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Mexico cops arrest child in hunt for hitmen as young as 12

Mexican police detained a minor accused of working as a gunman for a drug cartel after shocking videos and photos surfaced online of fresh-faced boys posing with guns, corpses.
/ Source: news services

Mexican police on Friday detained a minor accused of working as a gunman for a drug cartel after shocking videos and photos surfaced online of fresh-faced boys mugging for the camera with guns and corpses.

One video, briefly posted on YouTube, showed a youth, apparently in his teens, confessing to working for a branch of the Beltran Leyva cartel.

While the authenticity of the video could not be determined, cartels in Mexico frequently post such interrogation videos to expose their rivals' crimes.

The youth tells an unseen questioner that his gang was paid $3,000 per killing.

"When we don't find the rivals, we kill innocent people, maybe a construction worker or a taxi driver," the youth is heard saying.

Pedro Luis Benitez, the attorney general of central Morelos state, told a local radio station Friday that police had detained a minor who allegedly worked as a gunman for a drug cartel and were looking for another.

He did not say whether the minor who was detained or the one being sought had appeared online.

Toy guns
While Benitez did not give the age of the suspects, he implied they were young enough to be playing with toy guns.

"It is easy for them (criminals) to give them a firearm, making it appear as it if were a plastic weapon and that it is a game, when in fact it is not," Benitez said.

Local media reported that one of the boys police were seeking was a 12-year-old alleged killer nicknamed "El Ponchis."

The boy is believed to be working for the South Pacific cartel in Morelos state just outside Mexico City, Benitez told local radio.

Benitez did not name the boy or give more details but when asked directly about the teenage hitmen, he said: "They're persuaded to carry out terrible acts; they don't realize what they are doing."

Benitez said soldiers this week arrested a teenage boy and a pregnant teenage girl also believed to be working for the South Pacific cartel.

Crimes committed by minors, ranging from shoplifting to murders for the cartels, have jumped across Mexico this year, state officials say.

Parents in the violent cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana on the U.S. border say children as young as 8 years old want to grow up to be drug lords, as the thrills and wealth of the trafficking world touches their lives.

In some depressed cities where role models are scarce, teenagers see that drug gangs are flush with cash from the trafficking that brings up to $40 billion a year into Mexico.

President Felipe Calderon, who launched the offensive against cartels in 2006, acknowledged several months ago that "in the most violent areas of the country, there is an unending recruitment of young people without hope, without opportunities."

Suspects under 18 are prosecuted in a separate legal system for youthful offenders for most crime in Mexico.

But there are growing calls for both that and the nation's overcrowded adult prison system to be revamped.

Prison population rising
Mexico has more than doubled the number of people in federal prisons in the last two years as part of the country's crackdown on drug cartels, the country's top cop said Friday. While the federal prison system had about 4,500 inmates in 2008, there are now 11,000.

"Where more disorder exists, there will be more violence," said Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna. "The penitentiaries can be places where not only do people complete their punishments, but where future delinquent conduct is prevented."

He cited one prison in particular, Islas Marias, which has seen its inmate population quadruple since 2006. Located off the coast of Sinaloa state, the prison now houses 3,946 inmates, up from 915.

"We are trying to abate the deficit of space and modernize our prison system," he said.

In the case of Islas Marias, the government expanded so it can now house more than 5,000 inmates, but more needs to be done, especially as cartel violence continues, Garcia Luna said.

In recent years the government has detained thousands of suspected drug traffickers. In addition to the eight federal prisons, the country has 92 state and 333 municipal jails. The most dangerous nonfederal criminals are housed in the federal prisons.

More than 28,000 Mexicans have been killed since late 2006 in drug-related violence, and 2010 is on track to be the bloodiest so far.

Shootings continue
In Acapulco on Friday, three men were shot to death in separate incidents, including one found dead on Costera Miguel Aleman, the main boulevard of the tourist zone. In all three cases, police in the Guerrero state had no motive for the killings or suspects.

In Morelia, the state capital of Michoacan, two billboards put up by the federal Attorney General's Office offering rewards for information about members of La Familia cartel were found torched.

The burning came a day after a letter surfaced purportedly signed by "La Familia Michoacana."

It claimed the cartel wants to protect Michoacan and its residents and says the group will disband if federal police promise to act honestly and fight to the death to defend the state. There was no way to know whether the letter was legitimate.

Federal officials say the cartel is responsible for the state's bloodshed — including the deaths of 18 officers last year.

Last week, in response to the arrest of two alleged cartel members, the gang set trucks on fire to block entries to Morelia and sprayed a shopping mall with automatic-weapons fire, according to the state attorney general's office.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government plans to auction luxury jewelry and cars, planes and helicopters seized from drug traffickers and use the money to help pay for its campaign against organized crime.

The items to be auctioned next Thursday and Friday include a Rolex watch made of 18-karat white gold and encrusted with 60 white diamonds and a gold ring with a 12.25-carat diamond that will start bidding at $114,000.

More than 31,000 people have been killed since Calderon launched his cartel crackdown four years ago, alarming many Mexicans and some foreign investors who are freezing investment in the country just as it is recovering from recession.