Mexican police on Friday detained a minor accused of working as a gunman for a drug cartel after shocking videos and photos surfaced online of fresh-faced boys mugging for the camera with guns and corpses.
One video, briefly posted on YouTube, showed a youth, apparently in his teens, confessing to working for a branch of the Beltran Leyva cartel. While the authenticity of the video could not be determined, cartels in Mexico frequently post such interrogation videos to expose their rivals' crimes.
The youth tells an unseen questioner that his gang was paid $3,000 per killing.
"When we don't find the rivals, we kill innocent people, maybe a construction worker or a taxi driver," the youth is heard saying.
Pedro Luis Benitez, the attorney general of central Morelos state, told a local radio station Friday that police had detained a minor who allegedly worked as a gunman for a drug cartel and were looking for another. He did not say whether the minor who was detained or the one being sought had appeared online.
While Benitez did not give the age of the suspects, he implied they were young enough to be playing with toy guns.
"It is easy for them (criminals) to give them a firearm, making it appear as it if were a plastic weapon and that it is a game, when in fact it is not," Benitez said.
Local media reported police were seeking a 12-year-old killer nicknamed "El Ponchis," but there was no confirmation of that from prosecutors.
President Felipe Calderon, who launched the offensive against cartels in 2006, acknowledged several months ago that "in the most violent areas of the country, there is an unending recruitment of young people without hope, without opportunities."
Suspects under 18 are prosecuted in a separate legal system for youthful offenders for most crime in Mexico. But there are growing calls for both that and the nation's overcrowded adult prison system to be revamped.
Mexico has more than doubled the number of people in federal prisons in the last two years as part of the country's crackdown on drug cartels, the country's top cop said Friday. While the federal prison system had about 4,500 inmates in 2008, there are now 11,000.
"Where more disorder exists, there will be more violence," said Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna. "The penitentiaries can be places where not only do people complete their punishments, but where future delinquent conduct is prevented."
He cited one prison in particular, Islas Marias, which has seen its inmate population quadruple since 2006. Located off the coast of Sinaloa state, the prison now houses 3,946 inmates, up from 915.
"We are trying to abate the deficit of space and modernize our prison system," he said.
In the case of Islas Marias, the government expanded so it can now house more than 5,000 inmates, but more needs to be done, especially as cartel violence continues, Garcia Luna said.
In recent years the government has detained thousands of suspected drug traffickers. In addition to the eight federal prisons, the country has 92 state and 333 municipal jails. The most dangerous nonfederal criminals are housed in the federal prisons.
More than 28,000 Mexicans have been killed since late 2006 in drug-related violence, and 2010 is on track to be the bloodiest so far.
In Acapulco on Friday, three men were shot to death in separate incidents, including one found dead on Costera Miguel Aleman, the main boulevard of the tourist zone. In all three cases, police in the Guerrero state had no motive for the killings or suspects.
In Morelia, the state capital of Michoacan, two billboards put up by the federal Attorney General's Office offering rewards for information about members of La Familia cartel were found torched.
The burning came a day after a letter surfaced purportedly signed by "La Familia Michoacana." It claimed the cartel wants to protect Michoacan and its residents and says the group will disband if federal police promise to act honestly and fight to the death to defend the state. There was no way to know whether the letter was legitimate.
Federal officials say the cartel is responsible for the state's bloodshed — including the deaths of 18 officers last year. Last week, in response to the arrest of two alleged cartel members, the gang set trucks on fire to block entries to Morelia and sprayed a shopping mall with automatic-weapons fire, according to the state attorney general's office.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government plans to auction luxury jewelry and cars, planes and helicopters seized from drug traffickers and use the money to help pay for its campaign against organized crime.
The items to be auctioned next Thursday and Friday include a Rolex watch made of 18-karat white gold and encrusted with 60 white diamonds and a gold ring with a 12.25-carat diamond that will start bidding at $114,000.
Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez, Mark Stevenson and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City, Sergio Flores in Acapulco and Gustavo Ruiz in Morelia contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS to 18-karat gold instead of 18-carat.)