Mexican Drug Cartels Using Online Games To Recruit Teens

Mexican drug cartels are using online games to recruit teenagers, paying them, often with a monthly income to act as full-time lookouts at the southern border, notifying the cartel of the presence of law enforcement, and promising to teach them how to move drugs and carry out hits for more cash, according to Telemundo (based on a translation).

Ernesto is one such teenager, a 13-year-old from Oaxaca, Mexico. He began playing a game called 'Free Fire' at 10 years old. He and two of his friends began playing the game with a user called 'Moreno' whom they met in the game.

"I never saw his face," Ernesto said, but he later found out that Moreno was a member of the Northeast Cartel, an off-shoot of the Zeta Cartel, known for drug and human trafficking as well kidnapping and extortion schemes.

After a few weeks, Ernesto and his friends began to talk with Moreno outside of the game they had met in, using WhatsApp where he offered the three teens (aged 11 to 14 years old) 8,000 pesos (around 400 dollars) every two weeks to move from Oaxaca to Monterrey to work as 'halcones' (translated hawks) that watch for the presence of police or military forces and notify the cartel boss of their presence.

Ernesto said that the cartel planned on giving the teens specialized equipment to aid them with their tasks, such as tactical equipment, radios, binoculars, and telephones. Moreno told the boys that if they did a good job, then they would be able to go on to sell drugs, and then later teach them to be hit men so that they could earn a great deal more income.

"He told us that they were going to put us like a tree or a small mountain to see how many police or military officers were going there. We were going to count how many went inside. They told me that after I was a falcon they would promote me and when I was ready they would teach me how to shoot," Ernesto stated.

The three teenagers, having accepted the offer moved to Oaxaca and met with a woman who had instructions from Moreno. The woman took them to a bus station so that they could purchase tickets to Mexico City, then to Monterrey, in Nuevo Leon, according to Telemundo.

It was at this time that the woman had the teens transferred over to a safe house just outside of Oaxaca. Ernesto said that "They told us that we were never going to return to our homes again. I imagined dead, riddled with bullets and that I would never see my parents again".

Ernesto's mother, Alicia reported the disappearance of her son to the police, who told her they wanted to wait 72 hours to find out if he had just run away from home, or was truly kidnapped. She decided, however, to search for her son on her own.

She and others that helped her carry out the search found the three missing teenagers, where they traced a phone to the safe house the boys were being kept at.

"If we had waited, my son would have already been in Monterrey working for the cartel with no chance of rescuing him. We would never have heard from him again. It was like a bucket of cold water because I felt that I was losing my son forever," Alicia stated.

After the police were notified of the location, the police carried out an operation on the safe house where they found the three teens and rescued them. Unfortunately, however, only one woman who was identified as 'Miriam N' was arrested as a result of the operation, with the case still open.

Over the last year, there have been at least 30 other similar cases where cartels either recruited or attempted to recruit using online games, though Cyber Police say that number could fall short, according to Telemundo.

"We have identified a situation that is worrying us that girls, boys, and adolescents are not denouncing these behaviors that are manifesting for fear of being scolded by their parents, of being exposed within society and being singled out," Mauricio Valdez, director of the Cyber Police in Oaxaca stated.

Their tactics include targeting young people through online video games in the early morning at dawn to ensure that there is likely no parental supervision at the time. Many of these games are played on cell phones, so it is important for parents to know what their child is doing on their phones.

They target violent games due to the likelihood that the child will be interested in wanting to carry out acts of violence, which is used as a selling point to convince the child to comply.

After the recruitment attempt, Ernesto said that the offer was very tempting but that he never thought about the risks that would be involved with working for a drug cartel.