The 14-year old boy accused of working as a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel has become the poster child for a generation of kids recruited by gangs around the world. Edgar Jimenez Lugo, also known as “El Ponchis,” has allegedly confessed to participating in four murders involving torture and decapitation. He told investigators that he was drugged and his life was threatened while he worked for the South Pacific Cartel, a criminal organization linked to 200 murders. Time Magazine examines the worldwide impact of this story which has made headlines from Atlanta to Australia.
The teenager is actually an American citizen, born in San Diego, arrested in Cuernavaca. In the U.S. he might be tried as an adult, but under Mexican law he’s a juvenile and will likely get just three years in prison if convicted.
People who work with children are disgusted by the case but not surprised. Sister Margaret Slowick, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis and founder of the Cuernavaca Children’s Mission has seen the reality that many children in Mexico face. Sister Margaret says children pass time on a street corner while their parents are working. She helped a child whose father tried to sell her for five pesos, the equivalent of 40 cents.
“It is so important that we help these kids now while they are young, so they can make good choices later. At 14 this boy was already hopelessly entangled with a drug cartel.” Sister Margaret said.
Gang investigators in Georgia are following the story of Edgar Jimenez Lugo, and talking about common threads between his case and the stories of kids recruited by gangs in the U.S.
“This is not the first time organized crime has recruited delinquent juveniles to do their dirty work,” Sgt. Richard Plunkett of the Cobb County C.A.G.E. Unit (Cobb Anti-Gang Enforcement) said in an interview.
Plunkett identified some common factors that can contribute to kids joining gangs. The more risk factors present, the easier it is for a gang to recruit a child.
- Community Factors – low neighborhood attachment, availability of firearms, community residents in poverty and community disorganization
- School Factors – low achievement, low school bonding, low expectations from parents
- Family Factors – Broken home, sibling antisocial behavior, child abuse and neglect and lack of parental supervision and/or control
- Peer Factors – associating with deviant and/or aggressive peers
- Individual Factors – aggression/fighting and poor refusal skills
Here’s more of our interview:
What are the common trends you see with kids who are in gangs?
Sgt. Plunkett: When looking at several gang members who grew up in Cobb County, I have noticed that as young children they were victims of child abuse. As young teenagers, they were reported runaways, and as older teenagers they were committing felony crimes.
Do these kids have a perception that these gangs are their family?
Sgt. Plunkett: In most cases, yes they do see the gang as their family. A lot of the kids come from broken homes with inadequate adult supervision or no positive role models. They are easily influenced by older kids/peers who will accept them into the group and make false promises of money and respect.
Why do gangs want to bring in teens?
Sgt. Plunkett: Street gang members usually start out as teenagers. As they get older, they become more involved in organized crime. Teenagers are there to fill the ranks and are easily influenced by older gang members. Juveniles are also less likely to be punished with lengthy prison sentences if caught unless they commit an offense like murder – then they are treated as adults by the court system.
What is the jail time for kids involved in gang activity?
Sgt. Plunkett: It depends on the crime and the age of the kid. A 13 year old who commits a gang related armed robbery (with a firearm) could be treated as an adult in the court system. Violation of the Georgia Gang Act is a felony.
What can a parent do to help keep kids out of gangs?
The following is from the National Crime Prevention Council:
- Be a positive role model.
- Praise your children for doing well and encourage them to do their very best.
- Get to know your children’s friends and their parents.
- Set limits for your children, and enforce them.
- Do not allow your children to dress in gang-style clothing, practice gang hand signs, or write gang graffiti on any surface, including their bodies.
- Get involved in your children’s education, and encourage them to stay in school; be active in the PTA.
- Teach your children to set positive goals, to hold high standards, and to prepare for a positive future
- Explain to that only a very small percentage of youth join gangs. Help children understand the natural consequences of being involved in a gang.
- The more connected a child is with family, school, community, and positive activities, the less likely he or she will be attracted to gangs.
To learn more about gangs and how to keep kids out of them check out the Cobb County Juvenile Court Gang Suppression Program.