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Misidentified Bodies Add Twist to Mexico Drug War

Killings: Slain official is found days after another corpse was identified as his. Officers suspect a trap.

September 28, 1996|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a bizarre twist to a string of slayings of Mexican anti-narcotics officers, authorities said a corpse found last Saturday was not that of Jorge Garcia Vargas, the Tijuana commander of the national anti-drug agency, as had been announced. Garcia Vargas is dead, however, officials said Friday.

Garcia Vargas' real body turned up badly decomposed Wednesday, in the trunk of a car parked in Polanco, an upscale district of Mexico City, after neighbors alerted police to a "fetid odor" emanating from the car, according to Rodolfo Torres, a spokesman for the attorney general's office in the Mexican capital. Found with him was the body of a former federal police commander, Miguel Angel Silva Caballero, who was fired in 1993, according to Hector Villareal of the federal attorney general's office. U.S. narcotics experts said Silva Caballero reputedly had links with Mexican cocaine barons.

The premature identification of Garcia Vargas may have occurred because he vanished after getting off a plane from Tijuana on Sept. 20, Torres said. In addition, the face of the man officials mistook for him was deformed beyond recognition by those who beat him, he said.

"The body has been found," Villareal said. "There was some apparent confusion."

Torres said officials are still investigating to determine the identity of the man found in the truck with three other men last Saturday in Cuajimalpa, a working-class community on the outskirts of Mexico City. All four had been tortured and strangled, officials said. So had the two newly discovered corpses, spokesmen said, and to add to the confusion, all six victims died last weekend, officials said.

The man initially identified as Garcia Vargas bore a strong physical resemblance to him, said Hector Pina Najera, a top spokesman of the metropolitan attorney general's office. He added that both bodies had been positively identified as Garcia Vargas by his family.

"There were many similarities," he said, although he added that he did not know the precise methods employed to conduct the second identification.

The new discovery has also thrown into doubt the identities and the role of the men in Cuajimalpa initially described as Garcia Vargas' bodyguards. The men are believed to be either police or madrinas--illegal police assistants typically hired "to do their dirty work," according to Torres.

The revised announcement may have raised more questions than it answered. Why couldn't they initially confirm his identity with fingerprints? What was Garcia Vargas doing in Mexico City?

"What is going on?" asked a U.S. federal agent. "This makes this all the more murky."

"It is bizarre," said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, the Tijuana-based vice president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights.

However, Perez Canchola said, the revised version underlines an important point: that Garcia Vargas was officially expected in Mexico City.

He called on authorities to provide the name of the official who asked Garcia Vargas--and possibly a previous victim, federal police commander Ernesto Ibarra Santes--to travel to Mexico City.

"It could have been a trap," Perez Canchola said. "It's evident that someone was waiting for them in the airport to kill them. It had to be someone on the inside who knew [Garcia Vargas] was going there. It's possible it was someone he knew."

He challenged authorities to begin to provide "credible explanations" of the seven assassinations this year of law enforcement authorities who had worked in Baja California.

"This is not ordinary crime," Perez Canchola said. "It seems to be a vendetta inside a public institution or a vendetta between drug lords and a public institution. In these last crimes, it is clear there are no rules. It appears to be a mixture of professional criminals and police, and the country is paying the consequences.

"If these kind of people are targets, we can imagine what could happen with private business people, ordinary citizens or foreign investors," he said. Leading up to the Garcia Vargas killing, there has been a victim nearly every month.

* Ernesto Ibarra Santes was gunned down in Mexico City, along with his two bodyguards and a cabdriver, Sept. 14. Ibarra had vowed to go after the Arellano Felix brothers, who he said directed the Tijuana drug cartel, and to purge the federal police ranks of any corrupt agents who stood in his way. He had been commander of the Baja federal police for 28 days.

* Jesus Romero Magana was gunned down outside his Tijuana home Aug. 17 by men whom police said he appeared to know. Some U.S. agents suspect narcotics violence. Others tie it to Romero's role as the first federal prosecutor to interrogate Mario Aburto, the only gunman convicted in the still-unsolved killing of Mexican presidential heir apparent Luis Donaldo Colosio at a Tijuana rally in March 1994.

* Former Baja Federal Police Cmdr. Isaac Sanchez Perez was shot dead July 19 in Mexico City, where he had been reassigned as an anti-narcotics deputy commander.

* Sergio Moreno Perez, the state's top prosecutor for a year until January 1996, was kidnapped with his adult son in Michoacan in May. Their bodies were discovered later in a car in the Mexico City suburbs.

* Arturo Ochoa Palacios was shot at close range as he exercised at a Tijuana health club April 17.

* Sergio Armando Silva, a former operations chief of Baja federal police, was gunned down in Mexico City on Feb. 23. Five days later, his close friend Rebeca Acuna was gunned down in Tijuana.

"It is a typical drug war," said Jorge Castaneda, the son of a former foreign minister and one of Mexico's most respected intellectuals. "Every now and then, someone who had to do with Colosio is killed, but I'm not sure there is any cause and effect. It is linked to the increase in Mexico of the size and scope of the cartels."

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