Baja Official Resigns Under Fire


Beset by a stubborn crime wave and equally persistent charges of corruption within his agency, the attorney general of Baja California resigned under fire and was replaced Wednesday by his second-in-command.

Marco Antonio de la Fuente Villarreal quit the post late Tuesday--just 19 months after his predecessor resigned amid similar public outcry--as state legislators met to discuss replacing him. The new attorney general, Manuel Salazar Pimentel, is the brother-in-law of Gov. Alejandro Gonzalez Alcocer, who nominated him.

A statement issued by the state government in the capital of Mexicali said De la Fuente offered his resignation after a "personal and family analysis."

But the resignation had been the subject of almost constant speculation in the Baja California news media for weeks, after the execution-style slaying in June of the prosecutor's security chief at a Mexicali park. The aide, Hector Meza Buelna, had come under scrutiny by state auditors for alleged ties to organized crime and amid anonymous complaints by agents that he was demanding payment in exchange for offering key jobs in the state police agency.

The killing brought to a peak widespread public anxiety in recent months over escalating violence, which has sparked several protest marches directed at authorities who have been unable, or unwilling, to stop it. Official crime statistics are notoriously unreliable, but recent Mexican news accounts estimate that the number of murders statewide this year has exceeded 300--most of them attributed to the drug trade. The state prosecutor's office says about 200 of those took place in Tijuana, headquarters of the powerful Arellano Felix drug cartel.

Unlike in the United States, murder investigations, in most cases, are the responsibility of state authorities.

"Atty. Gen. De la Fuente couldn't meet his objective of slowing down this crime wave," said a state government spokesman. "This government, when it doesn't meet its commitments, has to make changes."

The legislature, meeting in a special session, on Wednesday confirmed by an 18-7 vote the appointment of Salazar as the new attorney general.

But that selection is sparking its own controversy. Salazar, a 44-year-old lawyer and active member of the National Action Party that controls Baja California, is married to the sister of the governor's wife. That has prompted some to complain of nepotism in the 9-month-old administration of Gonzalez, who took over as governor in October after the death of Hector Teran Teran, who suffered a heart attack.

"It doesn't look healthy to me to have . . . family ties in positions of this nature," said Victor Clark Alfaro, a Tijuana-based human rights activist.

De la Fuente's predecessor resigned under withering criticism in 1997 after the attempted assassination of Tijuana newspaper publisher Jesus Blancornelas. The resignation of Jose Luis Anaya Bautista came after it was revealed that state police assigned to guard Blancornelas were pulled away before hired gunmen of the drug cartel opened fire, seriously wounding the journalist and killing a bodyguard.

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