Mexico birthday massacre shows teen toll in drug war

As youths are sucked into a deadly drug war, incidents such as Friday's Mexico birthday massacre have increased.

Gael Gonzalez/Reuters
A police officer stands guard at a crime scene where gunmen sprayed bullets into a family birthday party in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Oct. 23. Thirteen people were killed and 20 wounded in the second massacre at a party this month in the violent border city, authorities said on Saturday.

Fourteen teenagers killed at a birthday party Friday. A 19-year-old and 12 others lined up against a wall and shot at a drug rehabilitation center Sunday. Two teenagers and a woman caught in the crossfire between gunmen and soldiers the same day.

These are the casualties over a single weekend in Mexican border states, where youth are being sucked further each day into the drug violence wracking the nation.

While police search for motives, the killings highlight how young people, and even children, are being targeted in each of these incidents. Experts blame a lack of job opportunities – more than 20 percent of Mexican youth don’t have access to jobs or an education – for drawing youths into an increasingly violent underworld. Armed to the teeth, they become both victims and victimizers in bloody turf battles.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

“There are plenty of young people who aren’t involved in criminal activity, but maybe their neighbor, or friend, or schoolmate is, and when they go to a party all of them are targeted, including children,” says Roberto Bermudez Sanchez, a sociologist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University in Mexico City.

In places like Ciudad Juárez, there is an even greater desolation. Forty-five percent of residents aged 13 to 24 don’t work or study, says a March report from Colegio de Frontera Norte. A quarter of the city’s homicide victims falls in that age range.

Not the first birthday massacre

Gunmen fired on the crowd at Friday night’s birthday celebration in a lower-middle class neighborhood after demanding party-goers hand over someone named “el Raton” (the Mouse), officials said. It's unclear if the person escaped, was killed, or was even at the party, according to police.

The birthday massacre in Juárez is not the first in the city. Fifteen youths were slain in a similar fashion in January, sparking a nationwide outcry. The federal government responded by setting up an extensive social program known as Todos Somos Juárez ("We are All Juárez").

But since then similar slayings have occurred repeatedly, with another just last month when six people were killed at a private party. In the northern city of Torreón, another mass murder at a birthday party took place in July, after a prison chief allegedly armed inmates and released them from jail to carry out the brutal killing.

Prof. Bermudez says young people can easily be drawn into organized crime when violence becomes a daily occurrence for them, but it is much more difficult to escape. Sunday's shooting at a drug rehabilitation center in Tijuana, which left 13 people dead, may have been motivated by concerns that reformed addicts could give cartel members up to authorities, he says.

'This is just beginning'

News reports, however, suggest the attack may have been a reprisal against the recent seizure of 134 tons of marijuana in Tijuana (up from the original estimate of 105 tons). Reforma newspaper reported that a message broadcast on police radios following the shooting said: “This is just beginning.”

Some experts say officials are quick to paint youths as criminals as a way of ignoring important cases. The victims of January’s birthday shooting were first tarred as possible traffickers before the federal government changed abandoned those claims following public criticism.

Mexico's drug war, which has killed more than 28,000 people since 2006, has targeted adults and youths alike, says Ignacio Irazuzta, a sociologist at the Monterrey Technological Institute in the northern city of Monterrey. “Young people involved in criminal activity who are killed can no longer be considered victims?”

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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