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Although Focus of Probe Has Shifted, 3 Suspects Remain Jailed : Investigation: Families fear the men will be unjustly convicted. Officials say they are still implicated, but have not detailed their roles in new scenario.

MEXICO IN CRISIS. Power, politics and elusive justice. First in an occasional series

March 23, 1995|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Almoloya de Juarez is Mexico's most feared prison, a high-tech fortress populated by a gangster aristocracy of drug lords, fallen political bosses and professional killers.

For the last year, it has also housed two aging ex-cops and a truck driver, forgotten suspects from Tijuana marooned in the limbo of the Colosio case.

Vicente Mayoral Valenzuela, one of the former cops, has talked desperately of hanging himself. The other, Tranquilino Sanchez Venegas, hears voices in the night. Along with Mayoral's son Rodolfo, they were arrested last year and charged in a spectacular conspiracy to kill presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Special prosecutor Miguel Montes declared that the three, who were part of a volunteer crowd-control team protecting Colosio, had engaged in a "concerted action" to block the candidate's bodyguards and assist the gunman.

Montes later discarded the theory, concluding that the now-convicted gunman acted alone. But the legal status of the accused accomplices did not change; their trials are imminent.

The recent unveiling of a second-gunman theory has made the case even more perplexing and the inmates' nightmare even worse, according to their relatives. They say the suspects are casualties of politically driven police work in an authoritarian society, who may end up convicted of murder because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"They don't have proof against them," said Angelica Soto, a niece of Mayoral. "We are very confused and we are very scared. Politically, it's easier to leave them in prison."

The three are still considered suspects, according to federal authorities, who have not explained how they fit into the new conspiracy scenario.

The Colosio assassination took place in front of dozens of cameras and about 3,500 people. In the aftermath, the hunt for assassins has led mainly to what appear to be working-class pawns, guilty or not.

It has been a saga in which every move and every detail becomes sinister. The finger of guilt has turned back to the very bodyguards entrusted with Colosio's safety: a small army of military men, hired civilians and Tijuana volunteers. Recent cover-up charges against a security commander and revelations about the guards' shady histories have alarmed even corruption-weary Mexicans.

In a newspaper column this week titled "The Soap Opera: We of Almoloya," writer Carlos Monsivais observed: "It seems that Luis Donaldo Colosio conducted his campaign surrounded by a legion of potential executioners, and that there is nothing more dangerous than having a security force, just as there is nothing more vulnerable than belonging to a security force."

The trio of original suspects are what another author, mystery novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, calls "lumpen-police." The lanky prisoner Sanchez--assassination buffs prefer the more sonorous name Tranquilino--worked as a municipal cop and bar bouncer. His fellow inmates say captivity has damaged him physically and psychologically. Rodolfo Mayoral Esquer is a sometime truck driver who joined his father on the security team on the spur of the moment.

The suspects' families live in humble Tijuana neighborhoods and have suffered because of the men's prolonged absence. The elder Mayoral's wife is being supported by another son, a city police officer named Martin.

"What Martin makes, he spends on collect phone calls from Almoloya," Soto said.

During the phone calls, the 62-year-old Mayoral sounds profoundly depressed, according to relatives of the retired homicide detective. His lawyers insist that he is actually a hero who tackled Mario Aburto Martinez, the convicted assassin, after the first shot was fired. As they struggled, Aburto shouted that Mayoral was the gunman and police arrested both of them.

"He's worried about his wife; he talks about suicide," Soto said. "He says that if he hadn't followed his policeman's instincts and grabbed Aburto, they would have left him in peace."

The crowd-control team, known as Grupo Tucan, consisted of about 46 volunteers, including police veterans with dubious reputations. Their presence at the Colosio rally was part of an age-old ritual in the milieu where police and politics converge: These rank-and-file party members mix with local big shots at events, maybe squeeze into a photo with a future president himself. And one day their presence might pay off in a job or a favor.

The three suspects' assignment would have placed them a considerable distance from the candidate, and their presence so close to him when the shots were fired is what drew investigators' initial attention.

Scrutiny of videos of the incident raised other legitimate questions: It was curious the way Sanchez lumbered up behind the departing Colosio, appearing to shoulder people aside, the gunman following him closely. And during Colosio's speech, cameras caught Aburto, the convicted gunman, in a brief conversation with Sanchez and the younger Mayoral.

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