MEXICO CITY — He admitted being a salaried killer for a drug cartel, the kind of assassin who preferred slashing his victims’ throats.
On Tuesday, after serving three years behind bars, he was released from a Mexican detention center and was on his way to the United States — where he would soon live as a free man.
Or, rather, a free boy.
The killer, Edgar Jimenez Lugo, known to Mexican crime reporters as “El Ponchis,” is 17 years old. He was 11 when he killed his first victim, and he was 14 when he was arrested, in December 2010, at the Cuernavaca airport, along with luggage containing two handguns and packets of cocaine.
Back then, Jimenez’s tender age transformed him into a media phenomenon, one that shocked Mexico, and the world, into recognizing the extent to which the country’s brutal drug war was consuming its young. And now it is one of the reasons why Jimenez — who claims to have killed four people at an age before most kids get their learner’s permit to drive — will soon be mingling with the residents of San Antonio.
Under the laws at the time in the Mexican state of Morelos, where he was prosecuted, Jimenez could be sentenced to a maximum of only three years of incarceration because he was a minor. A judge ordered him released Tuesday, a few days before his three years were up.
And because he is a U.S. citizen, born in San Diego, he has every right to return to his home country.
“Apparently he’s paid his debt for whatever crimes he was convicted of [in Mexico], and I’m not aware of any charges the U.S., federal or state, has against him,” Michelle Lee, an FBI special agent based in San Antonio, said Tuesday. “The situation with him is really no different than any other U.S. national who commits a crime, completes their sentence and is released.”
Jimenez, who had lived, and killed, in Jiutepec, a town near the popular resort city of Cuernavaca, was on a plane headed to San Antonio, where he has family, Jorge Vicente Messeguer Guillen, the Morelos government secretary, said in a TV interview.
Once in San Antonio, Messeguer said, Jimenez would be sent to what he referred to as a “support center” but would not be locked up.
Graco Ramirez, the Morelos governor, said in a separate TV interview that Jimenez’s rehabilitation in the Mexican penal system had been “notable.” He also said that Jimenez had to leave Mexico because his life might be in danger.
U.S. State Department officials would not elaborate on what Jimenez’s living arrangements would be when he arrived in Texas. Nor did they clarify what Messeguer meant by a “support center.”
“We are aware of Edgar Lugo’s upcoming release by the Mexican authorities following completion of his sentence,” a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said in a statement Tuesday. “We are closely coordinating with our Mexican counterparts and appropriate authorities in the United States regarding Edgar Lugo’s release.
“Due to privacy considerations, we do not publicly discuss details of matters involving U.S. citizens,” he said.
Jimenez’s case is far from unique. In February, a 13-year-old boy was arrested in the state of Zacatecas along with a group of gunmen. The boy, identified as Armando, confessed to participating in at least 10 slayings. He was freed because the state criminal code does not prosecute minors younger than 14. A month later, the boy and his mother were found slain along with four other people.
In 2011, a 15-year-old who went by the name Erick was arrested and said he worked for the same group that Jimenez did, participating with other teenagers in kidnappings and drug dealing. He was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison.
Similar cases have come to light in the states of Jalisco, Tabasco and Veracruz, but probably represent only a small fraction of the total: Studies by the National Autonomous University of Mexico have estimated that a million youths are at risk of being recruited by the cartels.
Jimenez’s release is likely to rekindle the debate about the justice system’s treatment of minors who commit serious crimes. In 2005, the Mexican Constitution mandated the creation of separate justice systems at the state and federal levels for offenders younger than 18.
More recently, there has been a push to take a harsher stance, exacerbated in part by the drug cartels’ habit of drawing from the country’s vast pool of poverty-stricken, poorly educated children to form their ranks.
In March, Morelos lawmakers increased the maximum sanction for children who commit serious crimes so that a suspect like Jimenez would serve five years, not three, behind bars, a change that came about as a result of his case. In July, the state of Veracruz went further, raising the maximum penalty for 14- to 16-year-olds from four years to 10 years of incarceration, with 16- to 18-year-olds now facing the possibility of 15 years.
Such changes have concerned some children’s rights groups, but the clamor is not likely to die down. Javier Lozano, a senator with the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, sent a series of Twitter messages on Tuesday asking Mexicans to consider lowering the minimum age for trying children as adults.
“The liberation of ‘Ponchis’ speaks of a perverse system in which under the pretext of being a minor, one can be an assassin, but not a criminal,” he wrote.
After his arrest, Jimenez claimed that he had killed at the behest of a man who was a suspected cartel enforcer who threatened to kill the boy if he did not follow orders. He said that his employer, the Beltran Leyva cartel, paid him $200 a week, and that he was stoned on marijuana when he committed the crimes.
He was, in many ways, a perfect drug-war recruit: destitute and from a broken family. In the 1990s, child welfare officials removed Jimenez and five siblings from their parents’ custody in San Diego. In a 2010 interview with The Times, Edgar’s father, David Jimenez, said that he and his wife had been known to fight violently.
Edgar’s grandmother was appointed legal guardian and brought the children to Mexico. But she died in 2004, and Edgar dropped out of school in the third grade.
“I’m not defending him,” Messeguer said. “But … his circumstances caused him to be a victim as well.”
Fausset is a Times staff writer. Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times’ Mexico City bureau. Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston contributed to this report.