MEXICO CITY – The closest most children and teenagers ever come to firearms is when they play with toy guns, but that is not the case in Alcozacan, a town in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, where minors have now armed themselves to protect the community.
Armed children, wearing community police T-shirts and with their faces covered, join adults in providing security in Alcozacan, which is located outside the city of Chilapa de Alvarez, with fear reflected in their eyes.
Recently, Alcozacan was the subject of news reports after children between the ages of 8 and 14 were introduced as community police officers last week.
The Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities-Founding Peoples (CRAC-PF) said it “recruited and trained” the minors to help fight the violent groups that plague Alcozacan and other communities in the region.
Just days before the CRAC-PF introduced the children as community police officers, gunmen killed 10 indigenous musicians in the same region.
Chilapa de Alvarez, known as the “Gateway to the Mountains,” is home to many artisans, in addition to being a town where people follows customs and the CRAC-PF is considered the police and authority.
The CRAC-PF has also organized community police forces in 16 other Nahua communities, but the group has now become famous its child police officers.
“These children are trained so that, at least, they can defend their mother or little sisters (from a possible attack),” Bernardino Sanchez, founder of the community police force in the low mountain region, told EFE.
In light of the wave of violent incidents in the region, the CRAC-PF said it had no choice but to “enlist” the minors.
While belonging to the community police force is a source of pride for adults, for children it is a huge responsibility that, at the same time, offers a chance at surviving because the only choice minors have is to join the group to defend themselves and protect their town from the violent groups.
Jaime, a 13-year-old boy who began training with his brothers three months ago, said he wanted to protect his town and despite his young age, showed maturity in discussing the situation.
“I feel somewhat safe, I do feel a little scared because carrying a gun is a big responsibility,” the teenager told EFE, noting that belonging to the community police force was dangerous.
The same holds true for Alexander, a boy who said he had “already armed himself with courage” and all he cared about was protecting his town.
In both cases, no one forced the boys to join the community police force, they decided to sign up.
“I talked to my parents, because they didn’t want me to (join), and then they were encouraged, they said ‘yes,’ and I already started training with this one,” Alexander said, pointing to his gun. “I can defend myself against any danger.”
The children all shared the dream of becoming teachers, but the violent reality of the region where they live affected their lives and all that is left for them now is to work in the fields and join the CRAC-PF.
“I prefer to carry a weapon so that I can defend myself because you can’t with a notebook, it’s only good for writing,” Alexander said.
An average of 3.6 children and teenagers die every day in acts of violence, the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico (REDIM) said in a report released in early January.
In its 2019 annual report, titled “Infancia y Adolescencia en Mexico, entre la invisibilidad y violencia” (Children and Adolescents in Mexico, between Invisibility and Violence), REDIM said that from 2000 to 2019 nearly 21,000 children and young people were murdered, while 7,000 other children had been reported missing.
For children in Guerrero state’s 81 municipalities, opportunities are limited and education is a privilege that few enjoy.
The parents of the children serving as community police officers said they wanted a better future for them and not the one they are now going to have.
“They are there because there is no other way, we give them advice so they know how to make out the criminals,” Antonio Toribio, the father of community police officers ages 9 and 12, said.
The CRAC-PF trains the community police officers during a three-phase course, with the trainees starting out using imitation weapons made of wood.
While the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said it opposed the recruitment of children and teens by armed groups and other organizations, members of the community disagreed with this position, saying that the force provided a learning opportunity for the children.
“This is so that when they grow up they will not be criminals and will know what weapons are for and know how to respect their neighbors, their classmates, because they are taught that weapons are not to make threats, not to intimidate, they are to respect life,” one parent said.
Guerrero state, whose mountains are a prime growing area for illegal crops, has one of the highest levels of poverty and violence in Mexico.
In 2019, according to the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Safety System, a total of 34,582 murders occurred in Mexico, with 1,875 of these homicides taking place in Guerrero.