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Prime Suspect Arrested in Slaying of Mexican Cardinal : Crime: Alleged drug-cartel hit man is accused of murdering priest in Guadalajara two years ago.

September 26, 1995|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Federal agents Monday announced the arrest of one of the principal suspects alleged to have gunned down Guadalajara's Roman Catholic cardinal more than two years ago, a murder that continues to test the credibility of President Ernesto Zedillo's government.

The Mexican attorney general's office said Edgar Nicolas Mariscal, known as "El Negro," was captured Sunday in the Pacific coast state of Sonora, carrying an Uzi submachine gun and fake papers identifying him as an official of the state's transit department.

The official communique stated that another gunman--one of 24 suspects already in custody in the case--had identified Mariscal as one of the drug-cartel hit men who participated in the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo outside the Guadalajara airport on May 24, 1993.

The arrest did little to advance the controversial murder case beyond the government's original finding that the cardinal--who was dressed in clerical robes--was shot more than a dozen times in a case of mistaken identity.

After months of investigating possible motives, Zedillo's special prosecutor in charge of re-investigating the cardinal's slaying and two major political assassinations last year--which Zedillo has promised that his government will solve--announced at a recent news conference in Mexico City that he had to agree with the government's initial findings. He did so, he said, "through the process of elimination."

"The motive of confusion is sustained in 158 official depositions, 80 expanded declarations and 24 interviews," special prosecutor Pablo Chapa Bezanilla told dozens of skeptical reporters and church officials Aug. 29.

Chapa also released official testimony in which witnesses said Mariscal and another suspect--who was killed by federal agents last year--fired on three cars, including the cardinal's white Grand Marquis. The shootout left seven people dead, including Posadas' driver. The gunmen, who allegedly were hired by the cartel headed by the Arellano Felix brothers and fled by a commercial flight to the cartel's base in Tijuana, mistook the cardinal for rival drug lord Joaquin Guzman Loera of the Sinaloa cartel, Chapa said.

Church officials and most Mexicans still disbelieve the official version.

Posadas was an outspoken critic of the drug cartels that have made billions of dollars using Mexico as a key smuggling route for South American cocaine sold in the United States. Some church leaders believe the cardinal was killed to silence him; others privately suspect former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was using him as a go-between with Colombia's powerful drug cartels.

The cardinal's killing was the first of the three still-unsolved assassinations that have contributed to the destabilization of Mexico. The other two are the March, 1994, murder in Tijuana of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and the assassination of the party's second-ranking official in Mexico City six months later.

In February, Zedillo's attorney general arrested the brother of former President Salinas and charged him with ordering the slaying of PRI Secretary General Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

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