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Two years of impunity in murder of "Zeta" columnist in Tijuana

(RSF/IFEX) - On the eve of the second anniversary of the murder of Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, columnist and co-founder of the weekly news magazine "Zeta", which took place on 22 June 2004 in the northwestern border town of Tijuana, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) voiced outrage that the case has never come to trial, despite the arrests of several suspected perpetrators and accomplices.

"Ortiz's murder and the failures of the investigation that followed are sadly emblematic of the impunity that surrounds violence against the press in Mexico, which last year became the western hemisphere's most dangerous country for journalists," the press freedom organisation said. "In the course of two years, none of the arrests has led to an indictment and no trial has been held. Must we resign ourselves to never seeing this case solved?"

RSF added: "We call on the new special prosecutor's office that was created on 15 February 2006 to restart the investigation from scratch and to give itself the necessary resources, including an extension to its mandate so that it can investigate cases linked to drug trafficking and organised crime."

A member of the team that founded "Zeta" in 1980, Ortiz was shot four times on 22 June 2004 by two masked gunmen in front of his two children, then aged 8 and 10, on a street in Tijuana, the capital of Baja California state and a major centre for trafficking drugs into the neighbouring United States.

Aged 48, Ortiz had often written about drug trafficking and local corruption. This was the third shooting attack against a member of "Zeta" staff. The first, on 20 April 1988, cost reporter Héctor Félix Miranda his life. Managing editor Jésus Blancornelas was badly injured in the second one, on 27 November 1997, but survived.

The magazine did its own investigation into Ortiz's murder and published a list of suspects in July 2004. It named future Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon and two members of the so-called Tijuana cartel (a drug trafficking cartel reputedly run by the Arellano Félix brothers), Arturo "El Nalgón" Villareal and Eduardo "El Niño" Ronquillo, as the alleged instigators of the murder.

According to the magazine, the murder was carried out by Ronquillo himself, together with Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano, a member of a paramilitary group called "Los Zetas," and another gunman, Armando Gálvez Flores. The magazine's investigations came to similar conclusions to the one carried out at the time by the Baja California prosecutor's office. Nonetheless, no one was charged.

The case was transferred on 18 August 2004 to federal judicial officials who have the job of combating organised crime. They lost no time in blaming the murder on the Arellano Félix cartel but ruled out any possibility that Rhon - who had become mayor on 1 August 2004 - was directly involved.

Ray del Billar, also known as "El Rey," a young man who used to run a division of the Tijuana-based cartel led by Villareal, was arrested along with seven other traffickers a year later, on 4 August 2005. Del Billar quickly admitted to the Ortiz murder, but "Zeta" cast doubt on his confession, claiming that "El Lazca" was probably the hit man.

The justice minister said on 3 May 2006 that three persons had been arrested in the Ortiz case, one for allegedly supplying the vehicle used by the hit man, and two others on suspicion of knowing in advance about the murder plans. The minister gave no further details about these suspects, but he said the hit man had probably been murdered by Tijuana cartel members who were directly involved.

Sixteen journalists have been killed in connection with their work in Mexico since 2000. Most of them had written about contraband and drug trafficking. No one has even been arrested or tried for ordering these murders. Strangely, the special prosecutor's office that was set up in February to investigate violence against the press is not supposed to handle cases in which organised crime is suspected.

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