Ex-Caliente Guard Sentenced in Slaying of Baja Columnist

Times Staff Writer

A Baja California state judge Wednesday imposed a near-maximum 27-year prison sentence on a former race-track security guard and one-time state police agent after convicting him of being the triggerman in the slaying of a prominent Tijuana journalist.

Judge Braulio Gomez Veronica found Victoriano Medina Moreno, 38, guilty in the slaying of Hector Felix Miranda, a well-known columnist who was widely known for more than a decade in Baja California under the nom de plume of El Gato--the Cat.

However, the long-expected ruling failed to curb the controversy and doubts surrounding a case that precipitated large protests against the state government and still inflames passions in Baja California. Many have maintained that a massive cover-up is under way and Medina, while an accomplice in the slaying, is a fall guy for higher, politically connected interests. Two suspects remain at large.

Conflicting Versions

Medina has given conflicting versions of his involvement in the crime, first signing a confession and subsequently maintaining that he was innocent and that police had tortured him into confessing.

Medina, who could have been sentenced to 30 years, will receive credit for the almost 16 months already served. Assuming good behavior, he could be released after serving about one-third of the sentence. He is expected to appeal the conviction and sentence.

In the Mexican criminal judicial system, which operates without juries, judges determine guilt or innocence--and impose sentences--after lengthy examination of the mostly written arguments from the prosecution and defense.

Lampooning Columnist

Felix, whose gossipy, often-strident, and frequently outrageous column--Un Poco de Algo (A Little of Something)--lampooned the movers and shakers of the border state and Mexico, was gunned down as he drove to work on the morning of April 20, 1988. An assassin pumped two shotgun rounds through the driver's window of his late-model sedan as it was stopped or rolled slowly on a rain-slicked street. He was killed instantly.

The conviction leaves many questions unanswered.

For one thing, Medina had no clear motive for murdering Felix. In his "confession," the former security guard said he committed the crime because the columnist had published articles that cost Medina his post as a Baja California state police agent. But Felix's co-workers, who have exhaustively examined past items penned by El Gato, say that the columnist never used Medina's name in print.

Mystery Triggerman

Although there is widespread agreement that Medina was probably an accomplice in the slaying, many Mexican journalists, led by Felix's colleagues at the muckraking weekly Zeta, have maintained that Medina was probably no more than a driver at the scene. Indeed, Judge Gomez noted in his sentencing document that the case will remain open until the apprehension of Antonio Vera Palestina, former security chief at the Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, who was Medina's ex-boss. Many believe that Vera was the actual triggerman.

Vera, a former police official in Mexico City, is a fugitive. An arrest warrant has also been issued for a third former security official at the race track, Emigdio Nevarez, who also remains at large.

J. Jesus Blancornelas, Felix's longtime partner and co-founder with him of Zeta, said he is convinced that the "intellectual author" of the crime has never been formally charged. Blancornelas has repeatedly pointed the finger at Jorge Hank Rhon, the president of Caliente, who is one of the richest men in Baja. His father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, is a former mayor of Mexico City and is counted among the Mexican power elite. The race track president, a frequent target of Felix's barbed pen, employed all three named suspects.

Both the race track official and the elder Hank, who now is the national minister of tourism, a cabinet-level post, have denied any involvement in the slaying or in any cover-up.

On Wednesday, Blancornelas said he wasn't convinced that Medina was the killer. "The government is obligated to capture Vera Palestina and clear up this murder," Blancornelas said.

Nonetheless, Blancornelas said he is gratified that justice has been served in the case of Medina.

More than 2 dozen Mexican journalists have been slain in the past seven years, and, according to journalist associations, most of the killings remain unsolved.

Miguel Cervantes Sahagun contributed to this story.

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