Child soldiers are used in areas of conflict around the globe. They are frequently abducted, but often are handed over by their families as an attempt to alleviate dire poverty. According to the charity War Child, there are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers around the world, the majority of whom are in Africa. Child soldiers as young as eight are being used in armed conflict in Sudan and the Congo.

In 2013 the UN set a goal to eradicate the phenomenon by 2016. However, how do we define a child soldier? Mexico is not considered to be in an officially recognised armed conflict, despite the rising death toll that began when Felipe Calderón launched the Drug War in 2006. Between 2007 and 2012, 112,000 people lost their lives in this conflict that is not a conflict. Many of the victims are children – and, more shockingly, some of the killers too.

Drug cartels are well-organised, and structured, not unlike many legitimate businesses. A leader and his closest advisors will run matters from the safety of a well-protected, secret location. These are the individuals that reap most of the financial benefits from the drug business. Mansions, Hummer trucks, and exotic holidays are enjoyed by the select few. At the bottom, paid killers, spies, informants, and street corner drug dealers – the disposable workforce – their salaries not nearly as grand as those of their bosses. In recent years it has become the case that much of this workforce is made up of underage boys and girls. They are known as the ‘disposable ones’.

Most of these children are forced to work for the drug cartels, either by threatening to kill their families or through torture. Many are Central American children trying to cross the border into the United States, forced to leave their hometowns due to gang violence and extreme poverty. In their attempt to cross the violent Mexican border, cartels like Los Zetas force them to turn into killers. Father Solalinde, founder of a shelter in Ixtepec for undocumented migrants crossing Mexico, asserts: ‘We have dozens of unaccompanied minors travelling through México. It’s terrible to hear how many people they have killed, how they are drugged or how they drug themselves’.

According to The Network for Children’s Rights NGO, between 20 and 30,000 under 18s were recruited by drug cartels from 2006 to 2011. Juán Martín Pérez García, President of the NGO explains: ‘The average age is 13. Boys start out by becoming informants and girls are sexually exploited.’

For the drug cartels underage workers are cheaper, they are easier to manipulate, their sense of fear is underdeveloped, and they are available by the dozen on every street corner of poor Mexican towns. As easily as they are recruited, they are disposed. If any of these youngsters try to run away, they are hunted down and executed in the most brutal manner. The discoveries of mutilated children on the streets have increased since 2011.

It’s not only the children left alone to make the dangerous journey that are at the mercy of the cartels. The traditional solid family structure within Mexico has been fractured due to violence, poverty, and drugs in recent years. Hundreds of children are left without a home or a future. Such was the case of Edgar Jimenez Lugo, known as ‘El Ponchis’.

In 2011, Edgar, aged 14, was arrested for murder. He admitted having decapitated people for the Beltrán Leyva Cartel. He said he was kidnapped at the age of 11 and sucked into a world of violence and drugs. ‘The Child Killer’ was considered an urban myth, but as Edgar’s story filled every paper and TV channel, the nation was forced to face this ugly truth. He was released in 2013, a scared looking boy whose actions are too enormous for him to comprehend.

‘In reality, “El Ponchis” is a victim of the system, of an emptiness in society and a complete lack of organisations that care for children’, says Pérez García. Poverty is causing more and more children to drop out of school, and to find employment to help support their families. Most of the time working for a drug cartel is the best paid option. ‘In Juárez it is believed they get paid around $1,000 a month’. Far more money than they could dream of making legitimately.

Labels like ‘Child Killers’ supplant any chance of self-reflection, forgetting that they are a symptom, rather than a cause. The new generations are born into violence, holding a gun at the age of 11 is normal, living to 17 is for some considered a reasonable life expectancy. Mexico has no hope of recovery unless it addresses these problems. Schools, housing, spaces for children: an infrastructure has to exist to provide alternatives to dire poverty or the cartels. This can only come from the administration, who need to offer these alternatives to those who feel they have none. What’s more, the people of Mexico need to accept that these child killers are not some external evil, but a natural product of the current environment of the country. The fact that 11-year-old children can become ruthless killers is a problem that concerns all levels of society. It’s a reflection of classism, neglect, and complete disinterest in the youth that is being lost on the streets.