BY MORGAN LEE, UNION-TRIBUNE
A San Diego-born boy accused of working as a hitman for a drug cartel in central Mexico was formally charged on Wednesday in the killings of four men whose headless bodies were found in August dangling from a highway bridge, prosecutors announced.
Edgar Jimenez Lugo, 14, will be tried in juvenile court for homicide, participation in organized crime, drug possession and carrying a firearm reserved for the exclusive use of Mexico’s armed forces.
The thin, curly haired boy and a 19-year-old sister were arrested Dec. 2 as they prepared to board a flight from Cuernavaca to Tijuana and eventually reach their mother’s home in San Diego. A second sister was arrested after driving them to the airport.
As a 14-year-old, Edgar faces a maximum sentence of three years in juvenile detention, where he would receive psychological counseling and resume an education that ended in the second grade, juvenile court Judge Armando Prieto said.
Last fall, Mexico’s army began searching for a boy assassin nicknamed “El Ponchis” who appeared in Internet videos of gun-waving youths and scenes of torture. Thrust before reporters and cameras after his arrest, Edgar confessed to beheading four people while high on marijuana and being threatened with harm if he refused. It is unclear whether that confession will be admissible in court.
Edgar’s father, David Antonio Jimenez Solis, cast doubt on the charges against his son, saying the public confession with soldiers at his side was made virtually at gunpoint.
“They grabbed him in a rush to judgment,” said Jimenez Solis on Wednesday from Tejalpa, a working-class neighborhood where Edgar spent most of his youth. “It’s more likely he has nothing to do with this.”
Jimenez Solis, who works at a chicken processing business, said he has not been in direct contact with his son or his public defense attorney since the arrest. But he believes his son is incapable of the crimes in question.
“The soldiers put a gun to his head,” he said.
The organized crime charge against the boy stems from a kidnapping for ransom. The homicide victims, ranging in age from 20 to 24, are believed to have been targeted in a fierce drug-gang turf war in the central Mexican tourist destination of Cuernavaca.
Prosecutors will seek 3.5 million pesos, or nearly $300,000, in reparations for the kidnapping victim and relatives of the homicide victims, said Efrain Vega Giles, a spokesman for the Morelos state attorney general’s office.
Edgar’s arrest in December was a shocking example of how juveniles are increasingly being used by Mexico’s drug-trafficking gangs. Mexican authorities say more than 15,000 people were killed last year in the country’s surging drug-related violence.
Troops in Cuernavaca continue to search for members of the South Pacific Cartel and its local enforcer, Jesus Radilla Hernandez, whose alias is “El Negro.” Radilla, believed to be in his mid-30s, does not appear among major drug traffickers on the Mexican attorney general’s most wanted list of crime suspects.
The Mexican army has accused Radilla of recruiting young gang members, including Edgar, to wage a gruesome battle for control of the Cuernavaca area after the December 2009 killing of drug kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva.
The head of the Morelos state public defenders office for juveniles, Anel Pineda, declined to comment Wednesday on the charges against Edgar, saying her office is prohibited from discussing unresolved cases under laws designed to safeguard minors.
Immediate family members of juvenile defendants are allowed access to defense attorneys and court documents and proceedings, she said. Members of Edgar’s family said they’ve had no contact with the boy’s defense attorney, in part because they fear they could be detained for questioning if they visited him or contacted authorities.
In late October, Edgar’s cousin David Jose Mario Jimenez Solis, 20, was arrested on drug and weapons charges and is being held for trial without bail.
The cousin said from prison that he was arrested by soldiers who burst into his home and confirmed his relation to Edgar. The army maintains that the cousin was apprehended at a gang hideaway stocked with guns and drugs.
Edgar’s sisters Elizabeth Jimenez Lugo, 19, and Lina-Ericka Jimenez Lugo, 22, have been detained in Mexico City pending a federal investigation into allegations they were carrying drugs and weapons and for possible ties to organized crime. Last week, the detentions were extended an additional 40 days.
While Edgar awaits his fate in Mexico, his mother has legal dealings of her own in the United States. Yolanda Jimenez Lugo, 43, and her current husband, were detained by U.S. Border Patrol officials outside their Logan Heights apartment four days after Edgar’s capture.
Jimenez is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty last month to illegally re-entering the United States after previously being deported. She faces up to two years in prison because of a 1997 drug conviction in San Diego. Her husband, Gabriel Aguirre Manuel, 46, pleaded guilty last week to a misdemeanor charge of illegally entering the country and was sentenced to 60 days. He was expected to be deported after serving his sentence. Jimenez and Aguirre have two U.S.-born children, who are in the care of a San Diego relative.