Journalist’s Death Unravels Network : Killing in Mexico Reveals Trail of Police Corruption

Times Staff Writer

Mexican journalist Manuel Buendia dedicated his life to muckraking, but it is his death that has suddenly exposed an underworld of police corruption and brought down an entire police department.

Under pressure to solve the 1984 assassination, the government last month arrested the former commander of Mexico’s secret police and accused him of masterminding “Operation News"--the killing of Buendia.

Rather than quiet the clamor, however, the arrest has unraveled a dark network of secret-police officials implicated in everything from drug trafficking to murder.

Seven more members of the defunct Federal Security Directorate have since been jailed, including two who had become co-directors of the Mexico City police department’s intelligence unit. The government then dismantled the controversial intelligence unit where, it turned out, most of the former secret police had found work.

The Buendia case has all the elements of a thriller--an alleged gunman subsequently shot dead in a telephone booth, contradictory testimony from another jailed “gunman.” But it is unfolding in daily newspapers and magazines, where Mexican journalists are asking very serious questions about how high the corruption might have reached.


Did former President Miguel de la Madrid find out who killed Buendia? What about his interior secretary, Manuel Bartlett Diaz, who was responsible for the police force? The media suggest that Bartlett Diaz, now education secretary, and former Mexico City Atty. Gen. Victoria Adato, now a Supreme Court justice, may have participated in a five-year cover-up of the killing.

Delivering his final report on the case last Friday, special prosecutor Miguel Angel Garcia Dominguez asserted the contrary.

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“President De la Madrid and Interior Secretary Bartlett gave me their complete support for solving the case,” Garcia Dominguez said.

Although many questions remain unanswered, the case has shed light on other crimes such as the 1985 torture-death of U.S. drug agent Enrique S. Camarena and a San Diego-to-Mexico City car theft ring. Like the Buendia killing, both involved members of the Federal Security Directorate.

A police source explained: “The commanders had become powerful. They controlled not only their people but the movement of illegal merchandise, drug trafficking, arms, cars--anything where money could be made in grand scale.

“The Buendia and Camarena killings were not directly related, except the common denominator was the Federal Security Directorate. The people made so much money, and they were so powerful, that they felt unstoppable.

“Why kill a Buendia and a Camarena? Why kill anyone else who stands in your way? Because they’re in your way. These are the most notable cases, but many other people were killed or disappeared as they became a threat.”

Buendia, who routinely published exposes in his “Private Network” column in the Excelsior newspaper, was shot in the back at a parking lot next to his office in the busy Zona Rosa neighborhood on the afternoon of May 30, 1984.

The columnist had made so many powerful enemies over the years that theories quickly abounded on his murder. There were more than 275 hypotheses and dozens of suspects. Among them: the CIA, oil workers union chief Joaquin Hernandez Galicia and a violent right-wing group from Guadalajara.

Also among the early suspects was Jose Antonio Zorrilla, commander of the secret Security Directorate. Zorrilla appeared at the scene within minutes of the murder and, it was said, sent his men directly to Buendia’s office to remove incriminating evidence.

Many dismissed Zorrilla as a suspect because he was a source for Buendia--even, some would say, something of a friend. Weeks before he was killed, Buendia had written a column praising Zorrilla and the work by the security police. The two had practiced target shooting together, and Zorrilla gave Buendia a gun as a present.

But it was also said that Buendia was about to publish information linking Zorrilla to drug traffickers. Zorrilla himself took up the initial investigation, although the case was outside his jurisdiction.

President De la Madrid condemned the killing and promised action, but Proceso magazine, which has followed the case closely, charges that a cover-up soon began. An official investigation, delivered to Mexico City Atty. Gen. Adato 14 months after the killing, named former police agent Jose Luis Ochoa Alonso as the “material author,” or gunman. Ochoa, called El Chocorrol (Chocolate Roll) because of his dark skin, reportedly worked for Zorrilla until he was killed six weeks after Buendia while making a call at a public telephone.

Proceso notes that a month after receiving the report, Adato declared the assassination was “not political” and stated that there were an array of suspects. De la Madrid named her to the Supreme Court, and her successor in the attorney general’s office, Renato Sales Gasque, said he had to begin the case over again.

In February, 1987, Sales also announced the Buendia killing was “not a political case, but a police case.” He said El Chocorrol had been eliminated as a suspect for lack of evidence. In January, 1988, the government assigned Garcia Dominguez as special prosecutor on the case, and he too said he would begin the Buendia investigation from scratch.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office last Dec. 1 vowing, like his predecessor, to clean up government corruption. But unlike De la Madrid, who stopped after jailing two government officials, Salinas has kept up a steady pattern of arrests: union chief Hernandez Galicia, stock market tycoon Eduardo Legorreta, reputed drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and other lesser-known traffickers and officials.

Opposition politicians charge that Salinas is undertaking a series of publicity-seeking “spectacular blows” without fighting systematic corruption. But Ed Heath, the departing chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration here, disagrees.

“There is somebody at the top to start to set new standards. . . . There is at least the outward conviction of a leader who says, ‘I want this changed.’ A lot of people in the lower ranks of state and federal law enforcement are fearful they might lose their jobs now because the Mexican government is trying to clean up this problem. We are very encouraged by what we see,” Heath said.

On June 12, the government announced that former police commander Zorrilla was the “intellectual author” of the Buendia murder. Zorrilla was not at home when police first arrived to arrest him, but he was picked up at another residence days later.

A week later, former secret police officer Juan Rafael Moro Avila was arrested. Moro Avila, a mustachioed part-time actor and motorcycle enthusiast, took the spotlight before a roomful of reporters to make his defense. Ochoa, or El Chocorrol , was the real assassin, he said, and was killed to keep him from talking. Officials also said El Chocorrol was the gunman.

Moro Avila told reporters that Zorrilla ordered his underlings--Jorge Maldonado, Raul Perez Carmona and Juventino Prado--to commit the murder. On the day of the crime, Moro Avila said, he was having lunch at a restaurant when Prado called him over a police radio to go by motorcycle to the Zona Rosa.

When he reached a downtown intersection, Moro Avila added, Carmona said to wait. A few minutes later he heard gunshots.

But in a later statement, Moro Avila changed his story. He said he arrived after the murder had taken place and saw Buendia’s body lying on the sidewalk. In both versions, El Chocorrol got on the back of Moro Avila’s motorcycle and the two sped away. Moro Avila claims, however, that he did not know Ochoa was the murderer until after he was killed.

Ochoa “was not a friend of mine. I don’t associate with dark-skinned people, only with fine people,” Moro Avila said.

Despite Moro Avila’s conflicting declarations, the government arrested Juventino Prado and Raul Perez Carmona, heads of the Mexico City Intelligence Directorate, and former security agents Sofia Naya, Jorge Lozada and Francisco Orozco.

Zorrilla, like everybody else, denies involvement in the killing or a cover-up. It is not the first time, however, that officials have linked him to criminal activities.

Police sources say that Zorrilla was on the payroll of Rafael Caro Quintero, the reputed drug lord who is in jail for the 1985 kidnaping and murder of the Guadalajara-based U.S. drug agent Camarena.

At least half a dozen witnesses in Garcia Dominguez’s official investigation of the Buendia case said Zorrilla received money and cars from Caro Quintero and payoffs from sub-commanders who worked for drug traffickers throughout Mexico. One police source said Caro Quintero admitted during interrogation that he paid Zorrilla $4 million a year for protection.

Caro Quintero and his men also carried security police credentials signed by Zorrilla. Although investigators on the Camarena case saw the credentials, they later disappeared when the investigation was turned over to the Federal Security Directorate.

U.S. officials have long believed that security police were present during the interrogation and torture of Camarena.

The Federal Security Directorate, a secret intelligence agency, was used in the 1970s to combat urban and rural guerrilla groups and was headed from 1977 to 1982 by Miguel Nazar Haro. Nazar resigned from the post after he was indicted in San Diego in connection with a luxury car-theft ring. Some of the stolen vehicles turned up in the possession of security agents. Prado, Perez Carmona and two other police officials also were indicted in the San Diego case.

Nazar Haro turned over command of the security directorate to Zorrilla. By then, the agency had a reputation of torturing political opponents and making them “disappear.”

“They controlled the state police, and the Federal Judicial Police was subservient to them. They came from the most powerful institution outside of the presidency--the Interior Ministry,” a police source said.

“Maybe they were asked to do things they were later owed a favor for. The organization gained strength under Nazar Haro, and he continued to have a very close relationship with these people. It’s a fraternity. There was some loyalty to Nazar Haro and some to the new man, Zorrilla.”

Zorrilla resigned his command in 1985 after the Camarena killing and news leaks of Zorrilla’s alleged ties to drug traffickers. The police agency was disbanded that year.

Nazar Haro turned up again this year as head of the newly created Intelligence Directorate. His appointment angered U.S. officials and caused such an uproar among human rights activists that he was forced to resign. Prado and Perez Carmona took his place.

Once Prado and Perez Carmona were arrested, hundreds of other intelligence agents reportedly resigned or deserted the force. The agency was eliminated.

But the intrigue continues. Garcia Dominguez announced last week that Zorrilla was responsible for another murder in 1985, that of Jose Luis Esqueda Gutierrez, who allegedly possessed evidence connecting Zorrilla to drug traffickers.

“The motive for taking the lives of Buendia and Esqueda Gutierrez was the knowledge they both had on Zorrilla’s links to drug traffickers,” Garcia Dominguez said.

The prosecutor insisted the gunman who killed Buendia was not the dead Chocorrol, but Moro Avila, even though Moro Avila does not fit the sketch of the suspect drawn from witnesses’ accounts. He said the evidence Zorrilla had removed from Buendia’s office consisted of cassette recordings of two telephone conversations in which Buendia had advised Zorrilla of the information he had allegedly linking the police commander to traffickers.

The Buendia case appeared solved, except that also last week, Mexican newspapers reported another murder. A jailed police officer, Abel Cuevas Uriostegui, was shot dead Wednesday night, allegedly as he led police to the houses of two former Federal Security Directorate agents--the agents who supposedly were responsible for Esqueda Gutierrez’s murder.

This week, officials arrested another former commander of the Federal Security Directorate, Rafael Chao Lopez, who was second to Zorrilla. Chao was detained on charges of illicit enrichment that allegedly stemmed from drug and weapons trafficking.