Besieged by violent drug traffickers, and lacking police or military support from the government, indigenous farmers in Mexico are arming women and young boys to help defend their homes and villages.
The strategy has drawn the attention of news media, and Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who said that arming children is “cruel.”
But the presence of TV cameras, journalists and photographers has also raised awareness of the villagers’ plight.
Wave of violence
While initially opposed by the federal government, community militias have been permitted to operate legally Mexico for years, given the insufficient military and police protection for many remote areas.
This includes the indigenous Nahua village of Ayahualtempa in Guerrerro, Mexico’s poorest state, where last year dozens of people have been killed in the last year by the Los Ardillos criminal gang.
The killings were the local toll of a wave of violence that took more than 35,000 lives in Mexico last year.
Then, in January 17, 2020, the violence in this small community of 600 reached its peak, with the assassination of ten musicians, including a teenage boy.
Shortly thereafter, the village militia trotted out a squad of armed teenage boys before a crew of TV cameras, hoping for a reaction from Mexico’s President Manuel Lopez Obrador.
And they did get a reaction from the president — of disgust and condemnation of the arming of local children — but no announcement of additional policing or military support.
Child soldiers — and survivors
Drug traffickers and other criminal gangs in Mexico are already known to arm children, who are used as pawns.
But their role as the defenders of indigenous communities has a historic precedent, with one village leader comparing the child warriors of Ayahualtempa to the Niños Héroes — boys who became martyrs during the American invasion of Mexico City in 1847.
In May 2019, another Nahua community in Guerrero, Rincon de Chautla, issued a video showing a group of children drilling with wooden guns.
It turned out that these were the survivors of a January 2019 massacre by Los Ardillos.
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Brandishing their “weapons” in the air, the children warned that “[f]or each community member that they kill, we will kill ten sicarios” — the name given to assassins working for drug traffickers and gangs.
Many of the 19 boys from Ayahualtempa and nearby Xochitempa are orphans — along least 66 other kids in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains.
They range from 6 to 17 years of age, and those under 13 are only allowed to drill with wooden guns.
But the teenagers have been provided real firearms, and are training to use them in future attacks by Los Ardillos, which is considered inevitable.
In some villages, the mothers of the children have watched with a mixture of horror and pride as their children train for conflict.
And they too have begun training to use firearms.