Our island, like the rest of the Caribbean, has a great responsibility to break a pattern of abuse that keeps many children as a violent, even lethal, force for drug trafficking organizations. This tragedy has worsened in the Americas and Puerto Rico is already suffering its serious effects.
A report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) concludes that, particularly in the Caribbean, young people are attracted by the power of criminal gangs leaders and by the tight control over the territories they dominate.
Studies estimate that in México there are at least 30,000 children as young as nine who actively cooperate with organized crime. Youngest children guard or transport drugs. As teenagers, they are hired as hitmen, according to the Child Rights Network in México.
Further south, in Colombia, there are similar cases with dramatic outcomes, like the one on a busy Medellín street. The country was shaken by a 14-year old boy –charged with 10 murders- who killed a businessman and a messenger in cold-blood. Authorities identified him as a member of La Torre gang, involved in extortion, drug trafficking, and murder.
In Puerto Rico, evidence gathered by law enforcement authorities points to an increase in children and teenagers involved with drug dealing. This includes a concentration of distributors of illegal substances in areas of high criminal incidence.
Studies and research by the Ricky Martin Foundation and the University of Puerto Rico estimate that children under 18 make up three-quarters of those who work or run drug-selling points on the island, estimated at 1,600. The 2010 and 2014 reports indicate that children between 14 and 16 run some of those points. According to these findings, all or almost all of these children are armed.
In these strong hierarchical structures, hitmen are in a higher rank than the rest of the gang. There are children as young as nine. This was the case of a kid who was paid $130 to commit murder, according to one of the investigations.
Young children are a key part in the pattern of recruitment in Puerto Rico and other places. They are mostly boys who drop out of 7th or 8th grade and come from families with economic and social difficulties.
This exploitation is also associated with poverty and inequality. These children represent cheap and abundant labor force for drug trafficking. There another factor and it´s the presumption that, if arrested and convicted, they would face shorter prison sentences than adults.
Children, particularly boys, must be the priority in crime prevention activities. Education and human development opportunities must become a deterrent to criminal activities that threaten the lives of our children. Initiativesthat positively impact the most vulnerable ones are equally important.
The agenda to develop solutions that protect the present and future of our children must come from collective solidarity. The process should start at home, with the strong organized support of public and private entities.