Child soldiers in foreign conflicts are treated as victims. What about the adolescents on the U.S.-Mexico border?
By Patrick Radden Keefe
After Gabriel Cardona was sentenced, in 2009, press photographers took his picture through a pane of protective glass, as if he were some exotic beast. There was something unthinkable about what he had become, a ghoulish contradiction too awful for the culture to assimilate: a child assassin. Yet there he sat, in pristine white prison scrubs, reciting a catalogue of macabre achievements in the matter-of-fact tones of a college interview. When Cardona was arrested, he was nineteen, and his delicate-featured face retained a dissonant boyishness. But he blinked when he spoke, in nervous flurries, and his interlocutors found themselves staring at a tattoo of a second set of eyes, blue-black and smudgy, that had been inked onto his eyelids.
In the past decade, as the death toll from Mexico’s drug war spiralled, it was all too easy for people in the United States to think of the horrors unfolding just across the border as a foreign problem, as disconnected from our day-to-day reality as the conflicts in Libya or Syria. But Gabriel Cardona was an American kid. Born and raised in Laredo, Texas, he was poor but smart, and fully attuned to the meritocratic ethos of life in the United States; as a child, he thought he might grow up to be a lawyer. Cardona played on the football team, read Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights,” and identified with the stunted yearning of the characters in the book. Then, during his sophomore year, a coach benched him, and he ended up dropping out and drifting into delinquency—first stealing cars, later smuggling drugs and weapons across the border. As Cardona came of age as a petty criminal, a brash new cartel, the Zetas, was asserting itself in Mexico’s drug economy and developing a reputation for tactics of unparalleled cruelty.
Laredo’s population grew by nearly fifty per cent in the nineteen-nineties, as cross-border trade surged after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the new relationship between Mexico and the United States transformed the underworld ecosystem as well. In a new book, “Wolf Boys: Two American Teenagers and Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartel” (Simon & Schuster), Dan Slater writes that by 2004 the Zetas were moving as much as ten tons of cocaine across the border—and grossing roughly a hundred million dollars—every week. They called their cartel the Company, and as that dirty revenue trickled into the sprawling metropolitan region that comprises Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, just across the border in Mexico, the area started to look like a company town. Small businesses became fronts for laundering drug proceeds, Slater writes, and “everyone, it seemed, was mixed up in something.”
Slater, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, read about the arrest of Cardona, and of his childhood friend and fellow teen hit man Rosalio Reta, in the press. In interviews with the Times and other outlets, Cardona and Reta described living in a Texas safe house and carrying out hits on demand. Slater wondered how an adolescent becomes a mass murderer. Cardona was seventeen when he joined the cartel and nineteen when he was captured. Reta, who, with his diminutive stature and oblong head, was known as Bart, after Bart Simpson, joined at sixteen and was in custody less than a year later. Between them, by their own accounts, they killed more than fifty people. Were they psychopaths to begin with? Or were they ordinary kids whom the Zetas had sculpted into monsters?
Wanting to understand “the allure of cartel logic,” Slater wrote to Cardona and Reta in prison. To his surprise, they wrote back.
One day in the summer of 1995, a psychologist named Michael Wessells visited Grafton Camp, a rehabilitation center in Sierra Leone for child soldiers who had fought in the country’s civil war. The children ranged in age from nine to sixteen. Many of them had killed. But as Wessells watched they drew pictures and danced and played coöperative games. They behaved, in other words, like kids. In an essay, he recalled how he was struck, in that moment, by the realization that, “under certain conditions, practically any child could be changed into a killer.”
The phrase “child soldier” tends to conjure images of places like Sierra Leone, and minors were used extensively there and in other African conflicts during the nineteen-nineties. But boys and girls under the age of eighteen have been deployed in battles throughout the world, from Colombia to Sri Lanka, and still fight on the front lines of many conflicts today. According to the United Nations, recruitment of child soldiers in Afghanistan doubled last year, with both the Taliban and government forces relying on underage combatants. In March, the State Department reported that the Islamic State is increasing its dependence on a cadre of juvenile conscripts, some as young as ten years old, who are known as the Cubs of the Caliphate. Historically, children often served in ancillary roles during wartime, as couriers, drummer boys, or “powder monkeys,” who ferried ammunition to cannon crews. But as weapons design evolved during the past century, and particularly with the advent of the AK-47 assault rifle, it became more practical to put children in front-line combat. P. W. Singer, in his book “Children at War” (2005), observes that the AK-47, with fewer than ten moving parts, is “brutally simple”: “Interviews reveal that it generally takes children around thirty minutes to learn how to use one.”
What juveniles lack in strength and experience they make up for in other qualities: they are coachable and often available in abundant supply. The uncertainty of wartime leaves young people acutely vulnerable; separated from family or other support structures, children can form a dependency on their military commanders that makes them easy to exploit. The warlord Joseph Kony, in the early years of his insurgency in Uganda, conscripted adults for his Lord’s Resistance Army. He eventually switched to children, because they were easier to indoctrinate. Of course, there is a moral taboo associated with defiling the innocence of youth, but a willingness to violate that taboo can amount to a tactical advantage. A professional soldier, peering through the scope of his rifle at a twelve-year-old, might hesitate to pull the trigger. And signalling that there is no boundary one is unprepared to transgress may demoralize one’s adversary. A recent report by the Quilliam Foundation describes Islamic State propaganda videos that feature children committing murder, and suggests that the group is broadcasting its willingness to flout international norms in a deliberate effort to seize “the psychological upper hand.”
One context in which we don’t often hear about child soldiers is the drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet, according to Child Rights Network, an alliance of civic and social organizations in Mexico, some thirty thousand minors have been pressed into playing a role in the country’s ongoing criminal insurgency, and several thousand of them have been killed. “Wolf Boys” offers a bracingly intimate glimpse of how this insurgency looks from the point of view of the young killers on the front lines. Prison can make a good correspondent of almost anyone, and, after writing to Cardona and Reta, Slater found himself drawn into an epistolary relationship of queasy intensity. He visited both boys in prison and spoke to them for hours. Reta eventually cut off contact, but Slater and Cardona continued to correspond, exchanging hundreds of pages of letters.
When Cardona was seventeen, in 2004, he was in Nuevo Laredo doing a freelance smuggling deal; corrupt local police spotted him and brought him to Miguel Treviño, the dead-eyed commander of the Zetas. Treviño, who was in his thirties, interrogated Cardona while palming a hand grenade, “like a pitcher cups a baseball,” Slater writes. Treviño was impressed by Cardona’s self-possession, and not long afterward Cardona was sent, as a probationary foot soldier, to a training camp in Tamaulipas.
The Zetas originated from a team of élite commandos who defected from Mexico’s armed forces, so the cartel was prone to paramilitary affectation. Treviño was known by his radio call sign: Cuarenta (“Forty”). But the training camp bore a notable resemblance to regimens from other parts of the world in which armed groups teach kids to kill. Cardona was instructed to leave behind his civilian clothes, along with his wallet and phone, and to wear the same uniform as the other recruits (bluejeans, white T-shirt), in a symbolic shedding of skin.
In a 2007 memoir, “A Long Way Gone,” Ishmael Beah describes a similar ritual when, at thirteen, he was inducted into the Armed Forces of Sierra Leone. As he is putting on new army shorts, Beah sees a soldier burning his “old belongings.” He is given a bayonet and ordered to attack a banana tree, imagining that it is his enemy. This is a standard feature of any curriculum in homicide: progressive exposure to violence. When the Islamic State trains the Cubs of the Caliphate, children are instructed to decapitate a doll, then to watch while a human is decapitated, then to decapitate a human themselves.
Cardona and his fellow-trainees, who ranged in age from fifteen to thirty, were given assault rifles and coached by mercenaries from Colombia and Israel. They were taught how to shoot a fleeing target, “like leading a wide receiver in a football game.” At the camp, the Zetas had assembled hundreds of prisoners—captured adversaries from the rival Sinaloa cartel—whom they called “contras.” “You see and do,” the instructors intoned, demonstrating how to kill someone with a knife by killing a contra. It was not in the heat of battle but with these hapless human guinea pigs that Cardona learned to kill. The recruits were told to take an AR-15, run into a house, and murder the contra inside. So Cardona did. You see and do.
Child soldiers often rely on drugs to injure themselves to horror. Ishmael Beah became addicted to “brown-brown,” a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine. Cardona favored a cocktail of heavy tranquillizers and Red Bull, administered at regular intervals throughout the day, which rendered him alert but insensate. Miguel Treviño, though, required no drugs to kill. If the role he plays in “Wolf Boys” is an archetypal one—the psychopath father proxy, the charismatic comandante—the details have a chilling specificity. When Treviño is driving and sees a dog sleeping by the side of the road, he swerves to hit it. After stealing a tiger from the circus, he starves it, then feeds it human victims. At one point, Treviño tells Cardona that he has killed “more than eight hundred people.” Among the Zetas, this counts as a boast. It is not merely the act of killing but a real or feigned emotional indifference to the taking of human life that consolidates status in the cartel. Armed groups that use child soldiers often truck in mystical elements—one reason that Joseph Kony found kids so easy to manipulate is their readiness to believe in magic—and the Zetas betray some elements of a death cult. Cardona was not an especially spiritual kid, but like his colleagues he offered lip service to Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk saint of the dead.
In the Zetas, Dan Slater tells us, the highest praise you could offer someone was to say that he was frío—coldhearted. The first time Rosalio Reta kills someone, his comrades rally around to celebrate. “Your first job!” they exclaim. “You’re going to have nightmares!” He was sixteen. Slater charts Cardona’s evolution into an efficient and reliable killer, “a heat-seeking missile of black-market capitalism to be deployed against anyone who ran afoul of the Company.” At one point, Treviño touches Cardona’s chest and tells him, “You’re just as cold as me.”
In the United States, when a child murders a classmate or a family member, the criminal-justice system makes few allowances for youth. After a Supreme Court decision in 2005, we no longer execute minors, but children as young as thirteen have been tried as adults, and thousands of juveniles have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For child soldiers in foreign conflicts, the situation is often different. In recent decades, humanitarian groups have successfully campaigned for juvenile combatants to be considered not primarily as the perpetrators of violence but as casualties themselves. “Children associated with armed groups are, above all, victims of these groups,” Leila Zerrougui, who advises the U.N. Secretary-General on child soldiers, said last year. In 2002, when the Special Court for Sierra Leone was established, it was decided that children under the age of fifteen, even those who had committed monstrous crimes, should be exempted from the proceedings. As the anthropologist David Rosen observes in his book “Child Soldiers” (2012), the idea that a juvenile who commits war crimes should be spared any judicial accounting represents a “new and radical notion.”
One beneficiary of this approach was Ishmael Beah, who after nearly three years as a child soldier in Sierra Leone was rescued by the U.N. and “demobilized” in 1996, at the age of sixteen. Beah turned out to have a fluid ability to narrate his own story and a camera-ready smile that seemed to signal, at a glance, his rehabilitation. You would be hard pressed to find a more ingratiating spokesman for former child combatants. Beah was eventually adopted by an activist in New York City and attended Oberlin. His memoir was displayed in Starbucks and sold 1.5 million copies. (There was subsequent controversy over charges that Beah fabricated parts of his story, but both Beah and his publisher reject these claims.)
If Ishmael Beah is eligible for redemption, should we extend a similar dispensation to Gabriel Cardona? Beah writes that he and his compatriots “had no choice” but to join the hostilities: they were separated from their families in the midst of a civil war. Parts of Mexico certainly resembled a conflict zone when Cardona was a Zeta; in places along the border, the murder rate was higher than in Afghanistan or Iraq. But Cardona didn’t live in Mexico; he lived in Laredo, and Laredo was comparatively safe. His father was an abusive drunk who left the family when he was a child, and, Slater writes, Cardona had “seen enough movies” to blame his father’s absence for “part of his situation.” But only part of it. Cardona sees that this is no basis for absolution. He was not an orphan: he remained close with his mother and his brother. He was an intelligent kid who had other options.
Cardona might have been frío, but he was not a sadist. Unlike Miguel Treviño, he derived no thrill from killing. So why do it? The anthropologist Alcinda Honwana has observed that young combatants, in the face of pervasive murder, “vividly experienced their own powerlessness—except as killers,” and Darwinian logic may have played a role. Better to be a meat eater than a grass eater in a world in which grass eaters get eaten. Cardona tells of the macho empowerment he felt as an alpha in a hazardous domain. But he offers another explanation, too, one that is as bleak as it is banal: he killed for cars and clothes. The Zetas paid Cardona five hundred dollars a week. “Commission missions”—solo contract hits—could mean a ten-thousand-dollar bonus. Like any callow American kid, Cardona was hopelessly materialistic, and Slater reels off brand names like a catalogue of ships in the Iliad: Volvo, GMC Denali, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Joe Brand, Versace, Lacoste. You might think that the Zetas, in their taste for bloody mayhem, share something with Al Qaeda or ISIS. But, to members of the cartel, jihadists seemed misguided, because they were willing to die for an ideology, when their real problem was “being poor.” For a street kid like Cardona, making his way in the war economy along the border, murder meant upward mobility. “Riches and bitches,” the instructors in Tamaulipas chanted, explaining what recruits stood to gain if they killed for the Company.
It is difficult, when reading such passages, to feel much sympathy for Cardona. But teen-agers are hardly known for the sophistication of their decision-making. Studies have shown that during adolescence the parts of the brain that incline us to risky behavior are more developed than the “cognitive control system,” which regulates such impulses, and tends to develop later. In fact, while we often focus, when we talk about child soldiers, on the systems of exploitation that perpetuate the phenomenon, it may be driven just as much by an element of unhinged adolescent agency. In 2006, Michael Wessells, the psychologist who visited Grafton Camp, published a book, “Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection,” in which he addressed the fact that the majority of underage combatants are not kidnapped or forcefully conscripted; they voluntarily enlist. Their range of alternatives may be constrained by wartime circumstance—more constrained than Cardona’s. Still, Wessells says that many children join armed groups not because they “have no choice” but because they are seeking “meaning, identity, and options civilian life does not afford.”
Cardona can distinguish right and wrong. He knows that what he is doing is immoral, but he rationalizes. He tells himself that there are no innocents in the drug trade; if he didn’t execute his victims, somebody else would. Even so, he has doubts, and one quietly devastating aspect of “Wolf Boys” is the way in which, whenever Cardona starts to question his gruesome métier, he finds himself set straight. At night clubs, the young hit men are fêted like rock stars and courted by groupies. In a country where more than ninety-five per cent of homicides typically go unsolved, anyone might begin to question the value of life. The police in Nuevo Laredo don’t merely fail to investigate murders; they assist Cardona in his executions, patrolling outside a restaurant while he slays a diner inside. When the Company needs to dispose of bodies, it subcontracts to the police, who have a sideline burning corpses in oil drums.
At different points in the book, Cardona uses the word “across” as a noun, to describe the country across the border—Mexico—but also, it seems, the metaphysical realm of pure transgression in which he resides. “That’s the way it is across,” he says. Cardona has a girlfriend, Christina, whom he loves. Between murders, he takes her to Applebee’s and they order orange sodas. During a moment of introspection, he asks why she would want to be with a troublemaker like him. Wouldn’t it be better to date a “civilized person”? Christina grew up in Laredo, surrounded by the costs of cartel life. She ponders the question, before replying, “Los calmados son jotillos.” (“The calm ones are faggots.”)
In a book about killing, Slater is curiously vague about most of the murders that Cardona and Reta commit. This could be a matter of legal necessity: the boys were charged with only a handful of homicides, and detailing other crimes might result in further indictments. Slater may also have elected to gloss over grisly particulars as a narrative strategy, so as not to foreclose any identification between his reader and his subjects; Ishmael Beah describes killing as a “daily activity” but similarly refrains from graphic elaboration. Or perhaps, for Cardona and Beah alike, such specifics are lost in the fog of war. When a CNN interviewer asked Cardona how many people he had killed, he laughed nervously and said, “I have no idea.” (Prompted to estimate, he put the number between twenty and thirty.)
One theory about why we may be prepared to forgive child soldiers in foreign conflicts while harshly punishing children who kill in this country has to do with the identity not of the killer but of the victim. Mark Drumbl, a law professor at Washington and Lee, observes that “whereas the child perpetrator targeting Africans tends to be held as a mindless captive of purposeless violence, the child perpetrator targeting Westerners tends to be held as an intentional author of purposeful violence.” Eventually, Miguel Treviño made a fateful decision to deploy Cardona, along with Rosalio Reta, across the border to Texas, with a list of Americans to kill. In Laredo, a D.E.A. agent named Robert Garcia began to pursue the young killers, so Treviño decided that they should kill Garcia as well. Before they could do so, both boys were taken into custody. After their capture, a prosecutor said in court, Laredo’s murder rate dropped by half.
The recent film “Beasts of No Nation,” based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, depicts the transformation of Agu, a child from an unnamed West African country, from a giggling boy to a machete-wielding killer. It is a searing chronicle of metamorphosis, and, owing in part to the performance of Abraham Attah, the Ghanaian actor who plays Agu, the film leaves the viewer little choice but to identify with a marauding underage soldier and to construe each incremental tragedy that befalls him as a basis for mitigating his culpability. Watching the film, you desperately want Agu to escape. And he does. The final scenes take place at a coastal rehabilitation center for demobilized child soldiers. Agu’s soul is not beyond salvage, and the film ends on a hopeful note, as a gaggle of former child combatants take to the ocean and frolic in the waves and Agu, looking very much like a boy again, plunges in to join them.
There is no such redemption in “Wolf Boys.” When Cardona and Reta received what amount to life sentences in prison, no N.G.O. intervened on their behalf. There was no art therapy. Nobody seemed eager to “reintegrate” the boys into society. Deprived of his tranquillizers, Cardona started having gory nightmares. In letters to Slater, he seems to fluctuate in his own assessment of his past. At times, he expresses remorse. But he still maintains that Miguel Treviño, who was arrested by Mexican forces in 2013, is “a good man.”
Rosalio Reta, in some of his initial media interviews, expressed glassy-eyed contrition, casting himself as a hapless victim of grave forces beyond his control. But this was a put-on, Slater writes. Reta was merely savvy enough to know what people wanted to hear. He told stories about killing for the first time when he was thirteen, though according to “Wolf Boys” he was actually sixteen. Reta’s bogus narrative of redemption was “a hit with his public,” Slater observes. In fact, Reta tells Slater that he’s been thinking about writing a book—something along the lines of Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone.”
Cardona and Reta are still young, with decades ahead of them for reflection. They may yet come to terms with the wreckage they have caused. In 2013, a team of psychologists at the University of Utah published a paper noting that, while there is extensive academic literature on the indoctrination, rehabilitation, and post-conflict trauma of child soldiers abroad, there are few corresponding studies of American children drawn into gang violence. Perhaps, they suggested, some of the research lessons gleaned from international studies could be applied to “the child combatants in our own backyard.” For Slater, the story of Cardona and Reta is, at least in part, an indictment of American obliviousness: a parable about the mutant children of the drug war. When Cardona was sentenced, in 2009, his lawyer pleaded for something shorter than a life sentence. “I don’t know what’s in my client’s mind,” he said. “I’m not Freud. I’m sure Freud would have a field day. I don’t know what the motivation was. We don’t know what makes him tick. No one seems to really care.”
Borderland Beat Reporter dd Posted at 10:20 PM