Pubdate: Thu, 14 Jul 2011 Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA) Copyright: 2011 Union-Tribune Publishing Co. Contact: http://www.signonsandiego.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/386 Authors: Morgan Lee and Janine Zuniga MATRIARCH'S RESCUE, THEN IRREPLACEABLE LOSS Grandmother Protects Edgar and Other Children, but Her Death Results in Family's Disintegration Part two The 71-year-old widow was nearing the end of a 1,500-mile journey from central Mexico to restore order to the lives of her grandchildren. A social worker held up a handmade sign to greet Carmen Solis Gil at the Tijuana airport and take her to adoption court in San Diego. Carmen was preparing to be a mother all over again, this time to six grandchildren who were placed in foster care after the youngest, Edgar Jimenez Lugo, was born with cocaine in his bloodstream. She was filling in for a son and his common-law wife who had entered the United States illegally and fallen into a life of squalor and drug addiction. In her home village of Tejalpa, Carmen had raised six children and had even taken in the destitute children of other families. Now, she and these grandchildren were going to live under one roof. At a San Diego court hearing in August 1997, two Polaroid photographs were snapped. The faded images show a judge in a black robe towering over kids dressed in a clashing assemblage of overalls, skirts and sundresses. Edgar, a curly-haired toddler, balanced in the arms of a visiting aunt. All trained their eyes on the camera, except for Carmen. She was smiling at the children. The judge's approval of the adoptions opened the way for U.S. aid to help support Edgar and his siblings once social workers in Mexico evaluated their care. Few people understood at the time that drug lords had taken root in Cuernavaca, a vacation getaway a few miles from the children's new home in Tejalpa. For Teresa Jimenez Solis, one of Edgar's aunts, memories of the adoption day are now colored with regret. She had traveled with Carmen to bring back the children. "The judge gave my mother the adoption papers, congratulated her on her success, told her to take care of the kids," Teresa said. "The only thing that failed us is that I never thought my mother was going to die. At the time, we never asked who would take the place of my mother." One true protector Carmen and the grandchildren returned to a cluster of cinder-block homes set among a maze of narrow streets on the far southern flanks of tropical volcanoes. Up before dawn, Carmen made sure school uniforms were pressed and shoes were polished. A cry went up from the kitchen to make sure all six children were awake: "Elizabeth! David!" Behind the heavy steel doors of the family compound, Edgar shadowed Carmen around the kitchen and out to an open-air courtyard of plants and clotheslines. Relatives pitched in to take care of him. They fawned over the tiny boy with full lips and long dark lashes. They gave him a playful nickname -- "Ponchis" -- taken from a Mexican beer ad featuring a bombshell actress. By the end of 1999, the family recorded a Christmas video. They recited greetings to relatives in the U.S., including Edgar's mother and father. Playfully held by the ear and forced to look straight into the camera, Edgar fumbled to repeat after his sister, "Mama, te quiero mucho." "Mucho," is all Edgar could say. By New Year's, Edgar's father had returned from California after serving time on drug charges. David Antonio Jimenez Solis lived with the family, "but he was doing his own thing," his oldest daughter said. "He never showed love. He'd just cook us something to eat every once in a while," said Myrna Jimenez Lugo, a 25-year-old mother of two who lives in Tejalpa. For Edgar, Carmen was the one true protector. The boy was proving to be a handful around the house, throwing tantrums that set him apart from his siblings. Edgar sometimes ran away from home, only to be found at a nearby stream searching for turtles. No one thought too much about the disruptions until Edgar went to school -- and got expelled over and over. His aunts and sisters tried to ease the load on an ailing diabetic grandmother. They appealed to school leaders to give Edgar a second, third and fourth chance. Cracks in the facade A warm, year-round climate and towering fields of sugar cane first gave rise to Cuernavaca's colonial haciendas. As the burgeoning capital of Morelos state became a reprieve for affluent Mexicans over the decades, elite drug smugglers moved in -- establishing themselves behind the walls of refurbished estates and well-tended mansions. A semblance of order was held in place by cozy, long-standing ties between organized crime and authorities, but cracks were developing in that facade by the late 1990s. The governor of Morelos, a retired general who once oversaw a drug interdiction center, had to resign as evidence mounted that Cuernavaca was allowed to serve as a base of operations for Mexico's pre-eminent drug trafficker, Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Nicknamed "Lord of the Skies," Carrillo Fuentes moved vast quantities of cocaine through Mexico while buying protection from authorities. He died in 1998 during plastic surgery. Mexico's political transformation foreshadowed a tumultuous era for organized crime. The country ended 71 years of one-party rule after Vicente Fox won the 2000 presidential election. Old rules of the drug-smuggling game were being abandoned, said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary and an expert in Mexican and Latin American politics. "You paid officials at the local, state and national levels. You got to import, store, process, export your drugs," he said. "But you didn't sell drugs in Mexico. You didn't have weapons more powerful than the army. You showed deference to public officials, and you didn't touch civilians. "That was an ugly, corrupt, venal system. But it put a restraint on the activities of the drug cartels." Fox, a conservative-minded politician in cowboy boots, steadily made life more difficult for drug lords. He worked to purge federal police ranks and clean up the customs service at airports and shipping terminals. With help from U.S. authorities, he began the dismantling of the Arellano Felix drug cartel, which had dominated smuggling routes through Tijuana since the 1980s. The shifting landscape eventually led to the splintering of cartels, movement into new territory and a demand for younger gang recruits. Tejalpa became part of the expansion, but it wasn't visible yet at the family home where Carmen was raising her grandchildren. Prelude to a war Amputated toes and other complications from diabetes forced Carmen to use a walker and then a wheelchair. Infection from a peck on the foot by a chicken incapacitated the matriarch and led to her death in April 2004, one day after her 78th birthday. "It's a half-tragic story," said Edgar's aunt Teresa. "The beautiful part was when we lived together with my mother, everyone got along. But my mother died and we lost our way, everyone, everyone." U.S. financial support ended after the family reported the death to San Diego County officials. Edgar's father tried to assert his authority over his children, even without a steady income to pay for food and utilities. The siblings, now ages 8 to 18, no longer had to obey the aunts, uncles and older cousins who helped look after them for years. Edgar played in the streets until midnight. "Just like that, it was all over: the outings, the presents, the love," said cousin David Jose Mario Jimenez. The same month as Carmen's death, federal prosecutors swept in to arrest the Morelos state police chief on charges his officers provided protection for cartel leaders and their shipments through the local airport. Twenty federal agents escorted the chief to a maximum-security prison, while 522 investigators under his command in Cuernavaca were suspended. By fall 2005, Edgar moved in with his aunt, uncle and a cousin in a last-ditch effort to keep the unruly 9-year-old in school after his expulsion from two elementary and two remedial schools. He and the cousin shared a bed in a cramped apartment in Cuernavaca. Edgar spent afternoons in the waning sunlight outside his uncle's newspaper stand on the central plaza, a breezy oasis for tourists, foreign-language students and locals. Thinking back to those days, a long stare and a curling grin flashes across the face of David Jose Mario, now 20. Toy cars didn't grab Edgar's attention, David recalled. He gravitated toward the older boys. At Edgar's latest school, teachers lost patience with him. Before the end of the fall semester, the disruptive student was told to leave. Edgar returned to Tejalpa as an illiterate 10-year-old. He spent his days unattended, looking after a dog named Chacho and raising roosters on the family patio. He often ventured out from the family's complex of homes situated between a bakery and hardware store. Edgar tagged along with a food delivery man on foot through the dense neighborhood of small storefronts, mom-and-pop eateries and colorfully painted houses. "He kept kids his own age at a distance. To them, he was the tough guy," David said. - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.