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Aide Returns Chief's Murder to Spotlight : Homicide: Slain Tijuana police leader's secretary demands action. She accuses key officials of abandoning her boss in his anti-drug efforts and failing to bring his killers to justice.

March 13, 1995|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Until a secretary named Maria de los Angeles Villarino stepped into this city's dangerous arena of crime and politics last month, the 10-month investigation into the murder of Tijuana's crusading police chief had faded into relative obscurity.

Politicians, journalists and police had known the apparent suspects and motive almost from the start: Corrupt federal police commanders allegedly killed the chief after he refused a bribe from a notorious drug lord.

But months passed without arrests or progress--a seeming display of the drug underworld's impunity. Finally, an emotional Villarino, the former secretary of slain Chief Federico Benitez Lopez, took a risk that more powerful and better-protected figures have avoided: She demanded action.

In explosive declarations to journalists, Villarino implicated a former top federal police official and a current municipal police commander, alleging that they attended a meeting at which Benitez was offered $100,000 to call off aggressive anti-drug operations.

And she had stern words for Mayor Hector Osuna Jaime, Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel and the state attorney general, saying they abandoned the chief in his fight against drug corruption and then failed to bring his killers to justice.

"Ten days before his death he asked for help . . . and they did not return his calls," Villarino said. "The governor has said the investigation is 95% complete. The authorities must resolve this case."

Her dramatic statements were followed recently by a flurry of false rumors about an attempt on Gov. Ruffo's life and spectacular developments at the national level in two assassination cases. The combined result was to revive a climate of menace and intrigue generated by "narco-violence" in this border city last year.

Ruffo, who canceled his public appearances and surrounded himself with at least 15 bodyguards, said he thinks Villarino is sincere.

"I believe she became frustrated and is sharing what she knows," Ruffo told reporters. "It's fine that she was motivated to come forward. . . . I think she is doing this because she wants this matter resolved, as all of us do. She assumes some things and complements them with others that she experienced. Perhaps some of the things she says are inaccurate, but surely they originate from things she experienced."

A knowledgeable U.S. law enforcement official said Villarino appears credible.

"By her coming forward, her life is in jeopardy," the official said. "Why would she come forward and put her life on the line? She has nothing to gain."

Authorities said Villarino may be called to testify by two separate special prosecutors: one investigating the Benitez case for the state and another conducting a federal probe of the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the ruling party presidential candidate. Colosio was killed five weeks before the chief's death.

The secretary says the chief had learned of threats against Colosio's life beforehand and had embarked on a parallel investigation of the assassination. The special federal prosecutor is examining possible links between the cases, which both appear to involve politics and drug cartels.

The stunning arrest recently of an alleged second gunman in the Colosio case, accompanied by allegations of a federal cover-up, only deepened suspicions of a connection to the Benitez murder; the chief was looking into the discovery at the crime scene of a bullet, which authorities now say was planted.

Benitez, a newcomer to law enforcement, was a trusted confidant of Gov. Ruffo, who used him in sensitive matters beyond the usual scope of a municipal chief's duties, such as the Colosio case and police corruption probes. The chief's mix of courage, honesty and inexperience put him on a collision course with powerful adversaries. His death last April ignited the worst crisis in the five-year rule of the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, in Baja California, leaving the governor and mayor fearing for their lives.

Ruffo says his detectives have built a strong case against the suspected killers. But he insists that they need federal cooperation to make the arrests without provoking violence between state and federal forces.

The historic appointment in December of a member of the PAN as Mexico's attorney general raised expectations of progress in the Benitez case that remain unfulfilled. And recently Zeta, a well-connected weekly publication that often supports the PAN, has prodded state authorities with a tantalizing series of articles.

Zeta has asserted that the probe has stalled because authorities are afraid to act. Giving details but no names, Zeta described recently how two federal police commanders allegedly carried out the machine-gun ambush of Benitez on the orders of a gangster, then smoked cigarettes on the steps of federal headquarters while officers filled the streets hunting for the assassins.

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