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Mexico announces capture of Zetas paramilitary suspect

The man known as the Squirrel is accused of numerous crimes, including the possible slaying of an American who vanished, reportedly while jet-skiing.

October 08, 2012|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Salvador Alfonso Martinez also known as "Squirrel," holds up his right finger while presented to the press while in custody of the Organized Crime Special Investigations Unit in Mexico City.
Salvador Alfonso Martinez also known as "Squirrel," holds… (Marco Ugarte / AP Photo )

MEXICO CITY— The Mexican navy on Monday announced the capture of an alleged field commander of the Zetas crime organization whom it accuses of numerous high-profile crimes, including the possible killing of an American who disappeared while reportedly jet-skiing on a border lake two years ago.

The suspect, Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, alias the Squirrel, was paraded before reporters in a televised presentation in Mexico City.

Without offering evidence, navy spokesman Vice Adm. Jose Luis Vergara tied Martinez to a long string of crimes, including the 2010 execution of 72 migrants, mostly from Central America, in the northern state of Tamaulipas, as well as two prison breaks, also in the north, in which nearly 300 inmates escaped.

Vergara identified Martinez, 31, as a regional commander of the notorious Zetas paramilitary force and confidant of top Zetas capo Miguel Angel Trevino. He said Martinez was suspected of overseeing several secret mass graves containing about 200 victims and of executing 50 people "with his own hands."

In addition to Martinez's other alleged crimes, Vergara said he was "presumed responsible" for the possible killing of David Hartley, a 30-year-old Colorado native. Hartley disappeared Sept. 30, 2010, on what his wife, Tiffany, described as a jet-ski outing on Falcon Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border south of the Tamaulipas city of Nuevo Laredo. His body was never found, and the only version of events came from Tiffany Hartley.

A top Mexican investigator of the incident was killed shortly thereafter — also by Martinez, Vergara alleged.

Vergara said Martinez was captured Saturday in Nuevo Laredo several hours after a shootout with navy special forces who eventually intercepted the car in which he was traveling.

Martinez, short and pudgy-cheeked, seemed nearly buoyant at the meeting with journalists, offering a tight smile, nodding vigorously to reporters' questions, flashing a thumbs up and pumping his handcuffed fists in the air as he was led away. A reward of slightly more than $1 million had been offered for his capture.

His arrest is the latest in several important blows dealt by the Mexican military to both the Zetas group and its former patron, the Gulf cartel. The Gulf cartel established the Zetas as its muscle, recruiting former Mexican soldiers and Guatemalan special forces to serve. But the Zetas broke away and for the last year or so the group has been locked in a bloody fight with its former allies to control northeastern and central Mexico.

The killing in 2010 of the 72 migrants stands as one of the single most deadly incidents in nearly six years of intense fighting in the nation's drug war, which has claimed more than 55,000 lives. The men and women were found, bound and with gunshots to the head, lined up against a wall in the remote Tamaulipas town of San Fernando.

Later, numerous Mexican and Central American migrants went missing in the San Fernando area; many had been pulled from buses, presumably by Zetas, and slaughtered and dumped in mass graves.

Martinez is also suspected of masterminding the prison break last month in the northern town of Piedras Negras, in which about 130 people escaped, and a similar incident in 2010 when 151 inmates walked out of a Nuevo Laredo prison. In both cases, most of those fleeing were Zetas.

Authorities in the state of Coahuila, meanwhile, asked Monday to be allowed to interrogate Martinez in connection with the slaying last week of the son of a former governor and top official of the Institutional Revolutionary Party of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto. A police commander and two subordinates have been arrested, accused of luring the victim to his death.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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