The curly-haired suspect in the sweatshirt faced the flash of news cameras, looking impossibly small.
“When did you start to kill?” he was asked. “How much did you earn?” “How many did you execute?”
He said he began killing at age 11. A drug cartel paid him $200 a week. He’d killed four people.
“How?” came the final question.
“I cut their throats,” he replied. Then masked Mexican soldiers hustled him off, the way they do other drug suspects.
The detainee’s name was Edgar Jimenez Lugo, but everyone knew him as Ponchi.
He’s 14 years old.
In shin-length shorts and flip-flops, the San Diego-born boy was a cheerful fixture on the pothole-marked streets of his neighborhood on the gritty side of Jiutepec, a town near Cuernavaca that’s a weekend retreat for residents of Mexico City.
But whispers swirled that he’d fallen in with a dangerous crowd, that he was riding around in spiffy cars.
Edgar’s father, David Jimenez, said he had caught the boy smelling of alcohol at a local basketball court, but nothing worse. He had to admit, though, that he had no idea how his son spent his time.
“He was kind of forgotten,” Jimenez said.
Edgar had long ago abandoned school and lately seemed a fleeting, ghostlike presence in the ramshackle compound he shared with aunts and uncles. One close relative said she hadn’t seen him since April.
Authorities began hunting the teen in November, after someone named “Ponchis” was mentioned prominently in a video posted on YouTube that purportedly showed masked members of a hit team for the fraying Beltran Leyva cartel posing with rifles.
The boy’s father acknowledges that his son appeared in the video but said the teen posed as part of a “game.”
“Everything they’re saying about him is a lie,” said Jimenez, a 44-year-old security guard. “He hasn’t done the barbarous things they say.”
Facing reporters on the night of his arrest this month, Edgar said he had no parents.
“They’re dead,” he said.
Youths ‘divert from their destiny’
Edgar’s arrest was one more shocking twist in Mexico’s 4-year-old drug war: Could a boy who stands barely chin high to a grown man be a bloodthirsty cartel assassin?
The case has shaken Mexico, possibly because the answer is so clear. Faced with an abysmal education system and even worse job prospects — and lured by easy drug money and the clout that comes with it — thousands of ever-younger youths are joining the ranks of violent cartels.
The virtually endless supply of young foot soldiers keeps the cartels well-stocked with thugs, gunmen, mules, peddlers and lookouts. As vulnerable kids fall through the cracks, Mexico risks losing part of a generation.
“These kids are victimizers, but they are also victims,” said Miguel Barrera, a former gangster who now works to rescue violent teens from the streets.
About a million youths are considered at risk and easy prey for cartels, according to studies by the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. It is a precarious and probably short life. The young foot soldiers are little more than cannon fodder.
As much as 5% of the more than 30,000 people killed in the drug wars in the last four years were minors, according to civic groups; some were innocents caught up in the violence, but many were active participants.
Police and military officials say they are capturing a larger number of youths in operations against cartels.
Two suspects in the August massacre of 72 Central and South American immigrants in northern Mexico were 17 and 14. In February, officials in the state of Tabasco announced the capture of a 13-year-old girl who they said had been recruited by drug traffickers and trained to kill.
The phenomenon has crashed into a legal system unprepared for youths charged with grave offenses, spurring a movement to lower the age at which suspects can be tried and punished as adults.
In terms of prevention, however, there are only a few programs aimed at stopping cartel recruitment and little political will to tackle the problem.
“The great danger I see in Mexico,” said author and social commentator Carlos Fuentes, “is that young Mexicans, those less than 30 years of age, which is nearly half of the population, divert from their destiny and turn to crime.”
Drugs a gateway to violence
When he was 14, Jose Andres Mendoza stalked the chaotic streets of Mexico City’s slums armed with a 9-millimeter pistol that he used to rob passengers on buses. He had long ago dropped out of school and would spend “weeks at a time” high on pot.
The boy, called “Tulo,” sold drugs at his old school and in his neighborhood, a rough barrio that climbs steep hills on the northeastern edge of Mexico City.
It’s the kind of place where you can buy drugs “like a stick of gum,” as locals put it, where stray dogs roam, junkies and dealers with shaved heads fight for corners, gunfire punctuates the night, and streets are littered with discarded condoms.
“We’d pistol-whip the guys on buses to get their money,” Tulo said. “I like money. I like the clothes. I like having good tennis shoes. The name brands.”
For many youths, the passage to organized crime begins with drug use. Historically, Mexico had been a transit point for drugs, not a consumer nation. But that changed in the last decade, and the number of addicts has doubled, according to the government. The drug of choice tends to be marijuana or crack cocaine, but many of the poorer kids inhale highly toxic solvents such as paint thinner.
Tulo says it’s a harsh drug. “It makes you see things and hear voices,” he said.
Now 15, Tulo is tall and gangly, with gel-spiked hair and a large silver necklace bearing a miniature of St. Jude Thaddeus, the saint of desperate cases.
He says he’s shot only one person, another gangster who angered him. He’s been knifed. His 15-year-old girlfriend was shot to death at a wild dance party a month ago. Earlier in the year his teenage cousin, a drug dealer, was stabbed about 30 times.
He said he’s trying to get out of the criminal life.
Tulo’s father beat his mother before abandoning the family. They are poor, living in the same concrete and tin-roof home that Tulo’s grandparents shared when they were first married.
His mother, Guadalupe Castaneda, 37, is dignified and friendly and has struggled to keep her son safe.
“I talked to him and told him not to do those things,” she said. “But inside my humble house is one thing, and out there when he hangs with his friends, it’s another.”
A symptom of larger problems
Edgar, the boy known as Ponchi, was arrested at the Cuernavaca airport as he and his 19-year-old sister, Elizabeth, tried to board a plane for Tijuana. Authorities said they found two handguns and packets of cocaine in their luggage.
Relatives said the pair planned to cross the border to join their mother, Yolanda Jimenez Lugo, who has lived in San Diego for years.
Military officials have yet to lay out their evidence for the charges of homicide, arms and drug possession, and involvement in organized crime. But they say Edgar appears in another video in which a man is shown hanged by the arms and tortured. Other young detainees have said Edgar directed them to bury the bodies of slain drug rivals.
Family members say he was coerced by armed soldiers into making incriminating statements to reporters soon after his Dec. 2 capture.
The accusations against Edgar have laid bare darker aspects of life in small-town Mexico. Residents say the quaint plaza of the Tejalpa neighborhood bristles after sunset with drug dealers, who can make $500 a night peddling marijuana and cocaine.
“The same ones who supply the drugs — they work for them. It’s easy money,” said 17-year-old Jibran Barrera, a high school student who wore a marijuana emblem on his belt buckle. He said he has never sold drugs, but has friends who do.
Jibran said he didn’t view the accusations against Edgar as so hard to fathom. “That’s how he was making a living,” Jibran said. “In these times, hardly anyone has money.”
The episode has also forced the Jimenez family to face its past failings. In the 1990s, child-welfare officials removed all six Jimenez children from their parents’ custody in San Diego, where the family lived at the time. David Jimenez said the reason was the couple’s violent fighting.
The paternal grandmother, Carmen Solis, was appointed legal guardian and brought the children to Mexico while Edgar, the youngest, was still a baby. But her death in 2004 left the family rudderless, one relative said, and hit Edgar especially hard.
The boy stopped going to school after third grade because he didn’t like it.
“I neglected him a little,” David Jimenez said during an interview in the nearly empty house that belonged to his late mother.
He said the boy’s sister, Elizabeth, was rubbing elbows with reputed underworld figures, including a suspected enforcer named Jesus Radilla Hernandez who has been tied to a flurry of beheadings and other killings in the Cuernavaca area.
Edgar told reporters after his arrest that he killed at Radilla’s behest, but only under threat of death and the influence of marijuana.
David Jimenez insisted his son was “not a monster.”
“Right now all the poverty in the country pulls kids into doing things they shouldn’t. They say, ‘I’ll give you some money and you take this package over there, deliver it there.’ And without knowing what they’re carrying, the children do it,” Jimenez said.
Could the same have happened to Ponchi?
“Maybe,” the father said, looking defeated. “Maybe he was a kid who also got swept up in all that.”
Ellingwood reported from Jiutepec and Wilkinson from Mexico City.