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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexico woman presses case of missing federal police officer son

Thousands have disappeared in Mexico's drug war. But the case of Luis Angel Leon and his colleagues is especially puzzling: fully armed officers vanishing on their way to help police a violent town.

September 01, 2011|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Araceli Rodriguez refuses to give up searching for her son, Luis Angel Leon, whose picture she is holding. Leon, six fellow officers and their driver disappeared in November 2009 while on their way to a violence-racked town in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
Araceli Rodriguez refuses to give up searching for her son, Luis Angel Leon,… (Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Mexico City — Araceli Rodriguez felt a jab of dread when her son, Luis Angel Leon, a federal police officer in Mexico City, announced that he was going on a mission in the western state of Michoacan.

"I told him that Michoacan is very dangerous and that I didn't want him to go," Rodriguez recalled. Leon, 24, with two years on the force, said he could use the extra earnings.

On Nov. 16, 2009 — a Monday — Leon climbed into a civilian SUV with six other officers and a driver.

The group has not been heard from since.

Thousands of people have disappeared during Mexico's nearly 5-year-old drug war. But the case of Leon and his colleagues is especially puzzling: fully armed federal officers vanishing on their way to help police a violence-ridden town.

For almost two years, Rodriguez, a 47-year-old former hotel receptionist, has hunted for answers, starting with police commanders who took days to acknowledge the disappearance. She has ventured into the hills in search of bodies and received anonymous printed warnings to back off.

Detained drug suspects have said the officers were ambushed on the road in Michoacan and taken away to be killed. Until there's proof, though, Rodriguez won't have it.

"In my mother's heart I won't accept what they say," she said, her round face resolute.

Rodriguez has pushed authorities to get to the bottom of her son's disappearance and cases in which police and soldiers assigned to the drug war have gone missing.

The Michoacan disappearances got little news coverage before Rodriguez took part in a televised meeting in June between Mexican crime victims and President Felipe Calderon and his top ministers.

"We want justice for our families, we want justice for our children," she implored.

According to a report prepared by a Mexico City human rights group that has worked on the case, Sgt. Leon and his colleagues, though armed, wore civilian clothes when they left Mexico City in a borrowed Chevrolet Suburban. The trip to Ciudad Hidalgo would take several hours. The group left at 11 a.m., without guards.

On the way, two of the officers told loved ones by cellphone that all was well. In the second call, about 3 p.m., officer Bernardo Israel Lopez said they had crossed into Michoacan and were an hour from their destination. But no more would be heard.

Loved ones checked with one another as calls to the group went unanswered. At first, Rodriguez figured that the officers went silent because of the sensitivity of the assignment. Soon, puzzlement curdled into fear.

Visits to federal police headquarters in Mexico City didn't help. Supervisors seemed unaware that anything was amiss and, Rodriguez said, at one point kicked her out. One suggested that the officers may have left in defiance of orders, raising suspicion about their conduct.

It was six days before authorities launched a search. "Six days — what happened then?" Rodriguez asked. "What happened to those kids?"

In following months, strange leads arose but went nowhere, according to the rights group the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. An envelope turned up with photos of the missing officers in which they appeared to have gone days without shaving. Family members received anonymous calls saying the men had been kidnapped by the notorious drug gang La Familia. DNA from a relative of one of the missing police officers matched that of a charred body found in the central state of Queretaro, but the teeth weren't right.

Last year, police officials summoned the families to say they believed the missing officers and driver had been seized and killed by gang members on the day they drove to Michoacan.

In June, during the meeting between Calderon administration officials and crime victims, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna echoed that conclusion.

"On the way to Ciudad Hidalgo, they were attacked," Garcia Luna said. He attributed the attack to La Familia and said a number of suspects were in custody.

But the suspects have offered conflicting accounts and were unable to steer authorities to the bodies, the rights group said. Inconsistencies offer a glimmer of hope to Rodriguez, who now travels with police protection because of the threats.

She said the federal police had granted one wish last month by holding a modest ceremony, hailing her son and the others as "absent heroes."

But Rodriguez said it's too soon to end the investigation — hers, at least.

"This hasn't ended," she said. "It isn't over."

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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