Special Report: In Ciudad Juarez, North America’s most dangerous city, the warring drug cartels have found a new weapon even more effective than rocket launchers or grenades.
The new addition to the world’s most bloodthirsty gangs are sicaritos, or child assassins.
As guerrilla forces have discovered in Africa, 13 and 14-year-old children on the margins of society make fearless killers. In Juarez, now Mexico’s drug addict capital, they are almost certain to be high on crack cocaine.
Around 80 per cent of the 2,000 people killed in the past 14 months in this border city have been aged under 25.
The city of 1.8 million people, separated by just a bridge over the Rio Grande from El Paso in Texas, sits on a major drug route and has been the epicentre of the brutal drug violence gripping Mexico and increasingly creeping over the border into the United States.
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In a city now empty of the Americans who used to flock here for the lively bars and flea markets, taxi drivers can instead offer visitors a macabre tour of the many murder spots as well as streets where drug deals can be seen being conducted within yards of the local police.
In one street alone, home to a strip of non-descript, cartel-owned bars, 16 people have been killed in the past two months.
Usually, the gunmen – teenagers among them – will saunter in and spray indiscriminately with AK-47 assault rifles, hitting both their targets and innocent bystanders. Few suspects are ever arrested as the local police are often working for the same cartels.
A few streets away is a bar where a local cartel chief nicknamed “Jesus the Devil” was recently killed just three days after getting out of jail, shot seven times in the head. “They killed him real bad,” said the driver.
Those captured by the cartels are even less fortunate. Many are tortured and beheaded. Police officers, almost all suspected of working for the drug barons, have frequently been among the dead. The local morgue is currently doubling in size to cope with demand.
But at last Juarez’s battered citizens have been offered some respite.
Army convoys now rumble through the narrow streets day and night, machine gun-armed troops and special forces soldiers crowded into pick-up trucks as they stop cars and raid houses.
Government officials were able to announce this week that a “surge” involving 10,000 soldiers and federal police has cut by 70 per cent a murder rate previously averaging five a day.
Belated efforts to tackle the cartels, long ignored by a US distracted by Islamic extremism, are also being stepped up north of the border.
Playing down recent claims that Mexico is as much at risk as Pakistan of becoming a failed state, the US government has promised to send more troops and equipment to fight the cartels along the border.
Washington may be reassured by the situation in Juarez where some semblance of normal life has returned to a city previously ruled by the warring drug factions of the Juarez cartel and Joaquin Guzman, recently added to the Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires.
But law enforcement sources fear it may be too late to tighten up the border as the cartels are already firmly established in an estimated 230 US cities.
In Phoenix, Arizona, alone there have been 700 cartel-related crimes in the past two years, including kidnappings and shootings by gangs prepared to shove a gun into a baby’s mouth to get their way.
Although the cartels have warned that they will treat American law enforcement no differently than Mexican police, experts are split over whether the cartels are willing to use the same level of violence in the US.
Many cartel members are already thought to live quietly just over the border, one reason that may explain why, despite the carnage across the river, El Paso is one of the safest cities in America.
The drug violence exploded after a crackdown on the cartels ordered more than two years ago by the Mexican president, Felipe Calderon.
According to Diana Washington Valdez, an El Paso investigative reporter who has covered the cartels extensively, Mr Calderon is isolated, allegedly surrounded by officials who are paid as much as $500,000 (£340,000) a month to supply the cartels with information.
“The big guys haven’t been arrested. The authorites know where they are but they’re always tipped off and protected,” she said. “If the Mexicans are serious, they have to go after these politicians who are on the take.”
The Juarez troop surge was financially unsustainable, she said. “What’s missing is a decisive plan of action. The cartels will lie low for a while and then get back to business. I’m afraid the violence will go on until everyone who is meant to die, dies.”
By Tom Leonard in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Last Updated: 8:19PM GMT 24 Mar 2009
Source: The Telegraph