Ricardo Mejía, Mexico’s assistant public safety secretary, said an apparent cartel recruiter had already bought bus tickets for three boys between the ages of 11 and 14.
He said the boys met the recruiter in the online game platform “Free Fire," also known as “Garena Free Fire.” The recruiter promised the boys $200 per week to work in northern Mexico as drug cartel lookouts.
The boys were found before they could board the bus in the southern state of Oaxaca. Mejia said other cartels have operated in a similar way by contacting players through online games and game platform chats, including “Call of Duty,” “Gears of War” and “Grand Theft Auto V.”
While there have been documented cases of recruiting attempts over social media in the past, officials said violence-soaked online gaming platforms offer recruiters a much targeted pool of youths: mainly male, young, fascinated by weapons and somewhat desensitized to killing, at least on a virtual level.
The first boy was contacted by the suspected recruiter in August, and later he told two of his friends, who also accepted the offer. In a message to the boys, the recruiter said they would like the job, “given that you like guns and you will make a lot of money.”
A woman, who was detained, bought them tickets to the northern city of Monterrey under false names.
Mejia did not name the cartel involved, but said a similar case occurred in September with an attempt at online recruitment by the Cartel del Noreste, a remnant of the old Zetas cartel.
The recruiters apparently have enough technological sophistication to get around security algorithms on popular consoles.
It is not clear how widespread the practice is.
The Network for Children’s Rights in Mexico says that, between 2000 and 2019 in Mexico, 21,000 youths under 18 were murdered in Mexico, and 7,000 disappeared.
The group estimates that some 30,000 youths had been recruited by drug gangs by 2019.
A report presented last week by Reinserta, which works to prevent youths from getting recruited by drug cartels, said kids are frequently recruited by other children their own age.
Reinserta interviewed 89 minors held at youthful offender facilities in several states; 67 of those youths said they had been actively involved with the cartels. The average age at the time they came in contact with the cartels was between 13 and 15. All of them had dropped out of school and all eventually went on to use firearms.
The report said drug use is one way to recruit them, but the cartels also use religious beliefs and a sense of belonging kids can’t get elsewhere. Combinations of poverty, abusive homes, and unresponsive schools and social agencies play a role.
The report found that previous membership in local street gangs no longer appears to play much of a role. Cartels in Mexico are directly recruiting kids.