Mexico releases former teenage hitman

In this Dec. 3, 2010 file photo, Mexican soldiers present Edgar "El Ponchis" Jimenez Lugo to the media in the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico. Mexican authorities on Tuesday released the US-born teenager who was convicted at age 14 for working as a hitman
In this Dec. 3, 2010 file photo, Mexican soldiers present Edgar "El Ponchis" Jimenez Lugo to the media in the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico. Mexican authorities on Tuesday released the US-born teenager who was convicted at age 14 for working as a hitman in a case that highlighted the recruitment of children by drug cartels. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

MEXICO CITY (AFP) - Mexican authorities on Tuesday released a US-born teenager who was convicted at age 14 for working as a hitman in a case that highlighted the recruitment of children by drug cartels.

Now 17, the boy known as "El Ponchis" served three years in a juvenile detention center in the central state of Morelos for slitting the throats of four people and hanging them from a bridge.

Edgar was released before dawn and later took a flight to San Antonio, Texas, where his mother lives, officials said.

The case brought attention to the use of children by drug gangs to commit crimes in Mexico - from working as lookouts to dealing drugs and in some cases committing murder.

A 2011 study by the non-profit Children's Rights Network of Mexico found that drug cartels recruited around 30,000 teenagers.

Edgar was arrested by soldiers in December 2010 at the airport in the central city of Cuernavaca as he tried to board a flight to the United States.

The soldiers later put him in front of television cameras, and he admitted to killing four people.

The boy said he had been kidnapped, drugged and threatened into committing crimes for a reputed leader of the South Pacific drug cartel, Julio de Jesus Radilla, alias "El Negro," who was detained in 2011.

Edgar was sentenced to the maximum three years in juvenile detention under Morelos state law.

"Leaving him in Morelos would have been too risky for his life," Governor Graco Ramirez told Milenio television. "He knew it would be hard for him to survive due to everything he knew and did." The Children's Rights Network called on the authorities to take measures to protect Edgar's life.

The network said it has asked the Mexican authorities in the past to create a program allowing children who were victims of "narco-exploitation" to change their identities.

Morelos state government secretary Jorge Messeguer said the teenager will check into a support centre in the United States.

"He was detained at age 14, but he started earlier as a child, in a broken family situation," Messeguer told Milenio.

"The phenomenon we saw with this boy shows us there are things happening that, as a state, we must correct in terms of social policy," he said.

The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto launched a crime prevention program this year aimed at steering young Mexicans away from a life of crime.

Juan Martin Perez, director of the Children's Rights Network, said cartels recruit children because they are vulnerable and nobody is held accountable when they are arrested or killed.

"It is not a new issue which has unfortunately increased in recent years as confrontations between security forces and criminal groups increased," Martin Perez told AFP.

"This has created the need for more teenagers to become involved," he said.

The US embassy, meanwhile, said it was closely coordinating with Mexican officials and authorities in the United States regarding the teenager's release.

But the embassy declined to disclose more details, citing privacy concerns.