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Officials Link Ensenada Massacre to Drug Feud

Violence: Key target, wounded and in a coma, is a known trafficker, Mexican authorities say.

September 19, 1998|PATRICK McDONNELL and KEN ELLINGWOOD and HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ENSENADA — The principal target of the massacre that left 18 people dead just outside this Baja California resort was a known drug gang leader, and the killings were probably the result of a feud between drug traffickers, Mexican officials said Friday.

Fermin Castro, also known to authorities as "the Ice Man," was critically wounded in Thursday's predawn attack, in which Castro and 20 members of his extended family, including eight children, were dragged from their beds and shot execution-style.

Castro led one of six drug trafficking gangs linked to the infamous Arellano Felix drug cartel in the Ensenada area, according to Mexican federal government documents shown to reporters Friday by Jesus Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana weekly news magazine Zeta.

Baja prosecutors said at a news conference Friday afternoon that Castro, 38, was involved in drug running between Ensenada and drop-off points across the border. They declined, however, to confirm any link between Castro and the Arellano Felix cartel.

Witnesses to the massacre in El Sauzal, a small farm town outside Ensenada, "indicate that there were problems between Mr. Castro and other people over the question of drugs," said Marco Antonio de la Fuente Villarreal, attorney general for the northern Baja region.

Authorities said a brother-in-law of Castro who was killed in Thursday's attack also was involved in drug trafficking. They identified him as Francisco Javier Flores Altamirano, 30.

Authorities have said that if the slayings were related to drugs, they breached an "unwritten code" among the drug cartels that calls for sparing the lives of children.

De la Fuente said informants led authorities investigating the massacre to a location in the Baja community of Tecate, where officers recovered 100 bags of marijuana and 15 weapons, including pistols and one AK-47 assault rifle.

Ten people were detained in Tecate for questioning, but were not arrested. Forensics experts will test the weapons to see if they were used in Thursday's killings, officials said.

Officials also revealed that Castro was tortured before he was shot. Castro remained in a coma Friday, under heavy guard at a local hospital.

Several Mexican newspapers speculated that a rivalry between the Arellano Felix gang and new challengers expanding their interests in Baja California may be behind the crime.

New Round of Violence Feared

Much of the conjecture centered on the Arellano Felix cartel's chief lieutenant in the Ensenada area, Ismael Higuera Guerrero, known locally as "El Mayel." Castro worked under Higuera's supervision, according to the government documents produced by editor Blancornelas, who was critically wounded last year in an ambush believed to have been orchestrated by the Arellano Felix cartel.

Some observers fear that the killings might mark the beginning of a new and bloody period of Baja California's drug wars, which have claimed the lives of a long line of drug kingpins, police officers and government prosecutors.

"If this was not the Arellanos, it was a cartel of equal power," said Tijuana human rights activist Victor Clark. "If this is an outside group that has come to strike out against the Arellanos, this means they are weakening. The killers must be from a very important cartel."

The Arellano Felix clan has reportedly moved much of its personnel away from Tijuana as law enforcement authorities have mounted crackdowns in the border city. The group's tentacles are believed to have spread down the coast to Ensenada and east to Mexicali.

Castro has been linked in Tijuana news reports to marijuana production in Valle de Trinidad, southeast of Ensenada, where he is believed to have been born on an Indian reservation known as Santa Catarina. According to an account in Zeta, Castro's gang was named after the reservation.

On Friday morning, at the scene of the massacre, the whinnying of Castro's prized horses was the only sound that punctuated the air as investigators continued to pore over the bloodstained patio of his farming compound.

Children's clothing still hung from laundry lines at the site where the members of three families had been yanked from their beds and shot in Baja California's worst crime.

Castro, who raised livestock and organized rodeos, lived with his extended family on a ranch compound in the El Sauzal de Rodriguez community north of Ensenada.

Key Victim Is Closely Guarded

Friday in Ensenada, Mexican soldiers and police kept a strict watch outside Castro's hospital room. Besides Castro, the survivors are 12-year-old Mario Alberto Flores, who suffered unspecified but serious injuries, and Viviana Flores, 15, who apparently escaped unharmed. Officials at first had said that she remained safe by hiding under a bed. But authorities Friday said she had hidden between a wardrobe and a bureau in her bedroom and later had driven the wounded boy to safety.

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