Violent crime in Mexico occurs at a rate that dwarfs the human costs of most contemporary civil wars, and the drug cartels responsible for the violence exercise de facto control over significant geographical territories. In this respect, the Mexican “drug wars” resemble conflicts over the control of rich natural resources in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, blurring the distinction between “political” and “social” or “criminal” violence. In the civil war literature, a young age structure has been argued to provide inexpensive rebel labor and thus increase opportunities for a rebel group to wage war against a government. Similarly, relatively large groups of “idle” young men could arguably be a factor that reduces recruitment costs for criminal enterprises through the abundant supply of youth with low opportunity cost. Acknowledging organized crime around drug trafficking as a major cause of crime and violence in Mexico, we ask whether the availability of large young male cohorts, or male “youth bulges”, low education and high youth unemployment ease the recruitment to these organizations and may contribute to explain variance in violent crime rates across Mexican states over time. Using panel data covering 32 states in Mexico during the 1997–2010 period, we find that, while a coarse measure of regional youth bulges is not associated with patterns of violent youth crime, high youth unemployment in low-education strata is, in particular in the context of large male youth bulges. These results remain robust against alternative data, sample size, estimation techniques and controls for potential endogeneity concerns.