In an effort to curb the ever-growing number of children in Mexico joining organized crime groups, a campaign in the violent northern state of Nuevo León is asking kids to hand over their toy weapons in exchange for less violent alternatives, including soccer balls and Legos.
The campaign, launched by the Undersecretary of Citizen Participation and Prevention of the State Public Security, was carried out in coordination with the federal government and the San Nicolás municipality in a move meant to promote a culture of peace among children and teenagers.
“These actions remove the incentive for the use of violent games and promote family time in the community,” Patricia Salazar Marroquin, a local official told The News.
This is not the first time that a town in Mexico has carried a toy gun exchange. In 2011, Ciudad Juárez asked children to hand in pretend pistols as part of the Children's Festival for Peace.
Young people leaving school and joining criminal organizations has become a challenge for both for the government and Mexican society, which are gradually getting used to seeing newspaper headlines announcing the capture or death of minors caught up in these gangs.
"These youths are generally born leaders with a high IQ," Consuelo Bañuelos, president of the Promotion of Peace organization, which does community work in poor neighborhoods and prisons in the northern state of Nuevo León, told Efe.
"Another point is when they start taking drugs and then have no way to pay for their addiction, so they begin to get involved with these gangs," Bañuelos said.
According to reports by authorities in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, underage killers-for-hire charge 500 pesos ($37) for a murder.
"The criminal gangs have influence in the community because they have very showy vehicles and often dress in a very showy way and have things the kids can't afford," Bañuelos said.
Statistics of this phenomenon are scarce. One of the few organizations that dares to offer a figure is the Children's Rights Network, which has documented some 30,000 minors involved in crime.
The figure dates back to a study dated 2010, though the organization's executive director, Juan Martín Pérez García, said it is "very conservative" and "has not changed radically."
Pérez said that organized crime finds in this group "a vulnerable, unprotected segment of the population that is easy prey."
"Most of these kids are used as lookouts, who in drug-trafficking language are known as 'hawks,'" while others, above all teenagers, "are employed to process drugs," he said.
Another target of these mafias are Central American child migrants crossing Mexico trying to reach the United States, a situation the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights describes in its report "Human Rights of Migrants and Other Persons in the Context of Human Mobility in Mexico."
Efe contributed to this report.