A Killer As A Child, Teenage Assassin Now Free In U.S.

Edgar Lugo admitted to killing several people in Mexico when he was kid, served three years in a Mexico prison and is now freed to live back in the U.S. Ari Shapiro speaks with Richard Fausset, a writer with The Los Angeles Times, about the release of teen assassin Edgar Lugo, who is now 17.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Ari Shapiro. An American teenager who spent three years in a Mexican prison for heinous crimes is believed to be back in Texas now, living with his family. Edgar Jimenez Lugo was 14 when he was arrested, and admitted to beheading four people in Mexico. He was working for a drug cartel. Lugo served nearly the maximum sentence for someone of his age and now, he's free. Richard Fausset has been covering this story for the Los Angeles Times. He joins us from Mexico City. Hi there.

RICHARD FAUSSET: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This is a horrific case. Explain the details of it. You say Lugo was a murderer by the age of 11.

FAUSSET: Yes. Edgar Jimenez, the young man who's known as El Ponchis, became a bit of a celebrity in Mexico - in the worst kind of way - in 2010, when he was arrested by Mexican authorities. After his arrest, he admitted to killing four people. And in fact, his first victim was when he was 11 years old. He told authorities that the Beltran Leyva drug cartel paid him $200 a week, to carry out the slayings and other dirty work.

SHAPIRO: Put this into context for us. What is the role of the drug cartels in these communities; and is it believable that as a kid, he was forced to carry out these murders by the drug gangs?

FAUSSET: I think it's very believable that young people like Edgar have been recruited by the drug gangs. It's one of the more depressing realities that Mexico is living through, in this moment. A few years ago, there was a study that estimated that 1 million children in this country are at risk of being recruited by the drug cartels.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about his life and the world in which he was operating.

FAUSSET: Sure. From what we know about Edgar's life, he was born in San Diego and was thus, a United States citizen. He was born to Mexican parents. His parents were said to have fought quite a bit, and the authorities stepped in. His grandmother was given custody of the boy - and his brothers and sisters. They moved to Mexico, where he was raised; but his grandmother died. And from what we can tell, he was living a life that was rather unmoored, on the streets of a city near Cuernavaca, in the southern Mexican state of Morelos.

SHAPIRO: He is rather infamous in Mexico. Do people there view him as a horrific murderer, or as a victim?

FAUSSET: Well, I think there's a mix of opinions. And Edgar's case continues to fuel a debate about the proper way that the justice system here should deal with juvenile offenders who are accused of horrific crimes. In the last few years, as drug cartels have stepped up their recruitment of young people and as cases similar to Edgar's have come to light, there's been a push on a state-by-state basis to increase the maximum sentences for juvenile offenders in such cases.

And in fact, his case spurred the state of Morelos, where he was prosecuted, to increase the maximum sentencing for juveniles who commit such crimes; from three years to five years.

SHAPIRO: So now, this 17-year-old killer has been released from prison in Mexico. I understand he has family in the United States. What happens to him now?

FAUSSET: It's somewhat difficult to discern. American officials can't say much about his new life in San Antonio, Texas, because of privacy laws. But Mexican officials have said that he's going to be living in a - what they call a help center, which we assume is a kind of halfway house or a rehabilitation center, that is run by a private concern there, in Texas.

SHAPIRO: Has he spoken publicly?

FAUSSET: He spoke recently to the Mexican newspaper El Universal. And they asked him how he imagined his life will be, as an adult in the United States. There's been some question as to whether or not Edgar has been truly rehabilitated after three years in the Mexican penal system, which is notoriously problematic. But Edgar answered - roughly - I see myself as a man who will be good for society.

SHAPIRO: That's Richard Faussett, a writer with the Los Angeles Times. Thanks for talking with us.

FAUSSET: Thanks, Ari.

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