Lead Mexican investigator in the slaying of El Monte official Bobby Salcedo has been killed

The lead investigator in the slaying in Mexico of El Monte educator Agustin Roberto “Bobby” Salcedo has been killed in an ambush, officials said today.

It was not clear whether the death of investigator Manuel Acosta will have any effect on the case, in which little progress had been reported. Authorities would not speculate on whether Acosta’s killing was related to Salcedo’s.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers and judicial officials have been slain in Mexico in recent years, often in an effort to thwart investigations and silence witnesses. It is a tactic that usually works, as the vast majority of crimes in Mexico go unresolved.

Salcedo, an El Monte school board member, was visiting his wife’s relatives during the Christmas holidays in Gomez Palacio, a city in Durango state that has become increasingly violent as drug traffickers battled for turf. He and five other men were yanked from a bar after midnight Dec. 30 by gunmen. They were killed and their bodies dumped in a field on the outskirts of town.

Acosta, in an interview with The Times at the time, pledged to get to the bottom of the killings.

But on Jan. 15, Acosta was ambushed by gunmen in a five-seat red pickup truck, the kind frequently used by drug traffickers. He was hit as he returned to his offices from another deadly crime scene.

Acosta, 42, survived in critical condition. Authorities did not disclose the attack, saying they hoped to better protect Acosta by letting his assailants assume he was dead.

But on Tuesday he succumbed to his wounds, including multiple gunshots to the chest and torso.

His death was first was reported in the Milenio newspaper in a dispatch from Gomez Palacio and confirmed today to The Times by Martin Chavez, spokesman for the city.

Chavez declined to discuss whether Acosta’s death dealt a setback to the Salcedo investigation, one of several cases the agent was handling. Chavez referred a reporter to the state prosecutor’s office in Gomez Palacio. Calls there went unanswered today.

Salcedo’s widow, Betzy, reached by telephone, was startled by the news. She said the family had not been informed of any progress in the search for her husband’s killers. “I don’t know what to say,” she said.

El Monte Mayor Andre Quintero, who was a friend of Salcedo’s, called the news “devastating.”

“On behalf of my community, we are so grateful for Mr. Acosta’s life and work and for trying to get justice for Bobby and for other people,” he said. “This is very typical of what is happening in Mexico. When people are trying to bring these individuals to justice, they get slaughtered.”

The killing offered one more reason to redouble efforts against lethal Mexican cartels, Quintero said, adding: “We have to be relentless. We have to persevere. We have to give the Mexican government the support they need to continue hunting down these evil people. We have to be even more determined than they are.”

The FBI recently joined the case and has sent investigators to Mexico to assist in analyzing evidence from the site where the bodies of Salcedo and the five other men were found. FBI participation had created expectations among some people that this case might not end up in the same swirl of impunity that most Mexican cases do.

U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, who has pushed for strong response to the Salcedo case, said she was dismayed by the news. Salcedo’s death was shocking, she said, and Acosta’s “doubly shocking.”

Chu said she was struck by the brazen nature of the act. So certain are the cartels of impunity “that they would murder the lead investigator in a case such as this one,” Chu said. “It shows the degree to which the drug cartels are out of control.”

Chu said she has argued for the investigation to be put into the hands of federal authorities in Mexico instead of local ones -- a case she made recently to the U.S. ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual. Mexican law requires that cases meet certain legal requirements to qualify for federal investigation, she said. Pascual has agreed to look into the issue.

But hearing of Acosta’s death “gives me further resolve to push to have this made a federal case,” Chu said.

Chu said that the FBI was “involved and actively working” on the case and that forensic evidence was being analyzed. Salcedo “did not deserve to die,” Chu said. “There really has to be justice in his case.”

The death of Salcedo, a doctoral student at UCLA, sent shock waves through the Los Angeles area, where he was born and raised. A few days after the killing, about 5,000 people gathered for a vigil in his honor in El Monte, where he had been a beloved teacher, coach and school administrator. He is believed to have been the first U.S. elected official killed in the 4-year-old Mexican drug war.