“El Ponchis,” the 14-year-old alleged cartel killer who told police he participated in four beheadings, faces a maximum of three years in prison, Mexican authorities said.
A Mexican judge in the state of Morelos ruled Sunday that the boy will be tried under state juvenile law. El Ponchis, an American citizen, could have faced federal charges – and thus a stiffer sentence – because of the gravity of the allegations against him.
The judge said that the teenager will face charges of murder, organized crime and other allegations in the state of Morelos.
After the hearing, the boy was escorted from the courthouse by 15 state police officers. Dozens more state and federal police were stationed inside and outside the court building.
Authorities said they arrested El Ponchis on Thursday at an airport south of Mexico City with a 19-year-old sister. Mexican officials allege the boy was working for the Cartel of the South Pacific, a branch of the splintered Beltran Leyva gang. The sister has said they were headed for Tijuana, where they planned to cross the border and seek refuge with their stepmother in San Diego.
Many youths have been used by drug cartels, but the story of El Ponchis may be the most shocking. A YouTube video that emerged a month ago sparked talk of a child hit man - said by some to be as young as 12.
"I participated in four executions, but I did it drugged and under threat that if I didn't, they would kill me," the boy said when he was handed over to the federal prosecutor Friday.
Authorities identified the curly haired suspect only by his first name, Edgar.
Morelos Gov. Marco Adame Castillo has said the boy was born in San Diego, California, and Mexican officials were researching whether he has dual nationality. A U.S. Embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to embassy policy, said earlier that American officials had not confirmed his citizenship.
As of Sunday his citizenship status was still unclear as was the possibility of the teenager being sent to the United States.
Despite apparently being born in the United States, he grew up in a poor, urban neighborhood packed with businesses near the city of Cuernavaca, where the people who knew him said everyone called him El Ponchis since he was 4, although no one knew why.
On Saturday, a car with a speaker on its roof drove around the neighborhood narrating how the boy had been captured. The neighbors, who did not want to be quoted by name because of safety fears, remembered him as a quiet boy and said they think the allegations against him are false.
The boy's capture, and subsequent presentation to the press, angered a Mexican children's advocacy group that said Sunday the teen's privacy and due process rights were violated. The group, the Children's Rights Network said Mexican officials should not have allowed journalists to question the boy after his arrest.
It's common practice in Mexico for authorities to parade adult and young suspects in significant cases before the news media.
The teen's next court date has not been set.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.