Journalists, academics and law enforcement officials in Mexico are not convinced that the Arellano-Félix cartel was behind the January killings of two prominent Tijuana journalists, as claimed by the government.
Mexican Undersecretary of Security Ricardo Mejía Berdeja said on April 27 that the same criminal cell, made up of remnants of the Arellano-Félix Cartel (CAF), was responsible for the murders of Margarito Martínez Esquivel and Lourdes Maldonado López.
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Martínez, a freelance photographer, was shot and killed on January 17 outside his home in Tijuana, in Mexico’s northern border state of Baja California. A few days later, Maldonado, a veteran radio journalist, was shot dead in her car on January 23 in the Santa Fe neighborhood of the same border town.
“There is a link between the homicide of Lourdes Maldonado and that of Margarito Martínez with the same criminal group. It is a remnant of the Arellano-Félix group, led by a man nicknamed “Cabo 16”, who was also arrested in both incidents,” Mejía said, during an April 28 presentation titled “Cero Impunidad” (Zero Impunity) listing the arrests. in both cases.
But doubts remain as to which powerful organization or person, if any, could be behind the killings.
“Tijuana has a pretty long history of catching someone who might have had the gun in their hand, but not hitting the person who was actually responsible,” said San Diego-based researcher and senior rights researcher Michael Lettieri. of man at university. Center for Mexican-American Studies based at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.
The #YoSíSoyPeriodista (Yes, I am a journalist) collective, which has demanded accountability and organized protests against the killings, noted that there was no known evidence for the government’s claim that Maldonado was killed because that she had “reported the drug dealers” operating in the neighborhood where she lived.
The Maldonado neighborhood is controlled, some law enforcement officials noted, by the Sinaloa Cartel, not the CAF.
The journalists’ collective alleged that the allegation of CAF complicity was made to deflect suspicion from Jaime Bonilla Valdez, a prominent local business leader and former governor of Baja California who had been embroiled in a nine-year legal dispute. years with Maldonado resulting from his firing by a company he owned.
In 2019, during a live-streamed press conference, Lourdes Maldonado told Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador – Bonilla’s close friend – that she feared for her life, citing Bonilla by name. Bonilla has denied any involvement in threats to Maldonado’s security or his assassination.
“Unless there is complete transparency, and unless there is a clear and detailed chain of evidence that shows the conspiracy and plot to kill Maldonado, there will always be a cloud of doubt around the investigation,” said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San. Diego who follows organized crime in Mexico.
David Contreras, a retired detective sergeant who served 27 years with the San Diego Police Department and worked as a liaison in cross-border investigations, said suspects arrested in the murders were operating at such a low level that they could work for any cartel. – or themselves.
“They used to be part of the Sinaloa Cartel. And they jumped into the CAF,” said Contreras, who has also worked closely with law enforcement in Mexico as a private investigator.
Contreras said lower-level crime cells are no longer as beholden to large transnational drug trafficking organizations as they once were. What was a simple all-out war between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Arellanos for control of “Tijuana Square” – the coveted territory for US narcotics trafficking – has now dissolved into a chaotic patchwork of low-level rogues with frequent changing alliances.
“It used to be that if you worked for one cartel and you went to work for another cartel, you were going to get killed,” he said. “But now they jump from one organization to another. They call them chapulines [grasshoppers] because they basically hop from cartel to cartel.
Once the most powerful organization in Mexico, the Arellano-Félix drug cartel had leaders who lived in the open in the 1990s, partying in local nightclubs, while instilling a deadly fear that prevented ordinary citizens to mention their names in public.
The Arellano family siblings were nieces and nephews of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who led the Guadalajara Cartel, and they inherited most of the drug trafficking routes to the United States. For decades, they seemed more powerful than the authorities trying to capture them.
“Dead or alive, free or behind bars, the words ‘Arellano Felix’ mean danger,” San Diego-Union Tribune reporter Sandra Dibble wrote in 2002. But that’s when the band began to lose its dominance after the arrest of the caïd Benjamín Arellano. Félix, described as the organization’s CEO, and the death of Ramón, the group’s ruthless enforcer, who was killed in a gunfight in Mazatlan that same year.
Independent remnants of the Arellano Félix cartel are still active in the Baja California region, according to law enforcement officials on both sides of the border. Several authorities said it wouldn’t surprise them if the FAC were involved in the murders of Martínez and Maldonado — but it wouldn’t surprise them either if it wasn’t.
It is possible that other criminal groups are trying to leverage the killings to draw attention to their rivals, giving authorities a reason to pursue their enemies.
“There could be a treaty between the army and Sinaloa, so they basically blamed the CAF,” Contreras said.
Although the CAF is no longer as powerful as it once was, the organization has been implicated in the murder of journalists in the past. In 2004, a top CAF assassin was arrested after a shootout with Tijuana police on suspicion of killing Francisco Ortiz Franco, editor-in-chief of the weekly Zeta.
Contreras recounted helping to foil a 2013 assassination attempt on Maldonado by Melvin Gutiérrez Quiroz, a Logan Heights hitman and member of the CAF.
“We had to go tell him, you know, ‘They’re going to kill you,'” Contreras said. “‘They’re watching your house.'”
Mexican federal authorities said last week that it was a criminal known as “El Cabo 16”, real name Christian Adán Velázquez, who linked the murders of Maldonado and Martínez.
But as Zeta pointed out in an article published on Friday: “’El Cabo 16′ is not the head of any criminal group in Tijuana. He hired, for 40,000 pesos [about $2,000]the assassins of Margarito Martínez, but he was always identified as a member of David López’s criminal cell “El Cabo 20”.
No evidence has been made public that Maldonado ever did anything that warranted the attention of Cabo 16, Cabo 20 or the Arellano-Felix cartel.
“What makes it really difficult to understand why she would be targeted by criminal organizations is that she was not, at the time, doing any in-depth or in-depth investigative journalism on drug trafficking organizations. drugs and their operations,” Shout said. “Drug cartels kill journalists when journalists interfere with or otherwise threaten their organization and we can see no obvious motive why Maldonado would have been targeted by this organization at that time. ”
Lack of transparency
A lack of transparency — and in Maldanado’s case, a trial that was closed to the press and public — has fueled skepticism that the real perpetrators were held accountable. No update on the murder case is available as prosecutors have insisted that hearings be held behind closed doors, citing a risk to the life of a witness.
The Zeta article asks: “Who is the President of the Republic protecting by spreading false information…about the cases of the murders of Margarito Martínez and Lourdes Maldonado?”
Experts say the public may never really know.
“It’s possible to know and it’s possible for the information to come out, but it’s rare,” Shirk said. “It is possible to find the answer, but it is unlikely, and for anyone looking, it would be very dangerous.”