In a large, run-down building in the center of Guatemala City, I meet a young man we’ll call José. He is only eighteen, with a baby face and a mop of fluffy dark hair. But he has the hard, tired eyes of someone decades older. He already has several years under his belt working as a hit man for a local gang. It may be more accurate to say hit boy than hit man, because when he began this career he was only eight-years-old. Another gang had murdered his father, stabbing him in the street and then coming back to finish him off when they learned that the initial attack had failed to kill him. José started his criminal life by killing the man who had murdered his dad. “I enjoyed it,” he says, his face expressionless.
The crumbling old building where we have met is the headquarters of La Ceiba, an NGO that provides refuge and training to troubled youths in the capital. In one room, teenagers are being shown how to put together a PowerPoint presentation; off a corridor are quiet rooms where they can speak to counselors—“like confessionals,” says one member of the staff. Here, José is now trying to turn his life around. Leaving the gang will be difficult, he says: they have sworn to kill a member of La Ceiba if he abandons his criminal career. For a man who has murdered so many others, he is a slip of a thing, not much over five feet tall with a skinny, pale body. Stunted growth is one effect of chronic malnutrition, which is common among children in Guatemala. José’s innocent appearance is jarringly at odds with the life he describes. As he relates his father’s murder, describes the time he was shot in the chest (he shows the jagged scar), and demonstrates how he can hardly move his beaten right arm any more, he shuffles his feet in tiny, child-size shoes, with Velcro straps.
José’s story of stolen youth is utterly chilling. But it is music to the ears of the drug cartels’ talent scouts, who, like other entrepreneurs, are keen to tap into Central America’s cheap labor market. Like many countries in the region, Guatemala has a large population of poor, marginalised young men and boys, who are easier to persuade to begin a life of crime than their richer neighbours. Average income per head in Guatemala is only $3,500 a year; in Nicaragua it is less than $2,000. In Mexico, it is more than $10,000. Just as clothing manufacturers can offer lower wages in Central America than they can in Mexico, so can drug cartels. Even more highly prized by the cartels are members of Guatemala’s special forces, known as the Kaibiles, a name derived from that of an indigenous leader who outwitted the Spanish conquistadors. The Kaibiles were responsible for some of the worst human-rights abuses of the country’s gruesome civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.