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Cardinal's Slaying Had Ties to San Diego Barrio : Crime: Deadly shootout uncovers unprecedented alliance between Mexican drug lords and a U.S. gang.

July 04, 1993|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One suspected gang member, Juan-Carlos Mendoza Castillo, told police that Araujo hired him in March at a disco on Avenue Revolucion. On May 18, Charlie and Araujo organized a trip. As they passed out plane tickets at the Tijuana airport, Vazcones said "they were going to Guadalajara to kill Chapo," according to Mendoza, a 21-year-old illegal immigrant whom DEA agents arrested in San Diego this month and returned to Mexico.

Ramon Arellano, 27, led as many as 14 gunmen on the trip, mostly confirmed or suspected Logan Heights gang members inspired by the bounty on Guzman's head, according to U.S. officials. But after stalking Guzman without success for several days, the hit team went to the airport to catch a Tijuana flight on the afternoon of May 24.

The subsequent events remain shrouded in confusion and conspiracy theories. Statements to police by those arrested support the official version: that Arellano and Guzman forces ran into each other by chance at the airport and drew guns.

According to Mexican press accounts, Vazcones said he was tending to a drunk companion in the terminal when he heard shots outside, saw a man he thought was Guzman and fired his pistol at him. Torres also told investigators that he shot at Guzman, who was accompanied by armed escorts wearing federal police badges. Charlie and a man known as Guero, also believed to be a Logan Heights gang member, ran out to the parking lot firing automatic weapons, Mendoza said.

Simultaneously, authorities say, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was arriving at the airport to meet an emissary from the Vatican. As the cardinal emerged from his car, a gunman mowed him down with a point-blank volley, according to authorities and Mexican press accounts.

At least eight of the Arellano contingent escaped with the help of airport officials in Guadalajara and Tijuana. Upon returning to Tijuana, Mendoza told police, he learned from another henchman that Guero had mistakenly shot the cardinal.

Conflicting reports cause many Mexicans to question how the cardinal, clad in his clerical collar and black clothes, could have been mistaken for Guzman, who survived the fray but was later captured in Guatemala.

Nonetheless, some U.S. law enforcement officials can envision the suspects making such an error.

"You aren't talking about a military strike force; you're talking about a bunch of gangsters," an official said.

One man, Jesus Alberto Bayardo Robles, was arrested falling-down drunk in Guadalajara the night of the shooting, according to Mexican authorities. Vazcones and Torres surrendered in Tijuana after the Arellanos promised handsome compensation for their families if the two took the heat, according to officials.

And police in the San Diego area arrested two more suspects in the shooting last week--Mexican nationals affiliated with Calle Treinta. They are being held on immigration-related charges, officials said.

In a sign of the unusual cooperation produced by Mexico's current crackdown on drug traffickers, a team of FBI agents flew to Guadalajara last month to interview suspects, according to officials. Investigators from several U.S. agencies continue trying to identify and hunt down more than a dozen fugitives, including the Arellanos and the gunman alleged to have shot the cardinal.

Despite the tragedy of Guadalajara, some younger gang members apparently have taken a perverse pride in the notoriety. A Logan Heights teen-ager approached recently by a police officer threw a gang sign and bragged that, among all the gangs in the city, the Mexican cartel had chosen his homeboys as their hired guns.

"If the mafia needs us," he said, "we're here."

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