A cloud over Mexican police

SUN JOURNAL

Investigation: Despite scores of arrests over eight years, the rape-murders of young women near the U.S. border continue, and the outspoken attorney for one defendant is gunned down by police.

March 02, 2002|By Karen Brooks | Karen Brooks,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - If politics had already stained the investigation into the rape-slayings of nearly 100 women in this industrial city across the border from El Paso, Texas, the violent death of a defense lawyer at the hands of state police has given the case a political life of its own.

Mario Escobedo Anaya, a vocal police critic and key defense attorney for a suspect in the women's brutal deaths, was killed Feb. 5 by Chihuahua State Judicial Police. He died four days after he announced plans to file a corruption complaint against the state officers who had arrested his client.

Police say Escobedo's death was a case of mistaken identity. Escobedo's relatives and other critics say police killed a man who had become a thorn in their sides during the highly charged, eight-year murder investigation.

"They shot him in the head with a large-caliber weapon, like giving him a mercy killing. The way cowardly assassins do it," says Mario Escobedo Salazar, Escobedo Anaya's father and law partner, who was talking on his cell phone with his son at the moment of his death.

That Tuesday night, two unmarked vehicles chased Escobedo's pickup truck. The occupants sprayed it with rifle shots until he crashed into an embankment.

He was pronounced dead at the hospital from a bullet in the head.

Escobedo, who was born and reared in Juarez, left behind his wife and two daughters, 7 and 9.

"They killed my son, they killed a father, they killed a lawyer with a bright future. I would have preferred that they killed me," Escobedo Salazar says.

Critics say the police investigation into the deaths of the women and Escobedo is spinning out of control and officials are trying to outrun political pressure.

The police have political support in the case but are still reeling from a movement led by Mexican President Vicente Fox to put an end to government corruption.

Fox's party, the National Action Party, known by its Spanish acronym, PAN, has publicly criticized police actions in the case. Opposition political parties have aligned themselves with the police.

"They should keep themselves separate," Jose Manuel Ortega Aceves, a judicial state police chief in Juarez, says of the elected officials. "The politicians don't need to use public security as a banner. It has to be solely a matter of public safety, a matter of justice, a legal matter."

The strongest political outcry from Mexico City comes from police supporters.

Fox's opponents in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, took out advertisements in the local newspaper to defend the official account:

That police mistook Escobedo, 29, for a dangerous fugitive who had killed a federal officer in Mexico City. That Escobedo fired on them when they tried to stop him.

It wasn't the first time the state had used publicity to gain support for police actions in the case. After the arrest of Escobedo's client and another man in November, prosecutors distributed a video to the public outlining why they believed that the men were the killers.

Also on the PRI side are the governor of Chihuahua, the state where Juarez is, and the state prosecutor's office.

The seven police agents involved in Escobedo's death never saw the inside of a courtroom, refused to make an official statement and are still on the job.

Aceves says the agents, "like all of us, believe that what happened is tragic. We all have families we are obligated to protect. We are all human beings."

Meanwhile, the PAN - which ended the PRI's 71-year hold on the Mexican presidency - remains a vocal critic of the police. Officers have arrested 53 men over the past decade in the rape-slayings, but the killings have not stopped.

The bad blood between the PRI and the PAN is compounded by the presence of the Revolutionary Democratic Party, or PRD. The three-party logjam has resulted in Mexico's first non-majority government in Mexico City - a political dead heat with ramifications for every election in the country.

Against this political background comes the investigation of the women's murders. Most of the slain women were ages 13 to 20, having come to the city of 1.2 million people from rural towns in Mexico. Most worked in maquiladoras, or foreign-owned factories, just across the border from El Paso.

When eight more bodies were found in early November after 18 months of inactivity, the police took four days to arrest two bus drivers they say had used drugs and had gone out looking for women to kill. The two men, Gustavo Gonzalez Meza and Victor Garcia Uribe, say they were beaten into confessing. Their arrest created an uproar among lawyers, activists, federal elected officials, the suspects' wives - and the victims' families.

The top forensic scientist in the case resigned from the department, saying no physical evidence linked the men to the case. And a jail official was fired after he gave Escobedo medical records indicating that the men had been abused around the time of their arrests.

Among the loudest critics was Escobedo.

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