In Mexico, child soldiers as young as 6 are being drafted to fight crime

MEXICO CITY — In a lawless stretch of western Mexico, children as young as 6 years old are taking up arms against organized crime. On January 22, 19 children were inducted into a vigilante group that for years has been battling drug gangs in restive Guerrero state. Local journalists published photographs and videos of the induction ceremony — in which uniformed, rifle-wielding children performed military-style exercises — that drew outrage across Mexico, with human rights officials con-demning it as child abuse.

But the leader of the vigilante group said in a phone interview that a dramatic spike in violence in the region and an absence of government intervention have left the community no choice but to arm even its children. “They must be prepared,” said Bernardino Sanchez Luna, the founder of the vigilante group. “If they are afraid, the criminals will kill them like little chickens.”

Over the last decade, dozens of self-defense groups have emerged in Guerrero. They say they are defending themselves from local criminal gangs that control drug smuggling routes and extort businesses in the region. Critics say the vigilantes are often themselves involved in criminal activity.

Sanchez said his group decided to begin training children in self-defense after the January 17 killing of a group of indigenous musicians in the town of Chilapa. The 10 musicians were returning from a performance in two vans when assailants attacked them, according to state prosecutors. The musicians were stabbed and their vehicles and bodies set on fire.

After the musicians were killed, local residents reacted angrily, blocking roads and demanding that government authorities inter-vene. They were particularly upset about the death of the youngest band member, who was 15 years old. When it comes to violence in the region, Sanchez said, “nobody, not even a child, is off- limits.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected in 2018 on a platform that he said would combat crime by giving poor Mexicans better economic opportunities. That strategy, which he dubbed “hugs, not bullets,” has so far been unsuccessful, with the country recording a record 33,341 homicides last year.

Asked about the child soldiers in Guerrero, Lopez Obrador refrained from condemning the practice and returned to his security strategy, which he said will make it so young people don’t have to take up arms.

But human rights officials across the country were quicker to voice their concern about the recruitment of young vigilante soldiers. “We strongly reject the involvement of minors in security tasks that put their development, physical integrity and life at risk,” Ramón Navarrete Magdaleno, president of the Guerrero Human Rights Commission, told journalists.

Sanchez responded by saying human rights officials should not criticize self-defense groups that are only trying to protect children. “They say we’re violating the children’s rights,” Sanchez said, “but it’s the criminals who are doing that.”

– edited from Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2020
PeaceMeal, January/February 2020

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Living a daily tragedy: Venezuelans struggle to survive in Colombia

Since Venezuela’s economic collapse began under the presidency of Nicolás Maduro in 2016, violence, insecurity and a severe lack of basic food and medicine have caused more than 4 million people to flee. An estimated 1.5 million have settled in Colombia.

About 59,500 have settled in Maicao, an arid border city in La Guajira, northern Colombia. It is smaller in size and with less public infrastructure than the more popular migrant entry point of Cúcuta, and it’s struggling to cope.

A year ago, with public spaces and local infrastructure like hospitals and schools starting to collapse, the city’s mayor pleaded with the United Nations for help. The U.N. refugee agency, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), opened its first camp in Colombia, giving a maximum of one month’s temporary respite to the most vulnerable.

Yolimar Ochoa, 34, was allowed six weeks in the camp. Single, pregnant and with five young children, she was sleeping on the streets. Her baby was born not long after leaving the camp, and she’s thankful to the U.N. and organizations like Mercy Corps, who provided her with temporary cash payments for basic needs. It helped her pay for a small bedroom near the overcrowded marketplace she shares with all her children, the eldest 16, who is pregnant. None of them currently attend school.

Now her money is running out. “I don’t want to go back to the street again. There are a lot of really bad people around here,” she says, standing outside the entrance to Maicao’s cemetery where she and her five children slept on concrete for a year.

About 1,200 people have benefited from the camp, but the mayor’s office believes it has made little difference. Aldemiro Santo, government secretary in the mayor’s office, says, “The idea was to take a human being with needs and change that, so after [being in the camp] they’d have an introduction about how to be a citizen with rights and duties. That’s not happening.” He says crime is taking over the city. “Maicao is living in tragedy on a daily basis,” he says. Many Venezuelans who arrive do so with scant idea of how they will survive in Colombia, making them more vulnerable to crime.

In addition to the physical hardship, refugees are faced with xenophobia, moving the UNHCR to launch a campaign, Somos Panas — “We’re pals”, roughly translated — to remind Colombians of how Venezuela helped them when thousands fled the long-running civil war.

Coupled with this, a group of 220 Venezuelan volunteers have begun cleaning up the streets of Maicao and interacting with locals to show they respect the city and set an example. “There has been a complete collapse in public space in Maicao and also issues with security — all related to the effects of migration,” says Edinson Gomez, who oversees the project known as Banco Amable (“kind bank”). “This has brought xenophobia with it.”

Edgar Alexander Gomez, 50, a volunteer, says: “It changes the way Colombians think of us. We’re not all bad.” Gomez arrived seven months ago with his sister Maria, 54, who also volunteers. Between them, they have taken a host of short and informal jobs to keep them afloat in Maicao.

The migration crisis has also led to more gang violence in Maicao, as rival groups vie for control of the lucrative gasoline market. For decades criminal groups from Venezuela and Colombia have taken advantage of the porous border to smuggle gasoline across the border, says Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “These groups often have diverse operations happening at once, including arms, drugs, migrants and smuggling goods,” he says. “They often fight over territory, are violent, and corrupt locals to look the other way or assist in their operations.”

Extortions and kidnappings have also been on the rise. Local media is flooded with reports of business owners being extorted and kidnapped to pay money to criminal groups. The mayor’s office says locals are “fed up” with the violence, increase in drugs available, and rising sex work among the migrant population.

Andrea, 19, fled Venezuela’s Margarita Island two years ago. She has a four-year old child. “When you work as a prostitute on the street, it’s dangerous, but really dangerous here [in Maicao],” she says.

A group of refugee transgender sex workers were forced to flee Maicao because of alleged attacks by police.“The people of Maicao aren’t ready for people like that,” says Santo when questioned about the incident. “This sexual freedom of expression … people need time to be able to accept them.”

Tensions are likely to be exacerbated as the crisis in Venezuela deepens. Colombia’s foreign ministry estimates that another 1.3 million Venezuelans will cross the border by next year.

But Edgar Alexander Gomez remains positive. “I am going to look for a better life here, but I am not losing hope of returning to my country,” he says.

– edited from The Guardian (U.K.), November 1, 2019
PeaceMeal, November/December 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)