CRIME : Of Godfathers and ‘Godmothers’ : Mexico: Killing spree puts spotlight on <i> madrinas, </i> or ‘godmothers'--hired guns working for federal police.


A killing spree that left five dead in this northern Mexican city has raised questions about police accountability and calls for an end to what the attorney general’s office admits is “an ancient vice"--the hiring of madrinas , gunmen who work informally for federal agents.

The suspect in the murders is Jesus Rioja Vazquez, a former policeman already wanted in connection with a multiple killing near Mexico City three years ago. He was once again working for the federal police when he was arrested Sunday on charges of shooting four people with an AK-47 and running over a fifth in a pickup.

But this time he was off the official payroll, employed under the table as a madrina, literally a godmother.

Madrinas are people hired by police to do their dirty work,” said Rocio Culebro, spokeswoman for the independent Mexican Commission to Defend Human Rights. Because the arrangements are informal, no one knows how many madrinas there are. But a 1990 study by the Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee asserts that each Federal Judicial Police officer has six to 10 madrinas working for him.


“They commit abuses with the acquiescence of police agents, and they receive protection from the Federal Judicial Police,” according to the lawyers. “In essence, the madrinas are allowed to commit human rights abuses under the color of state authority.”

Previously, such prominent politicians as former Chihuahua Gov. Fernando Baeza brushed off reports of abuses by madrinas as a campaign by drug traffickers to discredit the federal police. But in the wake of widespread protest over the killings here, authorities appear to be taking a different attitude.

Jorge Carpizo, the new federal attorney general and a former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission who has pledged to end police impunity, launched a purge of madrinas and their protectors Thursday. His office ordered the arrest of 65 people, including the state commandant, Manuel Gutierrez, and the four section chiefs directly under him. The remaining 60 people are suspected madrinas.

“They knew there was a warrant for the arrest of Jesus Rioja Vazquez, yet they did not arrest him and, instead, protected this criminal, letting him help them in exchange for housing and economic support, shielding him,” according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

The outstanding warrant was for Rioja Vazquez’s alleged role in the 1990 deaths of three brothers, a case that aroused international attention as a test of Mexico’s commitment to punishing abusive police.

The brothers of the Quijano family were killed at their home as 15 federal anti-narcotics police officers, Rioja Vazquez among them, searched for a fourth brother. When their father began campaigning for an investigation, he was abducted and his body was found months later.

Rioja Vazquez and another officer were charged in the Quijano killings. As recently as November, however, former Atty. Gen. Ignacio Morales Lechuga told international human rights activists that his forces were still looking for Rioja Vazquez.

Juan Mendez of Human Rights Watch in Washington says that when fugitives in such well-publicized cases evade capture, “the only thing one can conclude is that someone is deliberately shielding these people.”

And residents of Pimentel, a neighborhood of dirt streets and cinder-block houses where Rioja Vazquez allegedly gunned down four of his five victims last Sunday, also charged official collusion on hearing that he was a madrina.

“There is no way we can believe they did not know he was wanted,” said one of the neighbors, who joined a march to federal police headquarters Monday to demand justice. Like all of the neighbors and witnesses questioned, she feared retribution and spoke only on the condition that her name not be mentioned.