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Judge Acquits Tijuana Man in Colosio Killing


MEXICO CITY — A federal judge on Wednesday acquitted and ordered free a Tijuana driver charged with being the second gunman who allegedly fired a shot into the abdomen of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate whose 1994 assassination radically altered Mexican politics.

The verdict was a huge blow to the credibility of Mexican Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano Gracia and his prosecutors. They had shocked Mexico in February 1995 with their theory that Colosio was killed as part of a conspiracy within the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Prosecutors had insisted that they would show that Colosio was shot by two assassins and not one, as the government had once insisted.

The freed suspect, Othon Cortes Vazquez, 29, was a chauffeur and street operative for the ruling party.

"I am innocent," Cortes told reporters late Wednesday as he was freed from a prison in Toluca near Mexico City.

Judge Mario Pardo Robelledo's half-page verdict came after a trial that lasted almost 18 months; there were more than 112 witnesses and 130 documents presented.

But several legal experts agreed that the evidence had failed to prove that Cortes fired at Colosio during the March 23, 1994, campaign rally in a Tijuana shantytown.

Lozano's office said it will appeal the Cortes verdict.

Lozano said the case against the defendant was "just one part" of a wide, continuing investigation of Colosio's killing.

Lozano said he remains convinced of Cortes' guilt and is unshaken in his belief--shared, according to polls, by most Mexicans--that the Colosio assassination "was a conspiracy."

Still, Wednesday's verdict appeared to leave the investigation where it began--with a single, fanatical gunman who shot the candidate out of rage.

Mario Aburto Martinez, a Tijuana factory worker who was arrested at the murder scene, swiftly confessed to firing both bullets that fatally wounded Colosio, who, as the ruling party candidate, was heir apparent to the Mexican presidency.

Aburto was found guilty in a 1994 trial and is serving a 45-year prison term.

Lozano and his special prosecutor, Pablo Chapa Benzanilla--the third to probe the assassination--reopened the Colosio case amid a wealth of conspiracy theories when President Ernesto Zedillo assumed office in December 1994.

Zedillo and Lozano vowed that they would stop at nothing to solve the killing and would use it to illustrate that no individual would be above the law in Mexico.

Zedillo did not comment on Wednesday's verdict.

Several government officials privately acknowledged that it was a major setback for Lozano, a member of the opposition National Action Party who has lost several other high-profile criminal cases lately; those officials also sought to stress, however, that Pardo's ruling clearly showed a newfound independence in Mexico's judiciary.

But most analysts, opposition politicians and PRI leaders said Wednesday's verdict had severely damaged the credibility of Lozano and Mexican law enforcement.

Several PRI officials, who have been demanding justice for their slain candidate, said they may use Wednesday's ruling to demand the resignation of the attorney general.

Damaging Lozano's case still further Wednesday, Pardo also acquitted and ordered freed Fernando de la Sota, another PRI stalwart whom prosecutors had implicated in the assassination conspiracy.

De la Sota, who headed Colosio's second-level security team, was arrested last year and charged with perjury.

The government case against Cortes had been troubled almost from the start of the trial. The charges had been based largely on videotapes and photographs that showed Cortes standing inches away from Colosio in a campaign mob just seconds before the candidate was shot in the head and stomach.

Prosecutor Chapa theorized that Aburto could not have shot a second bullet into Colosio's left side so quickly after firing into the right side of his head.

Chapa produced sworn statements from three witnesses. But only one--a witness who conceded that he was changing the statement he gave investigators a year before--said he saw Cortes fire after hearing a voice to Colosio's left shout, "Kill him!"

At the trial, Hector Sergio Perez, Cortes' lawyer, said he cited 27 videotape frames and 180 photos to show that his client could not have shot Colosio.

He said the evidence, for example, showed Cortes, who is right-handed, had his right hand on the shoulder of Colosio's chief of security, an army general who has also been investigated in the slaying.

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