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Could a 14-year-old really be a hitman in Mexico's drug war?

  • @guyadams

On just another brutal day in Mexico, the horrific deaths of four men – beheaded, disembowelled and left hanging from a bridge – would merit little more than a footnote in the gruesome story of the country's drug wars. But the killings have prompted a bout of national soul-searching. The reason? The alleged killer was aged 14.

The teenager – who has previously made a confession before television cameras to the killings in the Mexican tourist resort of Cuernavaca – has gone on trial accused of working as a hitman for one of the country's most notorious drug cartels.

Edgar Jimenez Lugo, who is widely known by the nickname "El Ponchis" (the cloak), was taken into custody in December, shortly after the mutilated corpses of his alleged victims were found hanging from local road bridges. Prosecutors believe the boy was first recruited by the Beltran Leyva organisation, which controls much of central Mexico, at age 11. He turned 15 in May and is now facing charges of murder, kidnapping, drug-dealing and the possession of illegal weapons. The trial – taking place in private due to the defendant's age – has sparked widespread soul-searching over the so-called "war on drugs" declared by Mexican President Felipe Calderon in 2006. More than 35,000 people have since died in drug-related violence, including some 1,500 children and teenagers. Around 4,000 juveniles have been detained.

Jimenez faces around three years in prison under policies designed to rehabilitate young offenders. He is suspected of taking a typical path into Mexico's criminal underworld, which draws huge profits from moving cocaine from South America to the United States, one of its most lucrative markets. Born in San Diego, to illegal immigrant parents who were also crack cocaine addicts, Jimenez is officially a US citizen. However he spent most of his childhood in Cuernavaca, a popular weekend retreat a couple of hours south of Mexico City.

When he was 11, he allegedly began working for Julio de Jesus Radilla Hernandez, a representative of the Beltran Leyva cartel widely known as "el Negro". Radilla is believed to have employed a group of local youths to act as foot-soldiers in Cuernavaca.

Their exploits shot to public attention late last year, when a video was posted online showing them torturing a man being held as a hostage. In the clip, shot on mobile phone cameras, a youth identified as "El Ponchis" was shown beating the hostage, who was gagged and dangling from the ceiling by his wrists. The footage prompted a police investigation into an apparent teenage assassin.

One Sunday morning last August, four bodies were left hanging from a bridge across one of the city's busiest roads. The dead men's severed heads and genitals were lying nearby, along with a note attributing the killings to the South Pacific Cartel, an offshoot of the Beltran Leyva organisation. Investigators swiftly attributed the crime to "El Ponchis".

In December, police acting on a tip-off, arrested Jimenez and two of his sisters, as they prepared to board a flight to San Diego, where their mother still lives. Flanked by soldiers, the slightly-built youth was then paraded before television cameras and questioned about his alleged crimes. He claimed responsibility for having slit the throats of the four men, while under the influence of marijuana.

However, those comments are now considered inadmissible in the trial, under laws designed to prevent the police from using torture to extract confessions from suspects. The trial, closed to everyone except Jimenez's family and relatives of his alleged victims, is expected to last two weeks.