Young but untouchable

Boy Kills Man may be short but, like the Colombian child killers it depicts, its effect on the reader will be deadly


Boy Kills Man
Matt Whyman
2004, Hodder
153 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

WRITING in the New York Times in 2002, Eliza Griswold told of a child assassin in Colombia who, by the time of his own death at the tender age of 17, had murdered more than 30 people. [1]

Her shocking article about children who are paid a pittance to kill painted a harrowing picture of the desperate exploitation that has turned Medellín into the murder capital of the world: on average, there are about 300 killings a month, compared with 50, for example, in much larger Chicago.

Griswold’s article delineated both the appalling social conditions found in the city’s slums but also the impunity and macho cult of death that help to explain levels of routine violence beyond the comprehension of policymakers in more stable societies. To these factors must be added very high levels of child abuse and family breakdown in a country numbed over generations by civil war and its shattering impact.

The journalist highlighted complex legal explanations for the more recent proliferation of child assassins, invariably from poor neighbourhoods, as a tragic feature on the country’s already grim criminal landscape. For example, a 1989 penal code designed to protect minors from adult prisons by sending them, in principle, to rehabilitation centres, had in fact put them above the law. Cynical adult criminals, spotting the loophole, had jumped on the bandwagon and recruited and trained a generation of young assassins or sicarios.

Furious firefight

That said, child and adolescent killers had gained notoriety as early as the 1970s, when drug cartels began to recruit young hoods from youth gangs. In a 1994 report, the Colombian journalist and social worker Alonzo Salazar noted that, in 1983, a 16-year-old adolescent had killed the minister of justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, with a sub-machine gun, prompting President Belisario Betancur to enact the extradition treaty with the US that unleashed a furious firefight between the state and cartels. [2] Salazar pointed out that young boys had, subsequently, been responsible for the murder of newspaper editors, state officials and key political figures, including, in 1990, Carlo Pizarro Léon-Gómez, the presidential candidate of the M-19 party.

Matt Whyman’s novel Boy Kills Man is a brave and provocative way of engaging with this disturbing aspect of Latin American life through the stories of 12-year-old Shorty and his older friend Alberto who are sucked into the murderous world of drug traffickers because they are easy to manipulate.

The book is based on the true stories of Colombian child killers and treads a skilful path between depicting them as fearless, amoral gunslingers with little to lose yet as mere children as desperate for a mother’s hug as the next boy. Whyman wants us to consider his characters’ motives as well as their reflexes.

Although at times it is hard to know whether it is written for children or for adults, its blunt, unshrinking style fashions a highly effective blunt instrument that forces the reader to contemplate the causes and implications of violence in such hopeless societies where life has little value.

While parents will be nervous about trying this one out on their little darlings, there is perhaps no better way of getting across to them the consequences of carrying a weapon and of trying to grow up too fast.

[1] Eliza Griswold. 2002. “The 14-year-old Hit Man” in The New York Times magazine (April 28, 2002). Reproduced online
[2] Alonzo Salazar. 1994. “Young assassins of the drug trade” in NACLA Report on the Americas (May/June 1994). Reproduced online

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer