Children between the ages of 11 and 17 are being recruited by Mexico's drug cartels to smuggle narcotics and work as spies, the Mexican press reported Sunday, citing information from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
The children are those of Mexicans, other Latin Americans and Americans, with some coming from both sides of the border.
The number of children from the United States being recruited by the cartels has risen since the second half of 2011 because they enjoy the benefit of citizenship.
One of the places where recruiting increased in the past few months is San Diego, California, which is near the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
The number of arrests of children has risen in Southern California, with the charges ranging from drug trafficking to extortion, kidnapping and piracy.
Some of the children already belonged to gangs in the United States and had to pass tests to show the cartels they were reliable.
Different cartels pay the children varying amounts of money for the crimes they commit, the DEA said.
Los Zetas, considered Mexico's most violent criminal organization, and the rival Gulf cartel pay an average of $500 to smuggle drugs, $1,000 to guard a kidnapping victim for a month and $1,500 to provide information on the movement of U.S. authorities in certain areas.
American children arrested by ICE told investigators the money was an important motivator and they knew they would serve at most 15 months in a juvenile facility if caught.
Mexican children, for their part, are usually deported and continue working for the cartels.