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Death of Reformer May Gain Her Goal

Corruption: Inquiry into the slaying of a Mexican city councilwoman might lead to a cleanup of local government.

April 13, 2002|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATIZAPAN, Mexico — When she joined the city council in August 2000, Maria de los Angeles Tames already suspected that her hometown was corrupt. But her parents and prosecutors say she had no idea the corruption was so pervasive--or that it would one day kill her.

The 27-year-old attorney, the politically mature daughter of a former federal senator from the National Action Party, didn't plan to be a crusader in this Mexico City suburb, her parents said. She just wanted to make a difference.

But Tames uncovered indications of corruption in the city government and police beyond anything she imagined. And the evidence led her to suspect Mayor Juan Antonio Dominguez.

She found evidence that bidding for city contracts was rigged, that building permits were sold illicitly and that bars were paying police up to $40,000 a year to ignore underage drinking, drug dealing and prostitution.

City administrators and police ignored the council's votes, including one to halt construction of a beer warehouse in a residential zone.

"She was more outraged than surprised when she learned of the corruption," says her father, Pedro Tames, a former city administrator who is now an executive at the Notimex news agency.

Rather than look the other way, Tames became what other council members described as the "reformist leader" on the council, while gathering evidence that she told her family she would one day present to prosecutors.

She never made it. On Sept. 5, 2001, about a week before she planned to resign and go to prosecutors, she was shot five times with a high-caliber weapon on the doorstep of her home. Investigators say the evidence she collected led them to her suspected killers. It could end up achieving her main goal: cleaning up city hall.

This week, Dominguez and his former personal secretary, Daniel Garcia, were charged with murder, extortion and fraud. They are in jail awaiting trial. Four other suspects are under house arrest. Another five remain at large, including four other members of the Garcia family, which prosecutors describe as a city hall "mafia," and the alleged triggerman.

Prosecutors say their seven-month investigation confirms Tames' suspicions. Though no one has been convicted, the investigation also suggests how elected officials can bleed a city dry, and why it's no accident that urban development in Mexico is so helter skelter.

Despite the arrests, many close to the case fear that the violence isn't over. Two other city council members, Virginia Ruiz and Claudia Gutierrez, the city's human rights coordinator and prosecutors working on the case all have been threatened.

Tames had been active in politics since she was a teenager. After going to law school, she told her parents that someday she wanted to be elected to the federal chamber of deputies. Tames' interest in politics was heightened by serving as an aide to her mother, Evangelina Perez Zaragoza, during her year in the Senate.

Tames' mother said in an interview Thursday that her daughter started seeing trouble signs three months after joining the city council.

The first indication was the city's direct purchase of $220,000 in heavy machinery, which should have been put out for bid. Investigators say the seller was a construction company that helped the mayor pay off his mortgage.

That led Tames to dig deeper into the city's contracting practices. Investigators who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for their safety said the winning bidders were usually cronies or relatives of Dominguez or Garcia.

Tames tried calling up or visiting the businesses that were listed as losing bidders on city contracts, often finding that they didn't exist or that the addresses were those of billiard parlors or private residences. Some construction projects had special permits that had been approved by Garcia and were not to be blocked, the investigators said.

Then there were the many mysterious nighttime flights at the Atizapan municipal airport that investigators think might have been used to transport drugs. The airport's flight records have disappeared.

Tames and other council members got Garcia fired in January 2001. But her insistence that other Garcia family members in city hall also be fired fell on deaf ears. Meanwhile, Garcia became a bitter enemy.

At some point, her father said she began to sense her conversations were being recorded because the mayor repeated specific words and phrases back to her in conversation.

Earlier this year, investigators found a wiretap operation in a building a few yards from city hall.

"My daughter told me she knew it was going on when the day after a telephone conversation in which another city councilwoman called the mayor's wife a fool, the mayor called her to say that one thing he wouldn't tolerate was disrespect toward his wife," said Pedro Tames.

Two weeks before she was killed, Tames met the mayor at a restaurant in an adjacent Mexico City suburb, and the mayor asked her to stop criticizing him in council meetings. According to her father, she told him she would stop as soon as he gave her reason to stop.

Although she never felt her life was in danger, she had decided to quit the council and go to prosecutors with the evidence she had.

"She wanted to put these people in jail," Pedro Tames said.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on Sept. 5, as she was opening the gate to her parents' home, the councilwoman was shot five times by a gunman who prosecutors charge was hired by Daniel Garcia's brother, Isaias. Four of those shots were in the back, all from a distance of three feet or less. Her body was found by her mother.

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