By Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2020

MEXICO CITY (AP) - A vigilante group in southern Mexico publicly displayed a troop of 19 armed, masked children Wednesday who have been recruited to act as “community police”.

The children appeared to range in age from about 8 to 15 and they carried shotguns and rifles. Some of the very youngest carried sticks instead of guns.

They performed rifle drills on a road in the township of Alcozacán in southern Guerrero state. In a nearby town Friday, a local drug gang killed 10 men and burned most of their bodies.

The vigilantes belong to the Regional Council of Community Authorities, a split-off from a decades-old force known as the CRAC. Since the 1990s, the groups have mostly policed remote indigenous hamlets where regular police seldom venture.

While the community police are supposed to combat minor crimes like fights and public intoxication with traditional indigenous punishments like temporary arrest or community service in lieu of fines, they have been drawn into the dispute with drug gangs.

Community police leader Bernardino Sanchez Luna said the children are needed because Mexico’s National Guard hasn’t helped protect their town from gang attacks.

“Just in the last year, 28 of our men have been killed,” leaving behind 66 children, Sanchez Luna said on a video of the event posted on social media.

Sanchez Luna said the children in the force younger than 12 are just being trained, but that those ages 12-15 can take on the task of guarding their villages. He said that if they children weren’t armed, they would be kidnapped by criminals.

He said many of the children can’t continue their education beyond grade school because they are afraid to leave their towns to travel to the nearest middle school.

The vigilantes are fighting the violent Ardillos drug gang, which has been blamed for the Friday killings.

The Guerrero state government condemned both the killings and using children in the conflict.

“We call on the CRAC-PF community police to respect the laws governing the human rights of children,” the state government said in a statement.

Drug gang violence has been so bad that thousands of residents have fled remote communities across the state and now live as internally displaced persons.

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