Reporting from Los Angeles and Mexico City — The lead investigator in the slaying in Mexico of El Monte educator Augustin Roberto "Bobby" Salcedo has been killed in an ambush, officials said Saturday.
It was not clear whether the death of investigator Manuel Acosta will have any effect on the case, in which little progress had been reported. Authorities would not speculate on whether Acosta's killing was related to Salcedo's.
Hundreds of law enforcement officers and judicial officials have been slain in Mexico in recent years, often in an effort to thwart investigations and silence witnesses. It is a tactic that usually works, as the vast majority of crimes in Mexico go unresolved.
Salcedo, an El Monte school board member, was visiting his wife's relatives during the Christmas holidays in Gomez Palacio, a city in Durango state that has become increasing violent as drug traffickers battle for turf. He and five friends were yanked from a bar after midnight on Dec. 30 by gunmen. They were killed, and their bodies were dumped in a field on the outskirts of town.
Acosta, in an interview with the Times, had pledged to get to the bottom of the killings.
But on Jan. 15, Acosta was ambushed by gunmen in a five-seat red pickup truck, the kind frequently used by drug traffickers. He was hit as he returned to his office from another deadly crime scene.
Acosta, 42, survived comatose and in critical condition. Authorities did not disclose the attack, saying they hoped to better protect Acosta by letting his assailants assume he was dead.
But on Tuesday he died. His injuries included gunshot wounds to the chest and torso.
His death was first reported in the Milenio newspaper in a dispatch from Gomez Palacio and confirmed Saturday to The Times by Martin Chavez, spokesman for the city.
Chavez declined to discuss whether Acosta's death dealt a setback to the Salcedo investigation, one of several cases the agent was handling. The case will be handed over to one of two investigators in Acosta's department. Chavez referred a reporter to the state prosecutor's office in Gomez Palacio. Calls there went unanswered Saturday.
Salcedo's widow, Betzy, reached by telephone, was startled by the news. She said the family had not been informed of any progress in the search for her husband's killers. "I don't know what to say," she said.
El Monte Mayor Andre Quintero, who was a friend of Salcedo's, called the news "devastating."
"On behalf of my community, we are so grateful for Mr. Acosta's life and work and for trying to get justice for Bobby and for other people," he said.
The killing is one more reason to redouble efforts against Mexican cartels, Quintero said, adding: "We have to persevere. We have to give the Mexican government the support they need to continue hunting down these evil people."
The FBI recently joined the case and has sent investigators to Mexico to assist in analyzing evidence from the site where the bodies of Salcedo and the five other men were found. FBI participation had created expectations among some people that this case might not end up in the same swirl of impunity that most Mexican cases do.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte), who has pushed for strong response to the Salcedo case, said Saturday she was dismayed by the news. Salcedo's death was shocking, she said, and Acosta's "doubly shocking."
Chu said she was struck by the brazen nature of the killing. So certain of impunity are the cartels "that they would murder the lead investigator in a case such as this one," Chu said. "It shows the degree to which the drug cartels are out of control."
Chu said she wants the investigation to be put into the hands of federal authorities in Mexico instead of local ones, an argument she made recently to Carlos Pascual, U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
Mexican law requires that cases meet certain legal requirements to qualify for federal investigation, she said. Pascual has agreed to look into the issue. But hearing of Acosta's death "gives me further resolve to push to have this made a federal case," Chu said.
Chu affirmed that the FBI is "involved and actively working" on the case and that forensic evidence is being analyzed.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller declined to comment on Acosta's death, saying only that the FBI "will continue to provide whatever assistance is requested from the Mexican government."
The death of Salcedo, a doctoral student at UCLA, sent shock waves through the Los Angeles area, where he was born and raised. A few days after the killing, about 5,000 people gathered for a vigil in his honor in El Monte, where he had been a beloved teacher, coach and school administrator. He is believed to have been the first U.S. elected official killed in the 4-year-old Mexican drug war.
Quintero, the El Monte mayor, said Salcedo's death continues to resonate locally. "Not a day goes by that I don't introduce myself and the minute I say 'El Monte,' the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, 'I'm sorry about Bobby.' "