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Renewed Call for Answers : Fallout Yet to Settle in Death of Popular Tijuana Journalist

Times Staff Writer

When Hector Felix Miranda slumped across the front seat of his car on a rainy spring morning almost one year ago, the victim of two point-blank shotgun blasts to his left side, a singular journalistic voice in Mexico was silenced.

But while his assassins quieted the irreverent and flamboyant columnist, widely known here as El Gato (The Cat), the furor surrounding his sensational murder has never fully abated, casting a pall over both journalism and politics--two of Felix’s passions--in the newsman’s adopted home state of Baja California. The fallout has yet to settle.

For many, the slaying, and the ensuing investigation that critics consider inadequate, have become painful reminders of the tenuous position of a free press in a nation where more than two dozen journalists have been slain in the past six years. Most of the murders--like the slaying of Felix, who was a newspaper institution here for more than a decade--have not been fully solved.

“The case reflects the vulnerability of journalists everywhere in Mexico, particularly those who chose to remain independent,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, a human rights activist here.

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“The murder of Hector and what has happened since demonstrated that there is no security for us,” said Jose Enrique Garcia Sanchez, a respected longtime reporter-photographer in Tijuana. “The custom of murdering journalists has not been lost.”

With the approach of the one-year anniversary of his slaying on April 20, there is renewed pressure on authorities here to answer a vexing question: Who ordered the murder of El Gato? Many say the answer lies in the halls of power here.

In a highly charged election year, it is not a question that many politicians affiliated with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party are eager to field. “The governor’s been busy with other things,” said Enrique Sanchez Diaz, chief spokesman for Baja California Gov. Oscar Baylon Chacon, when asked about the matter. The governor took office in January and is scheduled to serve until Dec. 1.

Critics say authorities would like the case to go away.

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“The government hasn’t cleared up anything,” said J. Jesus Blancornelas, who co-founded and co-edited the feisty weekly Zeta along with Felix and now sits as the sole editor, although Felix’s name remains on the masthead. “We still want to know who was the intellectual author of the crime and the material killers.”

Felix’s barbed and gossipy column, Un Poco de Algo (A Little of Something) appeared each week in Zeta, which recently celebrated its ninth anniversary, having survived Felix’s death, a machine-gun attack on the office in 1987 (no one was injured) and assorted other difficulties, including attempts by the previous governor to thwart distribution. Characteristically combative, Zeta since Felix’s death has been publishing weekly excerpts from his past writings. The columnist specialized in lampooning the rich and powerful, sometimes viciously, often utilizing using indecorous words and phrases, double meanings, puns and other verbal gymnastics.

Even his favorite targets occasionally acknowledged reveling in reading Felix’s often outrageous thoughts. “I owe my popularity to Gato,” Tijuana Mayor Federico Valdes, whom Felix often derided as a drunken incompetent, said shortly after the murder.

The crime sparked demonstrations and calls for the resignation of then-Gov. Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera, a favorite target of Felix, whom many charged with acceding to--or ordering--a cover-up of the crime. Leyva denied any wrongdoing. He was eventually replaced last January. Most analysts attributed his replacement to widespread fear in the ruling party, known by its Spanish acronym as the PRI, that Leyva’s bad image--exacerbated by the uproar surrounding Felix’s murder--could cost them the crucial governor’s seat in July’s elections.

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Mexican authorities insist that they have solved the murder of Felix. Charged in connection with the murder are Victoriano Medina Moreno, a 38-year-old former Baja California state policeman who has been in custody for almost a year, accused of being the triggerman and mastermind of the slaying, and Antonio Vera Palestina, a former Mexico City policeman who is a fugitive, although journalists here say he has been sited both in San Diego and in the Mexico City area.

Didn’t Act Alone

But while friends and associates of Felix say they have no doubt the pair participated in the slaying, they express the strong belief that the two must have been acting on the orders of someone who took a strong dislike to Felix, either for personal reasons or because of something he wrote. Felix’s enemies were legion.

Newsmen here have publicly cited several prime “suspects,” including the former governor, but one name has stood out: Jorge Hank Rhon, 33-year-old president and general manager of Caliente Racetrack, one of Tijuana’s major employers and tourist draws. Both of the two men charged worked for the track.

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Hank, scion of a powerful Mexico City family, has adamantly denied any role in the slaying, portraying himself as the victim of scandalous speculation. “The answer is no. I didn’t do it,” he said during a dramatic post-midnight press conference at his office last year following the arrest of Medina, the alleged triggerman.

Mexican authorities, who adamantly deny any cover-up, have never even questioned Hank in connection with the case. They say there is no need.

“From what I’ve seen, the case has been pursued diligently,” said Luis Hernandez Bazan, the deputy district attorney who is handling the prosecution.

The connections between Hank and the alleged killers are not in dispute. Vera, the fugitive, arrived in Tijuana with Hank in January, 1985. Before he disappeared after the slaying, Vera served as Hank’s personal bodyguard, or guarura, for 15 years, Hank confirmed in an interview.

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At the time of the killing, Vera was in charge of security at the race track and Medina was one of his lieutenants. Vera allegedly withdrew $10,000 in cash from the track cashier at about the the time of the slaying, according to court documents. (Hank said the money was for legitimate security expenses.)

“In Mexico, the bodyguard is like a Doberman,” said Blancornelas, Felix’s longtime colleague, who has consistently pointed the finger at Hank. “He only does what his boss tells him to do. He doesn’t act on his own initiative, because he could get his boss into trouble.”

Said Hank of Blancornelas: “He has to sell newspapers.”

Hank acknowledged that he and the slain journalist were social acquaintances, although Hank said he was no closer to Felix than to other journalists in town. The two, along with Alberto Murguia, a close associate of Hank, were frequently seen together at the race track, parties and other social occasions.

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But Felix was acid-tongued, and one of his favorite targets was Jorge Hank. In one of his final columns, Felix referred to Hank obliquely as the “abominable snowman"--a reference either to Hank’s flowing hair and beard (since shorn) or, perhaps, his rumored taste for cocaine. Hank denied any use of the drug.

Each week since Felix’s death, Zeta has published a black-bordered page, “signed” by Felix, asking Hank: “Why did one of your bodyguards kill me?”

The print also asks former Gov. Leyva, now reportedly assigned to a minor diplomatic post in Lisbon, Portugal: “Who ordered my killing?”

In response, Hank said in the interview, “It’s been a year and they haven’t been able to prove anything.”

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As for Felix’s column, Hank said he found it distasteful and offensive and didn’t bother to read it. “I thought it (the murder) was coming, because he was attacking a lot of people, for a long time,” Hank said. “I think it was everything that lower-class people wanted to hear about, that’s why it was so popular. I personally was taught never to use bad words, so I never enjoyed it.”

Tried to Tarnish Reputation

Since the murder, government officials and journalists affiliated with the ruling party here have attempted to besmirch Felix’s reputation, implying strongly that his assassination was the result of a personal vendetta, perhaps a crime of passion. Colleagues denounce the attacks as attempts to deflect attention from the real issue of who killed Felix.

“Whatever Hector did in his personal life, no one had the right to kill him,” said Jose Enrique Garcia, the Tijuana journalist, who now writes for a spicy weekly newspaper called Cambio 21. The publication was founded six months ago, after Garcia and his colleagues say they were pressured by the ownership of their former newspaper to cut back on their aggressive coverage of the Felix case, among other issues. “Whether he was killed for personal or political reasons, authorities here have not had the moral willpower to pursue the case.”

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Medina’s alleged motive for the slaying has mystified some. Authorities say columns by Felix purportedly cost Medina his job as a state police squad leader in 1985. According to prosecutors, Felix published items linking Medina to alien smuggling, articles that eventually resulted in his firing.

But Blancornelas, Felix’s longtime colleague, says he has researched every column ever written by Felix and has never found the name of either Medina or Vera. That, say he and other journalists here, is just one example of the ineptness and unbelievability of the government inquiry.

Hernandez Bazan, the government prosecutor who had authority to call for additional investigations, said he believed the motive offered in court papers: that Medina lost his job because of articles penned by Felix.

Marco Antonio de la Fuente, the deputy Baja California Attorney General responsible for Tijuana, declined to comment, saying he wasn’t familiar with the details of the case as he had been in office only a few months.

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In the past year, Medina has given conflicting versions of his part in the murder, admitting his role and then denying it. After he was arrested, he retracted his “confession” at a press conference, contending that he was tortured into signing the document.

In the account provided by authorities, Medina cased Felix’s home for days before the murder to familiarize himself with the journalist’s routine. Authorities say that Medina recruited Vera, his boss, to assist him in the crime. On the morning of the slaying, authorities say, the two assassins partially blocked a street frequented by Felix with their vehicle, forcing Felix to slow down or stop as he drove to work in the rain. Medina then allegedly approached Felix’s blue Ford and pumped two rounds from a 12-gauge shotgun through the driver’s window. Felix slumped over beneath the glove compartment, his head coming to rest on his briefcase, amid shattered glass. He died almost instantly.

Citing ballistics evidence and Medina’s short stature, colleagues of Felix have maintained that the actual triggerman was Vera, while Medina was the driver. The defense has also contended that Medina could not have been the one who shot Felix.

Despite the doubts, the case against Medina proceeds. He could face up to 30 years in jail. By Mexican law, the non-jury trial must be completed by early May, said Judge Braulio Gomez Veronica, who is hearing the case and is charged with passing judgment and imposing a sentence.

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“I haven’t felt any pressure whatsoever,” Gomez said. “All murder cases are serious. This is no different--except, of course, for the public attention.”


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