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Mexico's Drug War Is Changing Childhood


Since the drug war in Mexico began in 2006, more than 50,000 people have been killed and organized crime has infiltrated, in one way or another, virtually every part of society. Many children have lost family members or become victims themselves. Cartels have also begun recruiting kids to work, often as mules. Even those young people who don't feel the drug war directly have to confront its effects on TV and at school, where bullies imitate narco-traffickers.

As Annie Murphy reports, all of this dramatically is changing what it's like to be a kid in Mexico.

ANNIE MURPHY, BYLINE: This public school is a group of chipping cement buildings on the dusty outskirts of the city of Guadalajara. I've come to the school with a psychologist who works here to talk to some of the students on the condition that we use only first names.

Nancy is 15 and has a ponytail, a slight lisp and narrow shoulders. She hems the skirt of her uniform shorter than regulation length and wears fake eyelashes caked in tiny crumbs of mascara. To make conversation, I ask her how she gets pocket money. At first, she just giggles. But later, when I ask her again, she says something that surprises me and the psychologist I'm with.

NANCY: (Through translator) Well, I carry drugs. On Fridays, I leave at night. And sometimes, I return on Sundays at noon. I go to bring people things.

MURPHY: Things like pot, MDMA, sedatives and other drugs. She says that she travels between cities and states alone by bus, that she works for local traffickers, two men and a woman who she met at a party

There are no official statistics about underage mules. But according to U.S. Customs and Immigration, in the past three years, the number of kids under 18 caught carrying drugs over the border increased tenfold.

The drug war is also ensnaring kids in other ways Nancy's friend Hector is 14. He's kind of goofy and big for his age, the sort of kid who might get bullied, if he wasn't a bully himself.

HECTOR: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Hector says he and his friends were recently caught charging younger kids to use the school and playground, threatening to hurt them if they failed to pay.

Alejandra Ramirez is a psychologist who works in area schools. She says that kids are increasingly copying organized crime, that the issue is showing up more and more in the media, and that the shift in how kids behave, in and out of school, has a lot to do with what they see around them.

ALEJANDRA RAMIREZ: (Through translator) Narco violence is something these kids see on TV every day and see around them, and it's brutal. When people die, it's not because they've had a natural death. It's extremely bloody. Seeing this all the time is affecting the way kids treat each other.

MURPHY: And she says very little is being done about it. Of Mexico's 31 states - 32, if you count Mexico City - just five have specific laws to protect against school violence. In Jalisco State, where Guadalajara's the capital, an education law was recently reformed to include articles against bullying. But the local Human rights commission says it's rarely enforced.

Mauricio is a teacher at an elite private school. Because he fears retaliation - from students or the school itself - he also asked that I not use his last name or the name of the school. He says he constantly sees kids imitating organized crime. This case happened during a soccer game between two elementary students. One student, known as a bully, kicked the other on purpose. When that kid then kicked him back, this is how the bully responded.

MAURICIO: And the guy said: Listen, don't ever do that again or tomorrow morning, you're going to be dismembered in different bags, and you're going to end up in the trunk of a car. The kid was 10 years old.

MURPHY: Mauricio believes violence is changing the whole experience of being a kid and how kids see their futures.

MAURICIO: I remember when I was a teenager, our role models were doctors, engineers, you know, people who studied, people who were somebody. Now, kids look more to criminals - successful criminals as role models.

MURPHY: Nancy, the girl who works as a mule on the weekends, says she'd like to be a social worker, a forensic scientist or a lawyer. When I ask her if she thinks her weekend job could mess that up, she shrugs, looks at her hands and says...

NANCY: (Through translator) Sure. I think about that sometimes. But let whatever needs to happen, happen. I make money now. And later, if something goes wrong, well, things happen for a reason. That's what I'll put on my tombstone.

MURPHY: For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Mexico City.

SIEGEL: That story was produced in collaboration with reporter Isabella Cota and Round Earth Media's Mexico Reporting Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Annie Murphy