Texas law enforcement officials say several Mexican drug cartels are luring youngsters as young as 11 to work in their smuggling operations.
Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told Reuters the drug gangs have a chilling name for the young Texans lured into their operations.
"They call them 'the expendables,'" he said.
McCraw said his investigators have evidence six Mexican drug gangs -- including the violent Zetas -- have "command and control centers" in Texas actively recruiting children for their operations, attracting them with what appears to be "easy money" for doing simple tasks.
"Cartels would pay kids $50 just for them to move a vehicle from one position to another position, which allows the cartel to keep it under surveillance to see if law enforcement has it under surveillance," he said.
"Of course, once you're hooked up with them, there's consequences."
McCraw said 25 minors have been arrested in one Texas border county alone in the past year for running drugs, acting as lookouts, or doing other work for organized Mexican drug gangs. The cartels are now fanning out, he said, and have operations in all major Texas cities.
This month, "we made an arrest of a 12-year-old boy who was in a stolen pickup truck with 800 pounds of marijuana," he said. "So they do recruit our kids."
McCraw says the state of Texas is joining a program initiated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection called "Operation Detour," in which law enforcement officers meet with children and their parents in schools and at community centers to warn them about the dangers of what appears to be the easy money the Mexican drug gangs offer.
Law enforcement officers say children are less likely to be suspects than adults, are easily manipulated by relatively small sums of money, and face less severe penalties than adults if arrested.
Last month, Texas officials released a report indicating Mexico-based drug gangs are intent on creating a "sanitary zone" on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, and are "intimidating landowners" in south Texas into allowing them to use their property as "permanent bases" for drug smuggling activity.