CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - School dropout Toby was just 15 when he and his friends started kidnapping businessmen, truck drivers and lawyers for ransom in Mexico's most violent city, Ciudad Juarez.
Now serving an eight-year sentence at a juvenile detention center, Toby looks anything but a gangster, with his slim build and neat hair. He has no tattoos or scars.
But as a worsening drug war hits the economy of this forlorn desert city, even teenagers from law-abiding families are being drawn into crime by the lure of cash and cool clothes.
"I started with armed robberies and the money was good. As my parents didn't have any work I thought, 'this is cool,' and I started kidnapping," said Toby, a Mexican-American born across the border in El Paso, Texas.
He says he made up to $45,000 a time with the abductions, and shared the loot with his friends.
His mother refused to take any of the money, so Toby, who moved to Ciudad Juarez with his parents when he was nine, frittered it away on clothes and cars. "I got through the money so fast so I just kept on doing it," he said.
Toby's father made a decent living for years in bars in Ciudad Juarez when Americans used to come over the border in droves for cheap tequila and a night on the town.
But a turf war between Mexico's most-wanted trafficker, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman and the powerful Juarez cartel has frightened off tourists, sparking a mindless spiral of killings that has laid waste to the manufacturing city and destroyed job prospects for the city's youth.
Some 230,000 people have fled Ciudad Juarez over the past two years.
Rubble lines the streets of the old center, just over the Rio Grande with the glass towers of El Paso in the distance. Day in, day out, authorities demolish the bars, hotels and brothels they say breed the drug crime terrorizing the city. But the violence continues.
"There's no way out and nothing to do, there aren't even parks to go to," said one teenager who declined to give his name in one of Ciudad Juarez's desolate 'barrios', crisscrossed with unpaved streets and sagging electricity cables.
No official data is available on minors staging kidnappings in Ciudad Juarez, but Eustacio Gutierrez, a judge dealing with local juvenile delinquents, said he hears cases daily. Youngsters typically get hold of guns on the city's black market, start tracking wealthy residents and kidnap them.
"I've handed down sentences as long as 12 years," he said.
According to the girlfriend of a kidnapper who reported Toby and his friends to the police, the teens kept the victims locked up in a room in the house where one of them lived.
"They would choose victims themselves and pull people out of cars at gunpoint," the girl said, declining to be named.
While the 9,300 drug war dead in Ciudad Juarez since early 2008 has scared away U.S. teens from getting involved in smuggling drugs across the border, a lust for money and status is trumping fear for Mexican youngsters.
"All the businesses are shutting down, so what opportunities do young people have?" said Marc Marquez, deputy chief of juvenile services for El Paso County. "It is a vicious cycle. By the time they are 15, they are so desensitized."
Ciudad Juarez was once a kind of Las Vegas that boomed in the U.S. Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s, luring American film stars and singers to its bars.
Named after Benito Juarez, a 19th-century reformist president, the city is scattered with monuments that recall the fighting during the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920.
After the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, it was supposed to spearhead Mexico's march toward prosperity, attracting hundreds of thousands of workers from across the country and billions of dollars in foreign investment.
Foreign-owned plants remain busy and the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso region handled $71 billion in trade in 2010, but little of that wealth stays in Juarez. Factory jobs pay poorly, forcing parents to neglect their children as they toil just to get by.
President Felipe Calderon, who launched a crackdown on the drug cartels in late 2006, has pledged to build schools and parks to revive the city and end the violence. But locals say he is moving too slowly to deal with decades of neglect.
Poverty alone does not explain the teenage slide into crime, social workers say, noting that wealthier youngsters have also been caught kidnapping, tempted by easy money.
Juvenile detention centers once full of street gang members who barely got through primary school now deal with teenagers who went to private secondary schools, some of them girls.
"Something is very wrong," said Elizabeth Ochoa, a psychologist at one local detention center. "They want clothes and expensive cell phones, and all the police and all the prisons in the world are not going to stop them."
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in El Paso; writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Kieran Murray)
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