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7 circles of Juarez: teenage assassins

How cartels have turned the city's youth into hit men and cannon fodder.

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — At less than 5 feet 6 inches with acne and a mop of curly hair, 17-year-old Jose Antonio doesn’t look particularly menacing.

But in his tender years, he has seen more firefights and murders than many soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, Jose Antonio has come of age in a war zone. And he has served as a soldier, siding squarely with the insurgent drug gangs of Juarez.

He said he first picked up a gun at 12 years old, when he joined the calaberas, or “skulls,” one of the gangs that rule the slums that climb up sun-baked hills on the west side of this sprawling border city.

By 14, he had his hand in armed robberies and drug dealing and was involved in regular gun battles with rival gangs, he confessed to police.

At 16, he was nabbed for possession of a small arsenal of weapons — including two automatic rifles and an Uzi — and accessory to a drug-related murder. He was sentenced to three years and one month in the “Juarez School of Improvement,” the city's juvenile detention center known more for the hardened and desperate young adults who emerge than for any kind of improvement.

“Being in shoot-outs is just pure adrenalin,” he said, smiling, as he sat in the youth prison’s dining area behind a towering outer wall that is protected against gunfire by sandbags and guards hidden behind ski masks for their own protection.

Teenagers and young men like Jose Antonio provide a vast army of recruits for the drug cartel armies, which produce cheap assassins-for-hire who have drowned the streets in blood.

There have been more than 5,500 murders in Juarez since January 2008. More than 1,400 of the victims, or about a quarter of the total, are under 24.

Watch a video about inmates who believe turning to Jesus can help stem the violence:

Back in the 20th century, Mexican "gatilleros," or triggermen, were mostly older professionals, who dispatched their victims in the dark of the night — a life described in a 1983 book “The Black of the Black,” by Jose Gonzalez.

“I started killing at age 28 and in my conscience know of more than 50 individuals I have sent to the other world,” wrote Gonzalez.

But in the explosive war for control of Juarez’s trafficking routes and street corners, many killers are teenagers or in their early 20s, enlisted from bloodthirsty street gangs.

While the older triggermen used to make small fortunes for their sanguine trade, gang members say they will now carry out a murder for as little as $100.

“There is killing every single day. So now it’s no big deal,” Jose Antonio said, unblinking. “You see dead bodies and you feel nothing.”