Police on Friday arrested seven suspects in the assassination of the city’s reformist police chief as investigators tried to determine whether his ambush was related to the murder last month of a presidential candidate or to escalating drug wars along the border.
Police said Jose Federico Benitez Lopez, 42, director of the Tijuana municipal police, and his bodyguard were cut down by gunfire from two four-wheel-drive vehicles Thursday night along a busy Tijuana thoroughfare. Neither the identities of the seven suspects nor details of their arrests were immediately released.
Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel said at a news conference that the killing may be linked to the March 23 assassination of Mexico’s leading presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, or to a wave of drug-related shootouts on Tijuana’s streets.
“It could be something having to do with drug trafficking. Perhaps the police operations had interfered with criminal activity,” he said. “It could be . . . that he (Benitez) had provided information on the Colosio case.”
Ruffo said Benitez had been giving periodic reports on the Colosio case both to the governor and to a special prosecutor handling the case for the federal government.
“He was not exactly investigating,” Ruffo said of the chief. “He was simply expanding and specifying the information.”
In the final weeks of his life, Benitez was outspoken about the Colosio case and, unlike federal investigators, shared considerable information with the press that raised questions about the official account.
In a recent interview with The Times, Benitez was dubious about the federal government’s handling of the Colosio case and expressed suspicion of a cover-up. Although the Colosio case is under investigation by federal authorities, Tijuana city police were involved in the initial arrests and investigation.
A knowledgeable U.S. law enforcement source said Benitez also had been preparing a report for a Mexican congressional commission on his force’s role in the investigation of the assassination of Colosio, the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. The assassination is widely viewed as the product of a political conspiracy.
Officials in the Tijuana city administration believe Benitez’s slaying is connected to the Colosio case They say the killing could have been intended to silence the chief or to send a warning to authorities to back off their investigation.
“He had fired a lot of cops,” the U.S. source said, “but (Mexican authorities ) don’t think anyone would kill him over that. They are looking at the report on the Colosio case. They think he might have been shot to shut him up.”
In the wake of the slaying of Benitez and his bodyguard, Ramon Alarid Cardenas, 41, security was intensified at City Hall, and there was a report that bulletproof vests have been requested for Mayor Hector Osuna Jaime and other officials. Alarid was an 18-year veteran of the Tijuana department.
Ruffo, Osuna and state Atty. Gen. Pedro Raul Vidal Rosas were surrounded by heavy security during the news conference, and a task force of 150 officers has been assigned to investigate the killing.
Of the violence that has plagued Tijuana recently, Ruffo said: “I can only say that we have committed ourselves to eradicating crime. . . . I would tend to attribute these incidents to the fact that police are becoming more effective.”
Benitez was hit in the arm, neck and head by a gunman or gunmen who drove alongside his official vehicle. Benitez and his aide were driving along Via Rapida Poniente after investigating a bomb hoax at Tijuana International Airport, authorities said.
The chief was struck with rounds from a shotgun and an AK-47 assault rifle, police said. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital within an hour.
The blood-spattered pickup truck in which Benitez and his bodyguard were slain was on display Friday at the Baja California State Judicial Police Headquarters.
In addition to arresting the seven suspects, police said they found three vehicles that may be connected to the incident.
A city police report that Benitez had released to the news media increased suspicion that a second gunman may have been involved in Colosio’s death.
According to the report, federal officials in Colosio’s entourage had contacted city police the night Colosio was slain to say the murder weapon had just been recovered and to request an escort to federal police headquarters.
That presents a possible contradiction of official accounts that Mario Aburto Martinez had identified another gun as the murder weapon during an interrogation just hours after the killing. The federal government insists that Aburto was the sole gunman in a conspiracy involving three accomplices.
During the frenzy after Colosio was shot, officers of Grupo Tactico--the municipal SWAT team--were involved in a tense confrontation with federal officers hustling Aburto from the scene. People in the crowd appealed to the SWAT officers for help, saying they feared that Aburto would be killed or would disappear, according to a report provided by Benitez.
The city officers stopped the federal vehicle at gunpoint, and after a heated dispute, escorted the prisoner and his captors to federal police headquarters. Also, officers of Grupo Tactico arrested another suspect, an agent of the Mexican Interior Ministry, as he ran from the site of the campaign rally wearing a bloodstained shirt.
The agent’s hands tested positive for gunpowder residue. And although he has been released pending further investigation, his possible involvement has been cited by the Baja California governor, who asserted that the issue of whether there was a second gunman has not been resolved.
Moreover, Benitez expressed doubt during an interview about the authenticity of a political diary allegedly written by Aburto and of statements to police investigators attributed to a girlfriend of the accused assassin. Benitez said the release of that and other information appeared intended to paint a misleading picture of the case. .
Before entering police work, Benitez had been a manager of accounting at a fruit-juice plant for 18 years. He joined the state government in 1991 as a lawyer handling matters of juvenile delinquency and transportation.
Benitez was appointed in late 1992 as the city’s first “citizen police chief” by Mayor Osuna of the opposition party that rules Baja California, the National Action Party (PAN). With his appointment came a mandate to clean up the police department.
Benitez had instituted the department’s first internal affairs unit to investigate widespread allegations of bribery and brutality. He led a corruption purge that resulted in the firing of about 400 of the department’s 1,800 officers, and the Mexican press speculated Friday that his murder was in retaliation for the dismissals.
He created an anti-drug program for Tijuana schools similar to the DARE program in the United States, and he was trying to expand and improve the police academy.
He reacted to the problem of violent crime in Tijuana by involving neighborhood residents in community policing.
“I found him very ethical, professional and personable,” said San Diego Police Chief Jerry Sanders, who had met with Benitez a dozen times to discuss law enforcement issues. Benitez’s funeral is scheduled for noon today at the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tijuana. The Mass will be followed by a 2 p.m. ceremony outside Tijuana City Hall. Burial is to be in the municipal cemetery in Tecate, Benitez’s hometown. He is survived by a wife and three children.
Times staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this story. Rotella and Kraul reported from Tijuana.