Rosarito Jail Officer Faces Murder Trial
A city police officer charged with slaying a North Hollywood man in a Rosarito jail last year will be tried for murder, a Baja California state judge ruled Thursday in a case that has intensified international attention on police abuse in Mexico.
During a preliminary hearing this week for Jose Antonio Verduzco Flores, a new witness testified about a violent altercation between Verduzco and Mario Amado, a U.S. citizen, shortly before Amado’s death in June. Verduzco, a two-year municipal officer, was arrested by state judicial police investigators Saturday.
An unruly Amado argued with and insulted Verduzco, who angrily entered the cell, according to a robbery suspect who was held in an adjoining cell. The witness, who was not interviewed during the Tijuana police’s first investigation, said he heard the sound of a blow and then heard Amado cry out in pain, according to court officials.
Shortly afterward, Amado was found dead in the cell with his sweater wrapped around his neck in what police first termed a makeshift noose.
The witness’s account and physical evidence are sufficient to send the matter to trial, a procedure that in Mexico consists of documentary evidence being presented to a judge over a period of at least six months, Judge Manuel Ramirez Perez said Thursday.
“I think this is a credible witness,” Ramirez said. “For me there are enough elements to dictate an order that (Verduzco) is the presumed guilty party.”
A second witness gave similar testimony to investigators, officials said. Evidence so far indicates that Verduzco was trying to subdue the prisoner and got carried away, Ramirez said.
But questions remain in the Amado case, which has become increasingly complicated since Mexican authorities ruled in June that Amado, a 29-year-old welder, committed suicide after his arrest for a dispute with a woman friend at her beach condominium. Rejecting that conclusion, Amado’s family launched a campaign and commissioned two autopsies that showed Amado was beaten and killed. The Mexican federal government reopened the case, with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari pledging that justice would be done.
Verduzco’s lawyer said his client is merely a scapegoat.
“I think it is a weak case in which they looked for someone to blame,” said defense lawyer Oscar Javier Valenzuela, noting that he believes his client is being victimized by authorities trying to resolve an embarrassing international incident.
Verduzco, 22, and two fellow municipal officers say he did not arrive at work that day until after the discovery of the death. Ramirez said that Verduzco has not produced a convincing alibi.
Moreover, the judge cited discrepancies in the officers’ testimony. While stopping short of alleging a cover-up, Ramirez said: “It makes me suspect that they are trying to hide something. If there were persons involved in a cover-up, that would be a job for the state judicial police (to investigate).”
Prosecutor Alejandra Mendoza Diaz said this week that authorities will pursue any leads that might point to additional suspects.
Another issue left unresolved by the new testimony is how and why Amado ended up hanged with his sweater. Medical evidence shows he was strangled, but with a rope or cord rather than a sweater. One of the new witnesses, Noe Alvarez Sanchez, said he heard someone yelling that Amado was hanging himself.
Officials say fellow occupants of Amado’s cell, who had been arrested for drunkenness and initially claimed that they were sleeping and saw nothing unusual, are being sought for more questioning.
“There are many points that were not clarified during the police investigation,” said Ramirez, noting he views the evidence as indicating that Amado could have died either from a violent blow or asphyxia.
Meanwhile, Amado’s family hopes that the scope of the case will widen.
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