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8 Baja Officials Accused in Drug Shootout

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case with explosive political potential, Mexican federal authorities have issued arrest warrants for a deputy attorney general of the state of Baja California, a prosecutor and six state police officers in connection with last week’s deadly shootout between federal agents and state officers who were guarding a drug kingpin, Mexican authorities said Sunday.

The officials are accused of numerous crimes involving alleged complicity with Tijuana’s powerful Arellano drug cartel, a complicity exposed by last week’s gun battle between state and federal lawmen that left four men dead.

The deputy attorney general, Sergio Ortiz Lara, allegedly went to the scene of the shootout and aided the escape of gunmen protecting an Arellano kingpin who agents were trying to arrest, authorities said. Ortiz is accused of obstruction of justice and abuse of authority. He has sought a judicial order to block his arrest, authorities said.

Only one of the eight officials was in custody Sunday.

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At a news conference, federal prosecutors said the shootout occurred when seven federal drug agents staking out a suspected cartel safehouse spotted a suspicious red Chevy Suburban leaving the house and tried to arrest the occupants at a busy commercial intersection.

The agents did not realize that among the passengers in the Suburban was Ismael Higuera Guerrero, alias El Mayel, a top lieutenant who inherited control of the cartel from the three Arellano brothers. The Arellanos are fugitives wanted in the killing of the cardinal of Guadalajara in May.

Higuera fled the scene with accomplices in a second vehicle after the gunfight, authorities said.

“The attack was intended to avoid the discovery of (Higuera) and impede his capture,” said Alfonso Cabrera Morales, the federal deputy attorney general of Mexico.

U.S. federal sources had indicated previously that one of the Arellano brothers was believed to have been at the scene, but Cabrera said investigators now believe that was not the case.

Cabrera emphasized that state officials cooperated in an intense investigation that also brought in the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI in San Diego. But the revelations about drug-related law enforcement corruption in Baja California at Sunday’s news conference were explosive.

The case represents the worst law enforcement scandal in the four-year administration of Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, the first opposition party governor in modern Mexican history, who had won praise for reform efforts.

“It shows that the state government, via the state police, has been giving protection to the (drug) mafia,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, a veteran Tijuana human rights activist who has repeatedly accused high-ranking officials of corruption. “There is a vacuum of authority when police settle their accounts this way. This is institutional violence.”

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Some activists and journalists have asserted that the scandal implicates Baja California Atty. Gen. Juan Francisco Franco Rios as well because the wanted men are under his command. But . Ruffo has expressed support for the embattled Franco in past days, and federal authorities said Franco was not a target of the investigation.

At least 17 people were facing charges as of Sunday, 11 of whom were either fugitive gunmen or officials who had not been arrested. They include state prosecutor Juan Carlos Guerrero, who is charged with abuse of authority and other crimes for permitting the escape of two alleged gunmen after they were placed in custody.

A state judicial police officer, Juan Hernandez Tejada, has been arrested on murder charges. He is hospitalized with gunshot wounds from the battle with federal agents. Five other officers are accused of obstructing justice and other crimes for their actions after the gunfight.

In explaining how the frenzied gun battle transpired, Cabrera offered yet another revised list of the dead. They are Cmdr. Alejandro Castaneda Andrade, commander of the federal anti-drug unit; Salvador Miramontes Torres, a state judicial police officer in Higuera’s entourage; Riad Hatoum Serham, a Lebanese professional killer employed by the Arellano cartel, who was initially thought to be a state officer; and an as yet unidentified gunman. Two federal officers were wounded.

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Last Thursday night, the federal agents tried to stop the Suburban carrying Higuera after they saw the vehicle leave the suspected safehouse believed to belong to the Arellano cartel.

After an initial gunfight killed the federal commander and three of Higuera’s guards, the kingpin was able to flee with the help of gunmen in a white van who drove up and ambushed the remaining federal officers, Cabrera said.

Shortly afterward, deputy prosecutor Ortiz allegedly arrived, leading a group of armed men, who forced the federal agents to turn over one of four captured assailants, authorities said. That suspect remains a fugitive.

The special federal unit had been tracking the Arellanos since August and had arrested 26 cartel soldiers and confiscated 53 properties. The cartel headed by the Arellano brothers has allegedly conducted a bloody turf war resulting in numerous murders and brazen shootouts in Mexico and Southern California during the past several years.

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Mexican officials say an Arellano assassination squad killed Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo by mistake while gunning for a rival drug lord, Joaquin (Chapo) Guzman, at the Guadalajara airport.

A sweeping investigation during the past nine months resulted in the arrest of eight San Diego gang members accused of being Arellano triggermen and of a fourth Arellano brother not directly suspected in the cardinal’s murder. Mexican authorities have confiscated millions of dollars worth of cartel properties and arrested or fired numerous police officers suspected of collusion with traffickers.

But U.S. law enforcement officials and Mexican sources have maintained that the fugitive kingpins continue to smuggle drugs to the United States with the aid of corrupt law enforcement officials. The shootout and Sunday’s arrest warrants provide new evidence to support those allegations.

There have even been reported sightings of the Arellanos at local restaurants, accompanied by bodyguards including policemen, according to U.S. and Mexican sources.

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Cabrera said the investigation of the shootout has not resulted in any solid leads about the whereabouts of the Arellanos.


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