David Jimenez of Jiutepec, Mexico, holds a photo of his 14-year-old son… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Jiutepec, Mexico, and Mexico City — 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.