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Scandal Spurs Fears Over Violence : Death of ‘the Tiger’ Puts Mexico Police in Spotlight

Times Staff Writer

He was mean and vain, with more enemies than friends. His first wife hanged herself, and this month he fatally shot his second, along with her childhood friend. Then he put a bullet through his own head.

Florentino Ventura, 62, was Mexico’s most powerful and feared police officer, director of the Federal Judicial Police and head of Interpol in Mexico. Nicknamed “The Tiger,” he was the man whom Mexican officials called to get a job done. And he did. He put drug kings in jail. He personally brought home the accused killer of an American drug enforcement agent who had escaped to Costa Rica.

And when former Mexico City Police Chief Arturo (El Negro) Durazo was extradited from the United States, officials sent Ventura to Los Angeles to pick up his old crony and, some say, his rival.

“Ventura was a great Mexican policeman,” said Samuel del Villar, a professor who worked on President Miguel de la Madrid’s anti-corruption campaign. “He had a lot of skill in investigating organized crime.”

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Efficient and cruel are other adjectives frequently used with Ventura’s name.

“If you were on the end of trying to eliminate scum, he was good,” said a source close to the police. “If you were on the receiving end, he was not so good. He was a very feared individual, even by his own men. Several people lost their lives in interrogations and shoot-outs with his men.”

The Ventura double homicide and suicide is the latest scandal adding to the checkered reputation of Mexico’s police. Low-paid and little-respected, Mexican police have a history of shakedowns, bribery, drug-trafficking and other criminal activities. Mexicans generally view their police as corrupt and potentially dangerous. Police and public security were major issues in July’s presidential election.

In recent months, competing police forces in the capital have engaged in violent turf battles. In one case, such a clash led to the torture and death of a police commander and in another to an armed assault by one police force on the headquarters of a rival police agency. And in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in July, plainclothes federal police killed a pregnant woman and two other civilians in a hail of gunfire that supposedly was meant for drug traffickers.

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Police Violence

Even hard-bitten observers have expressed surprise at the level of police violence, and newspaper columnists and the public are asking, “If the police will do this to each other, what will they do to us?”

The Ventura violence over Mexico’s Independence Day holiday weekend did not involve his police force or even necessarily reflect on it. But Ventura was Mexico’s leading police officer, perhaps the best--and the worst--police officer in Mexico. Along with Durazo, he was the best known internationally.

Originally from the state of Colima, Ventura tried religious studies and bullfighting before he became a police officer. In 1948, he helped found the Federal Security Administration, Mexico’s investigative police force under the Interior Ministry.

He was a contemporary of Durazo and on a parallel track for years until 1972 when Durazo was named to the politically appointed post of Mexico City police chief.

‘High-Charging, Macho’

“For the last 25 years, the two most celebrated federal law enforcement agents were Durazo and Ventura,” said the source close to the police. “They were both high-charging, very macho leaders in their own way. Because they were reliable and got things done by hook or by crook, they were called on. They became doers. They knew a lot of politicians, and they knew about a lot of skeletons. That made them powerful.”

Powerful and competitive. In 1968, both carried out investigations of leftist groups that were growing in strength and militancy, but only Durazo gained notoriety for the work against “subversives.” While Durazo made the move into the political world and amassed a fortune, Ventura kept a lower profile in the ranks of police agencies.

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Durazo flaunted his accumulated wealth, sporting specially tailored uniforms and building a multimillion-dollar, Greek-style palace on the Pacific Coast, dubbed The Parthenon.

Ventura, meanwhile, lived well but more conservatively, in a wealthy suburb of Mexico City. While Durazo was believed to have provided protection to drug traffickers, Ventura was not considered corrupt, sources said. They add, however, that corruption is a matter of degree.

Lived Above Salary

“Ventura didn’t have to worry about where his next meal or car was coming from. There are many ways to make money in the Federal Judicial Police. The point is, he was living much better than his salary,” said the source, a longtime acquaintance of Ventura.

He said he believed that it gave Ventura pleasure to bring Durazo back from Los Angeles in 1986 to face extortion charges. Durazo is still in jail awaiting sentencing.

A year earlier, Ventura flew to Costa Rica to pick up Rafael Caro Quintero, the Guadalajara drug lord accused of masterminding the killing of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique S. Camarena in February, 1985. Caro Quintero, in a prison interview in Mexico with Proceso magazine this spring, called Ventura “a salaried assassin” and accused the police officer of torturing him.

Rene Martin Verdugo-Urquidez, identified by authorities as Caro Quintero’s top lieutenant, was convicted in Los Angeles federal court this week in the kidnaping and murder of Camarena.

Died in Interrogation

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Ventura worked on the Camarena case from the beginning. Shortly after the bodies of Camarena and his Mexican pilot were found, Ventura’s officers arrested six Jalisco state police officers accused of working for Caro Quintero and kidnaping Camarena. The state police testified in court that they were tortured by Ventura’s police into confessing to the murder. The state homicide chief, Gabriel Gonzalez Gonzalez, died of a ruptured pancreas during interrogation.

“Ventura was there when it happened,” the source said.

Ventura was often there. A decade earlier, he had led a car chase through Mexico City to capture Alberto Sicilia Falcon, the Cuban-born chief of a multimillion-dollar cocaine- and marijuana-trafficking network. Sicilia Falcon is still in jail in Mexico.

According to an account in author James Mills’ “The Underground Empire,” Ventura killed one of his own men over the Sicilia Falcon case. In Mills’ book, U.S. drug agent Pat Gregory is quoted as saying that Ventura learned a police officer named Alejandro was on the take from one of Sicilia Falcon’s underlings.

“One night, when they were drinking in a bar, Ventura’s pistol went off and Alejandro ate the bullet. Now he is among the deceased,” Gregory is quoted as recounting.

Ventura was tall, with a strong build. He had dark, piercing eyes and a quick laugh. He also had a quick temper that was easily ignited by good Scotch whiskey and by his wife, Maria Cira Villanueva. The first woman to serve in the Federal Judicial Police, Villanueva was said to have been as headstrong as Ventura and at least 25 years his junior.

Dyed His Hair

To keep up with his younger wife, Ventura was known to dye his hair black and was believed to have undergone cosmetic surgery. Years before they were married, the two began a public affair that “turned very nasty,” according to an acquaintance, and apparently led Ventura’s first wife to hang herself in their new home in 1981. Some people believe Ventura hanged her.

Ventura and Villanueva were married in 1984 and fought frequently, according to an acquaintance.

“Their characters were just too strong for each other. I witnessed several very violent arguments between them. It was doomed from the beginning, and it ended up in tragedy,” the source said.

That occurred Saturday, Sept. 17. Olga Trevino, Villanueva’s friend from secondary school, and her husband, Elias Orozco, had come from the state of Tamaulipas to spend the holiday weekend with the couple and to escape Hurricane Gilbert.

Hours of Drinking

The foursome went out for lunch and shopping and then to a bar in southern Mexico City for several hours of drinking. When they left, Ventura wanted to go to another bar and he wanted to drive. Villanueva refused, getting behind the wheel of their Mercury Grand Marquis.

According to Orozco, the only survivor, Ventura pulled the keys out of the ignition and Villanueva got out of the car. Ventura followed, saying he would settle things his way. Trevino followed, hoping to coax her tipsy friends back into the automobile.

But before she could intervene, Ventura pulled a .45-caliber pistol out of his jacket. He was an excellent marksman. He shot his wife three times in the head, then turned his gun on Trevino, shooting her in the face and wrist. Finally, he fired the gun into his own mouth.

The man with so many drug lords and criminals as enemies killed himself.

Ventura’s widely publicized murder-suicide came on top of a series of other police scandals. On Sept. 3, more than 50 armed Mexico City police officers converged on the headquarters of the judicial police to free two of their colleagues who had been detained for robbery. One of the leaders of the attack, operations director Faustino Delgado Valle, resigned three days later, although two others did not.

Police Protest

On Sept. 13, police used tear gas and electric prods to break up a demonstration of about 100 members of the public security and transit police protesting corruption among their own bosses. Fifteen people were detained briefly and 11 were injured in the brawl.

In August, 43 other judicial police officers were fired for alleged abuse of authority and robbery.

In July, four men, one of them a full-time federal police officer, were arrested for killing television anchorwoman Linda Bejarano, her mother-in-law and a family friend in Ciudad Juarez. The other three were so-called “godmothers,” hired guns who illegally accompany police on official business. The armed men allegedly had been looking for drug runners traveling in a car similar to Bejarano’s white Chrysler, which was hit by 50 bullets.

Found Dead in Trunk

In May, a commander of the state judicial police in the state of Mexico was found dead in the trunk of a car parked outside the judicial police headquarters in Mexico City. Pablo Estanislau Aguilar Alcala reportedly had been tortured before he was killed.

According to local press reports, Aguilar Alcala was slain by the Mexico City judicial police in revenge for the murder of a relative of one of the judicial police officers. The judicial police chief and nine other officers were fired after Aguilar Alcala’s killing.

“You’ve always got turf battles and rivalry between the different police agencies,” said the source familiar with Mexican police. “The problem is, they’ve all got guns and no one wants to give in. This will change as you develop a more professional police force and more internal security. And as the one-party system ends in Mexico, people will be making police more accountable.”


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