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Mexican Police Capture Possible Suspect in Slaying of Journalist

Reputed leader of a drug cartel's team of assassins is held after a shootout and car chase in Tijuana.

June 25, 2004|Chris Kraul and Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — A suspect with alleged links to the Arellano Felix drug cartel was captured early Thursday after a shootout in Tijuana, and he might have been involved in this week's killing of a crusading Tijuana journalist, Mexico's attorney general said.

Hours after the capture, dozens of journalists marched through the streets of Tijuana and demanded that the government bring to justice the killers of Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, 48, who was gunned down Tuesday in front of his two children as they were leaving a physical therapist's office.

Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha characterized the captured man, Mario Alberto Rivera Lopez, alias "El Cris," as the leader of an Arellano Felix team of assassins. He was captured in the Loma Dorada section of the city along with three other suspects, two of whom were wounded in the shootout. One police official was also wounded but is in stable condition, Macedo said.

Referring to Ortiz Franco's slaying, Macedo told reporters here: "We have found evidence that can link [Rivera] to that lamentable event."

It was likely that the Arellano Felix gang was behind the killing, he said. "For the way the killing was done, we believe that it was that organization." He said later, however, that he could not "categorically" pin the slaying on the gang because the investigation was still in progress.

Police said the slaying apparently was thoroughly planned. The getaway car used by the killers had been stolen three months earlier. It was found abandoned several blocks from the shooting scene.

The journalist was shot four times as he sat in the front seat of his car, with his children, ages 8 and 10, in the back seat. He was the third journalist at the newspaper Zeta to be targeted in recent years. The crusading weekly has earned drug traffickers' enmity by regularly publishing exposes on drug cartels and the complicity of police and political figures who protect them.

Hector Felix Miranda, a Zeta co-founder, was slain in 1988 by two gunmen. Zeta editor J. Jesus Blancornelas narrowly escaped death in a 1997 ambush that killed one of his bodyguards.

According to Mexican news reports, Ortiz Franco had recently given up his government-provided bodyguards. The assassins apparently knew this and had followed him to the therapist's office or had been tipped in advance about his appointment.

Rivera Lopez and another suspect were brought to Mexico City for questioning Thursday. The two others remained hospitalized in Tijuana. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington said it had supplied Mexican police with information on Rivera Lopez's whereabouts.

The DEA congratulated Mexican police elements led by the Federal Investigation Agency, or AFI, for the capture and said it would release a more detailed comment today. "We applaud the AFI for sticking to the case and getting their man," said DEA spokesman Misha Piastro in San Diego.

The capture unfolded late Wednesday when Mexican police approached a house. That move ignited a 20-minute shootout in which the suspects fired on police with an armor-piercing .50-caliber machine gun similar to those mounted on tanks, Macedo said. The weapons are legally owned in Mexico only by the armed forces.

The four suspects fled in a car but surrendered after a two-mile chase. Fifteen houses bore bullet marks, police sources said.

Later, four women also were arrested at the house, including Rivera Lopez's wife.

A large weapons cache recovered at the dwelling included an AK-47 assault rifle, several other rifles and pistols, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Two pairs of handcuffs and radio equipment also were seized.

The 100 journalists who marched quietly through Tijuana in the protest held pens and waved white cloths as symbols of peace. They said they were marching to challenge authorities to quickly solve the killing.

Participating in the march were radio, television and newspaper reporters from Tijuana, Mexicali and other cities in Baja California, said Eglantina Esquivel Martinez, editor of the monthly newsmagazine Crimen Sin Castigo -- Crime Without Punishment.

Despite the news of a possible breakthrough in the case, some expressed doubt.

"There is little trust in the authorities," the editor said.

Kraul reported from Mexico City and Marosi from San Diego.

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