Guatemalan gangs recruiting kids as young as 6 years old
A child looks at a soldier standing guard at a crime scene where eleven people were killed by alleged members of a gang 20 km north of Guatemala City, on Sept. 8, 2013. [AFP]

Guatemala's gangs are using children as young as six to transport drugs and weapons among other crimes, a senior official said in an interview published Wednesday.

Government data shows that gangs also sometimes tap children as young as 11 -- and routinely recruit teenagers -- to commit murder, Deputy Minister Interior Minister Arkel Benitez told the Siglo21 newspaper.

Young people who commit a crime in these circumstances cannot be called assassins because "they do not offer the service to kill but are forced to do so," Benitez said.

Gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, Guatemala's most violent crime groups, force minors to kill as initiation rituals to prove their loyalty, according to the Interior Ministry.

In Guatemala, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 gang members, according to the United Nations.

From January to early September, police arrested 22 youths accused of participating in killings. About 50 murders a year are attributed to children in Guatemala, according to UNICEF.

Another 1,500 children have been arrested for crimes such as drug possession, extortion, rape, robbery and illegal possession of firearms.

About 820 children and teens -- an alarming increase of nearly 150 percent since 2008 -- are held at juvenile facilities, 17 percent of them for murder.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]