police Inspector Rogelio López Escamilla told The Daily Beast.
Escamilla also said that additional suspects are being sought in the case. (Because they are minors, he was unable to reveal the boys’ names under Mexican law.)
Video game chat windows are the latest online recruitment tool for organized crime groups in Mexico, which already have a strong presence on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.
“The cartels use social media to entice men and women by posting photos of luxury cars, gold plated weapons, and even exotic pets such as tiger cubs,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, told The Daily Beast.
Teenagers are particularly attractive to the cartels because they are young, impressionable, and easily molded into professional hitmen—if they survive the training process.
“The young recruits do all the dangerous missions and are totally expendable,” Vigil said.
A 2020 report by the watchdog Insight Crime indicated that between 35,000 and 40,000 minors are enticed to join Mexico’s cartels each year.
According to Óscar Balderas, a journalist based in Mexico City, other popular games for cartel recruitment include Grand Theft Auto, Gears of War, and Call of Duty.
“This was a trend that security experts had already warned about last year. That the pandemic and the quarantine would cause the cartels to stop looking for child sicarios on the streets or outside schools and concentrate on the internet,” Balderas said.
Balderas said the modern cartels are more like “criminal empires” or illicit corporations than a traditional mafia. That is, they’re complete with organizational charts, consumer market research, and expansion plans, as well as public relations departments.
“These PR sectors are in charge of spreading the narrative of criminal groups within the platforms that young people use. Through content on social networks, the cartels publicize visions that become attractive to young Mexicans,” Balderas said.
“For example, they spread the idea that it is better to live as a millionaire for a few years—even if you then get killed—than to live poor the rest of your life. Or that one way to prove your worth as a human being is to go to war with the local cartel.”
Robert Bunker, the research director at the security consulting firm Futures LLC, likens the cartels’ use of video games and other online platforms for recruitment to tactics used by terrorist organizations like ISIS or Al Qaeda.
“Many times this has been described as a ‘grooming process’ similar to that used by pedophiles and other incredibly evil and amoral people,” Bunker said.
He also singled out additional games which have become popular among such groups, specifically mentioning Fortnite, League of Legends, and World of Warcraft.
Bunker described the use of online recruitment as a necessity for cartels that want to remain relevant in the increasingly competitive landscape of Mexico’s underground.
“As competition in Mexico and other regions of the Americas intensifies, the competing cartels and gangs have found themselves in a Darwinian process, with those not adapting to changing illicit markets and technology advances becoming non-competitive.”
Unlike traditional recruitment strategies, the use of games and apps allows a kind of subterfuge even watchful parents never see coming.
“The bar to entry for extremists exploiting social media is owning a smartphone or laptop with a free Wi-Fi connection,” Bunker said.
Although Escamilla and his fellow officers were able to save the three boys in Oaxaca, many others fall through the cracks and become easy prey for crime groups that continue to scout online for new foot soldiers—tactics that have made old-fashioned recruitment methods obsolete, according to the DEA’s Vigil.
“The cartels have gotten extremely tech savvy, and through the use of the internet have been able to accomplish more than through the barrel of a gun,” Vigil said.