TIJUANA — Making a long-awaited breakthrough in a politically explosive assassination, Baja California state police have arrested a former top federal police official in last year's murder of the city police chief, authorities said Wednesday.
A team of state investigators dispatched to Mexico City arrested Rodolfo Garcia Gaxiola, the former second-ranking federal police official in the border state of Sonora, along with two other suspects and flew them to Tijuana under heavily armed guard Tuesday night, a state official said. The two other suspects were described as Garcia's aides or bodyguards.
Police were hunting for more suspects Wednesday in connection with the highway ambush of Federico Benitez Lopez, including Garcia's brother, Raul, another former federal police commander who worked in Tijuana, according to law enforcement officials. Politics and drug corruption converged in the case, leaving the governor of Baja California and the mayor of Tijuana fearing for their lives.
For months, fears of a violent clash between state and federal forces stalled the probe. But Baja police made the arrests with cooperation from Mexican federal police investigating the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, as well as U.S. law enforcement agencies, officials said
Details of the unfolding investigation remained tightly guarded Wednesday: The investigation has uncovered evidence that state police and officers in Benitez's own force may have been involved. Investigators on both sides of the border are trying to determine why Benitez was killed and whether his death is linked to the Colosio assassination five weeks earlier.
Mexican federal investigators assigned to the Colosio case have worked closely with a special team of state investigators on the Benitez slaying because of suspicions that the police chief was slain as part of a cover-up in the candidate's murder.
"I think they feel the Benitez and the Colosio matters are linked and they want to see who runs for cover," a high-ranking state official told The Times. The FBI was instrumental in helping crack the case, the official said.
The professional style in which Benitez was intercepted by assailants firing machine guns from two vehicles caused many to believe there was police involvement. During an aggressive anti-drug campaign early last year, Benitez's municipal police clashed with drug traffickers and their protectors in the federal and state police, who were riding shotgun for smuggling loads. The reform-minded chief reportedly rejected a $100,000 bribe from a drug lord 10 days before his death, leading many to conclude that the drug lord ordered his death because of that refusal.
But just as Colosio's death is believed to be the work of an alliance between cartels and powerful politicians, there have been recent indications that Benitez's role in the convoluted Colosio case may also have troubled powerful interests in the world of narco-politics. Benitez told reporters that he suspected a cover-up in the assassination and, at the direction of an insistent Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, was investigating the possibility of a second gunman.
Last month, Mexico's new attorney general--like Ruffo a member of the opposition National Action Party--announced that a second gunman had been arrested as part of a far-ranging plot involving Colosio's federal bodyguards. The attorney general discarded a previous lone gunman theory.
Another curious link to the Colosio case: Word of a phony bomb threat at the Tijuana airport on the evening of Benitez's slaying was relayed to Ruffo by the office of the former federal prosecutor investigating the Colosio assassination. Investigators now suspect that the hoax was intended to lure Benitez out of his office--and that his murder was a message to back off the Colosio case.
The Garcias are said to be on the payroll of Sonora-based cartel boss Hector (Guero) Palma, who has fought a war with Tijuana drug lords for control of the lucrative northwest border smuggling corridor. The inability to resolve the Benitez case had cast a shadow of lawlessness over the Ruffo administration. State police had identified the Garcias as prime suspects within days, but were unable to move against them because of the unusual power they wielded within the federal police, according to law enforcement officials.