In a politically charged clash over the arrest of Baja California’s deputy attorney general on drug corruption charges, the state’s governor Wednesday criticized federal authorities for accosting the official at gunpoint and unfairly accusing him in the murder of the city’s police chief.
Describing the accusations as a “total political irresponsibility,” Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel said: “These are not simply speculations, they tend to cloud the vision of events and (create) a confusion that no one needs.”
Indeed, the case grew confused the day after federal agents hustled Sergio Ortiz Lara from the state justice complex at gunpoint, igniting a brief confrontation between state police and dozens of heavily armed federal officers in downtown Tijuana.
The conflict intertwines a probe of high-level corruption in Baja with election-year hostilities between Mexico’s ruling party and an opposition-controlled state administration. It also has provoked accusations that authorities are trying to divert attention from the unsolved assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.
Ortiz was arraigned Wednesday on charges related to a March 3 shootout between federal agents and state officers, who allegedly were escorting a drug lord of the Arellano cartel of Tijuana.
But federal authorities said Ortiz also is suspected in the assassination last week of Federico Benitez Lopez, the municipal police chief and a trusted confidante of the governor.
Benitez had obtained evidence against Ortiz and others regarding the shootout and the cartel, whose leaders are fugitives in the slaying of the Roman Catholic cardinal of Guadalajara last year, Atty. Gen. Diego Valades said at a news conference.
A source close to the investigation asserted that on the day before Benitez was slain in a highway ambush, he presented the governor with a report implicating the deputy attorney general in corruption.
“We know that Benitez had been investigating Ortiz’s ties to drug traffickers and had presented a report to the governor the day before he was killed,” the source said. “We think that could have been why he was murdered.”
The accusation raises the possibility that state officers were involved in chief’s murder. Ortiz heads a state task force investigating the Benitez case.
Gov. Ruffo, however, denied Wednesday that the chief gave him information on misconduct by Ortiz, a 43-year-old law professor and friend.
“This is one of the aspects that most disturbs me” about the federal accusations, Ruffo said. The governor called for cooperation and respect between the two governments and said he hopes to discuss the matter with Mexico’s president.
Meanwhile, Ortiz defended himself in an interview in the La Mesa state prison, where he is being held pending a judge’s ruling. “This is an abuse by the federal attorney general’s office,” he said.
When two plainclothes agents escorted him forcibly from his office to a waiting pickup truck, Ortiz said, he thought he was being kidnaped.
One agent told him, “You’re coming or we’re going to kill each other,’ ” Ortiz said. “I told him ‘Don’t take this attitude. The judges, employees, the public are watching. . . . I’m not armed. I don’t have a bodyguard. I’m willing to go with you.’ ”
With the arrest, the federal government’s longtime investigation of high-ranking Baja California officials suspected of collusion with drug cartels is accelerating, said a federal official, predicting more arrests.
“Things are heating up,” he said. “They intend to get to the bottom of this matter in Tijuana.”
The federal investigation led to the March 3 shootout that left five dead, including a state police officer allegedly serving as a drug lord’s bodyguard and the federal commander of a special anti-drug unit.
The governor said he expects new arrests to include five state police commanders initially charged with abuse of authority along with Ortiz in the shootout, then cleared by a judge. An appellate court has reversed the judge’s ruling.
Some Baja California residents, including state officials, said the dramatic arrest and show of force amount to a political attack by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The state is a stronghold of the National Action Party, one of two strong opposition challengers in August presidential elections, which could be the most competitive ever.
Moreover, Ruffo was asked if he suspects the federal government of trying to divert attention from the Colosio assassination, which has fomented charges of a high-level conspiracy. Baja California officials, including Ruffo and Benitez, the slain police chief, were among the most outspoken voices in the Colosio investigation.
Ruffo said he hopes that politics are not involved. Regarding the unsolved Colosio case, he said: “As the days pass and we don’t have information that describes what happened and leads us to the truth, we will be in confusion. And that confusion, in these times, will hurt us.”
Times staff writer Juanita Darling in Mexico City contributed to this story.