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Mexican Judge Clears 6 Charged in Shootout : Ruling: Only one official is ordered to stand trial on charges of aiding the escape of two men arrested during a gunfight between state and federal police in Tijuana.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the increasingly confused aftermath of a shootout between state and federal police, a state deputy attorney general and five police commanders have been cleared of wrongdoing in the incident, authorities said Monday.

A Mexican federal judge ordered only one official, an agent of the state prosecutor’s office, to stand trial on charges of aiding the escape of two men arrested March 3 in the gunfight at a busy intersection, officials said. But the judge cleared the homicide chief of the Baja California judicial police, even though state officials admit that the now-fugitive commander helped the two wounded gunmen flee from police headquarters.

Federal prosecutors will appeal the ruling by Judge Graciela Guadalupe Alejo Luna, according to Diana Ortiz Villacorta of the Mexican attorney general’s office.

“We are in disagreement,” Ortiz said. “The state attorney general’s office admits his guilt, but the judge is setting him free.”

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The ruling represents a victory for Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, who has been hit with a politically charged scandal caused by the gunfight. The five dead included the commander of a federal police unit and a state police officer alleged to have been guarding drug lord Ismael Higuera Guerrero. Authorities describe Higuera as the acting leader of Tijuana’s Arellano drug cartel.

The special federal unit was hunting for the cartel’s kingpins, three brothers wanted in the murder of the cardinal of Guadalajara last year. The gunfight erupted when federal officers tried to stop Higuera’s vehicle and were ambushed by his heavily armed entourage, enabling the drug lord to flee in a second vehicle, police say.

Ruffo ordered a sweeping investigation into charges that state police officers--and civilian enforcers in their employ--were among the attackers. But he defended Deputy Atty. Gen. Sergio Ortiz Lara, prosecutor’s agent Juan Carlos Guerrero Zermeno and four of the police commanders accused of helping suspects escape. Ortiz and the others simply responded to the chaotic shooting scene and were victims of a hasty federal prosecution, state officials contend.

Judge Alejo apparently agreed--to a point. But she upheld charges against Guerrero, who allegedly took charge of six prisoners, according to Ortiz. The federal spokesman said the judge cleared the Tijuana homicide commander, who disappeared two days after the shootout and has been singled out for blame by a state investigation. Commander Francisco Fiol Santana led two of the suspects out a back door after paramedics treated their wounds at headquarters, according to officials.

In an earlier ruling that also contradicted federal and state authorities, Alejo found insufficient evidence last week to try state officer Juan Jesus Hernandez Tejeda for murder and assault. Hernandez, the partner of the slain officer alleged to have been driving the drug lord’s vehicle, was ordered to stand trial on a lesser charge of possessing an illegal weapon--an AK-47 automatic rifle. The judge has declined to discuss the case.

“It is troublesome that we have two contradictory accounts by the state and federal institutions,” said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, Baja’s human rights ombudsman. “The terrible thing is that the society mistrusts the versions of both sides.”

Perez has launched a third investigation into the case. He said there are reports that up to five carloads of gunmen attacked the federal unit and that renegade federal officers allied with traffickers participated. Eyewitnesses also reported seeing snipers on a nearby rooftop, raising the possibility of a planned ambush, Perez said.

In one of several politically tinged attacks on Gov. Ruffo, Mexico’s former attorney general has alleged that Ruffo has tolerated official corruption connected to the Arellanos, who are suspected in a three-year wave of murders across Mexico.

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“It is evident since November of 1992 that the authorities of Baja California have protected the Arellanos,” said Ignacio Morales Lechuga, now Mexico’s ambassador to France, in a scathing letter published Friday in a Tijuana weekly. “Neither the federal attorney general’s office nor the society of Baja California have any remaining doubts that the state justice apparatus is responsible for the protection of drug traffickers and the wave of violence that this phenomenon brings.”

In response, Ruffo suggested that the former attorney general’s charges are part of an offensive by the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party during a presidential election year. Ruffo, a member of the opposition National Action Party, has previously said that Morales’ agency failed to act on evidence against the cartel provided by the state.

After Morales was replaced in early 1993, his successor fired or arrested hundreds of allegedly corrupt federal officers.


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