Page last updated at 08:55 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 09:55 UK

Mexican cartels hire US teenage killers

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Laredo, Texas


Rosalio Reta: "I liked the lifestyle... killing people"

Prisoner number 1447523 does not understand the question. And it is not exactly a controversial one.

Why does he believe killing for a living is "glamorous"? Surely most people would find that kind of strange?

"Kind of strange? In what way?"

Prisoner 1447523's name is Rosalio Reta. He was born and raised in Texas.

By the age of 13 he was an assassin for one of Mexico's drug cartels.

"It's a job man. You gotta do something for a living."

'No way out'

Now 20, Rosalio Reta is sitting on the other side of a thick glass window, speaking into a telephone handset in the visiting area of a Texas prison.

Convicted of two murders (he says he killed many more), he will probably spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Reta lived in the city of Laredo, on the border with Mexico.

He ran away from home when he was 11, was put into a juvenile correction facility, released, and then left home again.

Hanging around with his friends in Mexico (in the border areas many people frequently cross over on business and pleasure), one told him his brother worked for a cartel.

The reality is there are gangs trying to recruit our kids
Joe Espinoza
Anti-gang worker

"I thought it was cool. Got involved. That's how everything started. There's no way out once you get in."

Rosalio Reta is perhaps the most extreme example of a worrying trend: American teenagers being recruited to work for the Mexican drug cartels that control a multi-billion dollar trade.

What concerns law enforcement officials, and those working to keep teenagers out of the cartels' grip, is that this is not simply a case of the cartels preying upon American teens - many actively want to join.

Joe Espinoza's footsteps echo down the school corridor. He can hear children chattering in a classroom.

Inside his office is a display of bandanas, baseball caps, rosaries and red t-shirts. Lots of red T-shirts.

"Gang paraphernalia," he says.

Mr Espinoza's job is to stop Laredo's schoolchildren joining the city's street gangs, or to encourage them to leave.

He tries to catch them early, when they are just eight or nine years old.

"The reality is there are gangs trying to recruit our kids," he says.

Without education, he believes, children "may end up in a prison gang. And eventually they will end up in the cartels."

Powerful interests

Martin Riso was 10 when he joined his gang.

At first, he says, "it's just a neighbourhood thing here. It gives you a sense of belonging."

But, he adds, "joining a gang eventually will take you to a place where you deal with a lot more things than just throwing your colours, or running your streets. You start dealing drugs out of Laredo. Eventually from some places people end up being hit-men. It keeps escalating."

When Mr Riso was 15 he decided he needed to get out of the gang.

Mr Espinoza helped him, as he has so many others. But he is fighting a battle against very powerful interests.

Mexico's cartels are multi-billion dollar enterprises, feeding off the US's addiction to illegal narcotics.

An anti-gang worker talks to a group of students in Laredo, Texas.
Trying to get the anti-gang message across in Laredo's schools

Teenagers are useful to them. In Texas, under-17s cannot be prosecuted as adults, so if they are caught working for the cartels, they often get away with light punishment.

Laredo lies on an important highway, Route 35, which leads up from the border to the rest of the US.

The cartels use Laredo's street gangs to control the border and the highway. It is a tactic employed along the border in other communities and, the police believe, across the country.

"It's all over the United States," investigator Mario Soria says. "Any major city with gang influence, you'll find the [cartel] control."

A large man, with a pistol on his right hip, Officer Soria has been working Laredo's streets for more than two decades, with mixed results.

He points out some graffiti. "This tells me this is a Latin King area," he says, referring to one of the town's prominent gangs. It's just a short walk from the river that marks the border with Mexico.

The Latin Kings "are part of the organisation now. The cartel knows they can trust this gang here."

Less violence

Despite the cartels' influence, Laredo's authorities feel they are making progress.

The killings that teenagers like Rosalio Reta carried out two or three years ago are less common - though they do still happen. Violence is down.

Still, says Officer Soria: "I don't think we will ever stop it."

Neither, back in his prison, does Rosalio Reta.

"Where I'm from, man, there's only a couple of things you can be, and being part of a cartel is one of them.

"A lot of people wanna get involved in the cartels and that. Honestly, there are a lot of people who will look up to me."

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