Mexico arrests cartel member with ties to shooting

New York, March 17, 2008—Mexican federal police arrested a member of the Arellano Félix drug cartel on Saturday on suspicion of involvement in the 1997 shooting of Zeta Editor Jesús J. Blancornelas.

Federal police officers arrested Saúl Montes de Oca Morlett in the tourist city of San Felipe, Baja California, as he was getting ready to participate in a car race, according to a statement issued by the federal Secretary of Public Security. Montes de Oca, known as “El Ciego” (The Blind Man), was wanted for drug trafficking and kidnapping. Police also believe he was involved in the attack on Blancornelas, founder and editor of the weekly Tijuana-based magazine Zeta,the statement said. The editor survived the shooting, but was gravely wounded.

“We are monitoring the progress of the case against Sául Montes de Oca Morlett and look forward to having the opportunity to review the evidence against him,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

Montes de Oca has not publicly responded to the allegations against him, and the special prosecutor for press crimes was unable to provide contact information for Montes de Oca’s lawyer immediately.

Adela Navarro Bello, Zeta’s general director, told CPJ that the magazine’s staff did not have previous knowledge of Montes de Oca’s alleged involvement in the 1997 attack. However, Navarro said she hoped his arrest was an indication that the investigation by Mexican authorities into the attack against Blancornelas was moving forward. Montes de Oca has not yet been charged in the case.

On Tuesday, federal authorities arrested Gustavo Rivera Martínez, another high-ranking member of the Arellano Félix cartel as part of President Felipe Calderón’s administration’s crackdown on drug trafficking, according to Mexican and international press reports. In January, Alfredo Araujo Avila, a top hit man for the Arellano Félix cartel known as “Popeye,” was also arrested. Authorities are also investigating his involvement in the Blancornelas shooting, said international news reports. According to Navarro, Araujo is still in police custody but there is no word on the state of the investigation.

The attack against Blancornelas was prompted by an investigative piece in Zeta describing how the Arellano Félix cartel recruited gunmen from violent street gangs in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood. The leader of the Barrio Logan assassins was a veteran gangster named David Barron Corona, who earned the Arellano Félix family’s loyalty by saving two of the brothers from an ambush. Blancornelas published an article identifying Barron Corona as one of the top cartel enforcers.

A few weeks later, Barron Corona and a team of assassins ambushed Blancornelas while he was on his way to work. The assassination attempt failed only because Barron Corona was killed by one of his own gunmen when a bullet ricocheted and struck him in the eye.

Blancornelas died of natural causes in November 2006.

Created in 1980, Zeta is one of the only publications to regularly run investigations on organized crime, drug trafficking, and corruption in Mexico’s northern states, where self-censorship is rampant. The cost of Zeta’s coverage of crime along the U.S.-Mexico border has been high: Héctor Félix Miranda, co-founder of the magazine, was assassinated in 1988, and co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco was murdered in 2004. Navarro was given an International Press Freedom Award by CPJ in 2007.