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Mexico "narco junior" teenagers kill drug rivals

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican teenagers as young as 15 are killing rivals for a few hundred dollars in a brutal drug war on the U.S. border that is increasingly sucking in young people.

Feuding gangs in the violent cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez prize teenage drug cartel members, known as “narco juniors”, because they give the attacks an added element of surprise and because they can’t be given long prison sentences, police and social workers say.

“There are lots of us and we get $300 for each kill,” said 17-year-old Eduardo, a middle-class student who was arrested in December after an army raid on a drug safe house in Tijuana.

Police say he was working for Tijuana’s Arellano Felix drug cartel that is battling Mexico’s most-wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, for control of the city’s smuggling routes into California.

“I had been doing it for about five months, it was easy money,” he told Reuters in a police detention center, wearing designer clothing. Police said he killed at least one man.

Some 5,700 people were killed in Mexico’s drug war last year as drug gangs fought each other and battled troops and federal police sent in by President Felipe Calderon.

Calderon asked U.S. President-elect Barack Obama at a meeting in Washington this week for more American help in fighting Mexico’s drug war, which has become increasingly brutal.

Police found two teenage boys beheaded in Tijuana earlier this month, and said they were murdered for selling drugs in a rival gang’s territory.

In Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, 16-year-old boys wielding guns last year forced their way into a bar where they cannot legally drink alcohol. On the orders of drug traffickers, they shot dead two adult men playing pool.

“CHEAP LABOR”

Narco juniors, or young drug gangsters, first appeared in the 1990s, when the Arellano Felix family recruited some of their sons and daughters and their affluent friends to run drugs and do their killing.

But a dramatic escalation of the drug war since 2005 has lured many more youngsters to work for gangs across Mexico.

Drug killings have scared off much-needed foreign tourists and investors at a time when Mexico’s economy is falling into a recession because of the global economic crisis.

But many teenagers in depressed border towns like Tijuana, where factories are laying off workers as the U.S. recession bites, are easy prey for wealthy drug lords.

The youths often start off as messengers for drug gangs before being given their first killing assignment, police say.

Many are lured not so much by money but by the daredevil life of cocaine smuggling, gold-plated weapons, fast women and lavish parties lionized in popular music drug ballads known as narco corridos.

“We see a lot of youngsters who don’t have anything else to do, including children of working professionals who aren’t the least bit interested in the money,” said Juan Miguel Guillen, head of state police in Baja California, home to Tijuana.

Some are also pressured into crime by relatives working for the cartels. One 16-year-old, Jesus, told Reuters at a detention center in Tijuana that his stepfather forced him and a friend to wrap a murdered drug gang member in tape before dumping the body.

“He didn’t pay me anything, I had to do it,” he added.

Mexico’s justice system is struggling to deal with the increasing number of minors involved in organized crime because by law the teenagers are not treated as criminals and are normally released after counseling in a juvenile delinquency center.

Even those accused of murder can only be given a maximum five-year sentence, according to Guillermo Lopez, a leading criminal lawyer in Baja California.

“These kids are cheap labor who cannot be imprisoned. More and more of them being used by the drug gangs,” said Guillen.

One Tijuana parent who declined to be named said many teenagers first come into contact with the cartels via school friends already working for the gangs selling cocaine and marijuana at parties.

“That’s why drug prevention is so important. Drug trafficking is destroying our youth,” the parent said.

Additional reporting by Julian Cardona in Ciudad Juarez; Editing by Kieran Murray

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