AYAHUALTEMPA, Mexico — Before he picked up a rifle and joined a squad of armed children, Alex wanted to become a schoolteacher. He’d teach anything — “whatever the principal asks” — because spending his days in a classroom sounded pretty good.
He was 13, a B student with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bicycle who got nervous around the girls in his middle school.
Then, in November, as violence surged in the mountains of Guerrero state, the men of Ayahualtempa decided it was time for their sons to take up arms.
Alex was handed a hunting rifle and told to show up for daily training on the village basketball court. He and his young comrades, some as young as 6, marched and crawled with loaded guns almost as tall as they were. Their uniforms said “Community Police” in yellow letters.
When the photographers started coming, the boys were told to cover their faces with handkerchiefs. Arming children to defend the town against a violent gang wasn’t a media stunt, Alex’s commanders insisted. But if the images drew the government’s attention to a place Mexico’s security forces had forgotten, it would be a triumph of its own.
But were the boys training to defend their village, or were they being paraded in front of visiting photographers to send a message to the government, a plea for more resources? Sometimes even Alex wasn’t sure. What he knew was that the gun was heavy and loaded, and the training felt real enough to him.
Alex’s father, Santos Martínez, looked at his son’s face, trying to gauge whether Alex was mature enough to join the force.
“There was no fear in his eyes,” Martínez said. “That’s how I knew he was ready.”
Alex repeated the words of his commander.
“I’m preparing to defend my village,” he said.
Mexico suffered 35,588 homicides in 2019, a record. It was another data point in a trend borne out across Ayahualtempa and thousands of towns like it: Every year, no matter who is in power, this country becomes more violent.
But violence takes dramatically different forms across Mexico, a nation splintered by turf wars. In the northwestern capital of Culiacán, the Sinaloa cartel battles the country’s security forces with military-grade weapons. In Ayahualtempa, a village of 600 indigenous people, the community police carry aging hunting rifles in their own war against a powerful drug cartel called Los Ardillos, which controls the neighboring town.
For years, Ayahualtempa had maintained its own defense force, dozens of armed men who patrolled the village and manned checkpoints and held overwatch positions on the roofs of unfinished homes. Autodefensas, or self-defense forces, are legal in Guerrero state and recognized by the federal government.
But over the past year, the local autodefensa, known as the CRAC-PF, has been overwhelmed. Twenty-six people have been killed since the start of 2019 in the force’s territory, which includes Ayahualtempa and 15 other towns. Last month, 10 musicians from those towns traveling to a concert were shot and burned beyond recognition. One of them was 15 years old.
Alex’s middle school was in what was considered to be enemy territory. He stopped attending.
Bernardino Sánchez Luna, the 48-year-old founder of CRAC-PF, said its leaders spoke among themselves and decided to allow the boys into the force. In recent months, the group of armed children grew more formal. Now there are 17 boys in matching T-shirts. Those under 12 get handmade toy guns. Those over 12 get working rifles.
“If the government can’t protect them, they need to be trained to defend themselves,” Sánchez Luna said.
Alex had seen the pictures of himself, rifle in hand, published in newspapers across Mexico. It was a strange kind of fame. He had never left the state of Guerrero, and now his face was on newsstands in the capital. His commander insisted it was part of the strategy.
He noticed that CRAC-PF’s leaders began welcoming local journalists, who took photos of the boys during their training sessions. He heard Sánchez Luna talk about how the media could be used as a tool to convey the village’s problems — its demands for the state and federal governments. The village had been ignored for decades, but it would be hard to ignore a force of armed children.
By the time a Washington Post correspondent arrived in Ayahualtempa this week, Alex’s suspicion had sharpened.
“These journalists like you come, but I don’t know where they’re from,” he said. “How can I trust them?”
He was sitting on the curb outside his family’s small convenience store, where he staffs the register now that he’s no longer in school. He kept his uniform and rifle behind a stack of plastic Pepsi bottles. Training starts at 5 p.m.
Sánchez Luna insisted the boys weren’t being used as a tool to attract the attention of the media or the government. But he did admit that when journalists were in town, he held training sessions earlier, because photographers and videographers had complained that the nighttime drills were too dark to record. He also called the media “an important weapon for us.”
After a flurry of stories in Mexican news outlets, CRAC-PF printed out a list of 29 demands for Mexico’s president, ranging from increased security to the installation of an ATM. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had taken an interest in Ayahualtempa after seeing images of the armed children in the media.
“Giving children weapons and taking videos is an act of cruelty,” he said last week.
But despite López Obrador’s comments and a condemnation from UNICEF, the children remain armed, and the government has not tried to intervene. The Guerrero state governor agreed to send a routine police patrol through the area. But that meant little to the people of Ayahualtempa, including Alex, who now watched, rifle in hand, as the heavily armed officers drove by.
“We can’t trust them, either,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, Alex and his father left their house for the village’s main checkpoint, a chain barrier that marked the division between Ayahualtempa and Hueycantenango, which they considered enemy territory.
They walked shoulder to shoulder, each holding a rifle.
“Man the bunker,” Martínez said.
Alex moved behind a barrier of tires and concrete, his right hand near the gun’s trigger. He wore a pair of broken sandals, his feet sometimes slipping out as he walked.
It was a moment that blurred the mission of the armed children. The force’s leaders said Alex and the other boys were merely “in training,” but here he was providing close protection for his father. Or was this, too, an elaborate attempt to attract news coverage that might draw the government’s attention to a place it had mostly abandoned? It was hard to tell.
“I don’t know how they can get the government’s attention aside by doing these sorts of things — or by dying, and even that will only get the authorities’ attention for a few days,” said Chris Kyle, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who focuses on Guerrero.
In Mexico, stories emerge of self-defense groups recruiting children every few years. Accounts of drug cartels enlisting kids are even more common. But rarely has any group been this open about its effort. Another Guerrero autodefensa leader, Gonzalo Molina González, likened the children to Mexico’s Niños Héroes, the teenage folk heroes who died trying to repel the American invasion of Mexico City in 1847.
At the checkpoint, Martínez refused to lower the chain for a truck driver. “They could work for Los Ardillos,” he muttered under his breath.
Alex stood behind the bunker, watching as his former teachers walked to his old primary school. He didn’t wave. His middle school, Escuela Secundaria Tecnologica Cuauhtémoc 121, was only 200 yards away, but on the other side of the chain. A few months ago, he’d watched as a CRAC-PF member carrying firewood was shot and killed a few feet from the school.
Not long after, the family decided it was too dangerous for him to continue going to class. They worried that anyone from Ayahualtempa could be targeted.
Alex’s older sister, Erica, refused to stop going to school. She ran away to an aunt’s house.
Their mother is torn.
“I want my children to attend school, but not if that means their lives are at risk,” Justina said. “Every day I worry about my daughter.”
Alex’s teacher visited the family’s home this week to beg his parents to send Alex back to the classroom.
Martínez said he refused.
“I told the teacher, ‘Until the government provides some security, I’m not sending my son to school,’” he said.
Alex returned home from the bunker and set his rifle down on the floor. There was another training session that evening. More journalists had arrived. Alex repeated that he was training to defend his village, to prepare for a possible incursion. He could feel himself getting stronger and more capable.
That’s what he was told, and that’s what he believed.
Photo editing by Chloe Coleman, design by Cece Pascual, video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard and copy editing by Stu Werner.