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Mexico10 August 2005

Ortiz Franco’s killers said to be still at large

Jesús Blancornelas, the editor of the weekly Zeta, has challenged claims that Ray del Billar, an alleged drug trafficker arrested on 4 August in Tijuana, is the person who murdered journalist Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco. In an article yesterday in the daily newspaper Crónica, Blancornelas said this has been confirmed to him by deputy prosecutor general José Santiago Vasconcelos.

Del Billar is just a "hoodlum of no importance" who had no role in Ortiz Franco’s murder, Blancornelas said. The person who killed the journalist would have shot the policemen chasing him rather than let himself he arrested, he said, adding that he believed Ortiz Franco was murdered by an individual known as Lazcano, who belongs to the Zetas, a group of former policemen and soldiers turned mercenaries.

05.08.05 - Detained Tijuana cartel member admits to murder of Francisco Ortiz Franco

Reporters Without Borders today welcomed the arrest yesterday of Tijuana drug cartel member Ray del Billar, who has reportedly confessed to participating in the June 2004 murder of journalist Francisco Ortiz Franco. The organisation said it would continue to follow the case and called for an exemplary trial and sentence.

Del Billar was arrested in Tijuana along with seven other traffickers as they were returning home from a downtown discotheque in a Cadillac with Californian licence plates. They were spotted by the Baja California police coordination group, operating under the "Safe Mexico" programme set up by the government in June to combat a wave of violence in the north of the country. The Cadillac tried to get away, resulting in a car chase that ended with their arrest.

Aged 23 and known as "El Rey," Del Billar is said to have admitted to participating in the murder of Ortiz, which was carried out by a Tijuana cartel section led by Arturo "El Nalgón" Villarreal Heredia to which Del Billar belonged at the time. Federal investigators, who handle all organised crime cases, had been after them since August 2004. The cartel’s overall leaders are the Arellano Félix brothers.

An editorialist with the weekly Zeta known for writing about corruption and drug trafficking, Ortiz was murdered in the presence of his two children as he was returning home on 22 June 2004.

24.08.05 - Ortiz Franco murder investigation handed over to federal authorities

The Arellano Félix brothers drug cartel was behind the murder of journalist Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, an 18 August 2004 press conference was told by deputy prosecutor-general for the republic, José Luis Vasconcelos, and prosecutor-general for Lower California, Antonia Martínez Luna. They said that the case had as a result been handed over to Mexican federal judicial authorities, which handle cases involving organised crime.

Two months after the journalist’s death, the local prosecutor’s office had not come up with a suspect. On 22 July the weekly Zeta drew up its own list of those it suspected of "arranging or ordering the murder of Ortíz Franco", pointing the finger in particular at Jorge Hank Rhon, elected mayor of Tijuana on 1 August 2004. José Luis Vasconcelos said that although the drug-trafficking lead was being given priority, the mayor remained a suspect.

20.07.2004- Zeta names suspects in Ortíz Franco murder

The weekly newspaper Zeta has named five men suspected of involvement in the murder of journalist Francisco Javier Ortíz Franco in Tijuana on 22 June. Presenting the result of an investigation in its 22 July issue, it said three men were thought to have organised or ordered the killing - Jorge Hank Rhon, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate for mayor of the city, and two members of the Arellano Félix brothers’ drug cartel, Arturo ("El Nalgón") Villareal and Eduardo ("El Nińo") Ronquillo. It said three people were believed to have carried out the murder - Ronquillo, Heriberto "El Lazca" Lazcano, of the Los Zetas gang, and Armando Gálvez Flores, a member of the Barrio Logan gang. Zeta said two of the journalist’s apparent sources - David Valle and José Encinas Filatoff, a former Tijuana policeman - had given him damaging information about local drug lords. The Baja California state prosecutor’s office was also looking into possible police involvement in the murder. Zeta editor Jésus Blancornelas said there were still agents of the Arellano Félix cartel and other gangs inside the city police force.

15.07.2004 - New leads in the Ortíz Franco murder investigation

The Lower California State prosecutor’s office is investigating the possible implication of drug-trafficker Carlos Ignacio Acosta Ibarra alias "Big Boy", arrested on 12 July, in the murder of Francisco Javier Ortíz Franco, who was killed in Tijuana on 22 June. He is considered one of the key figures in Arenallo Felix brothers’ cartel. His arrest could provide a new lead on the murder. The authorities said that two years ago he deserted his job as police official. Since then he protected the activities of Efrain Perez Pasuengo alias "El Efra", henchman for the Arenallo Félix brothers, now in prison. He was one of the confidantes of Mario Alberto Rivera Lopez alias "El Cris", leader of the cartel’s hit squad, who was arrested with seven accomplices on 24 June. The prosecutor’s office has not however ruled out any of the earlier leads.

05.07.2004 - Zeta management points finger at suspect in Ortíz Franco murder

Editor of Zeta, Jésus Blancornelas, pointed the finger at the man he views as chief suspect in the murder of Francisco Javier Ortíz Franco, in an article in Mexican daily Crónica on 2 July. Ortíz Franco was killed on 22 June in Tijuana, Lower California State.

Blancornelas named him as Lazcano, a member of the "Zetas" group of former police and soldiers who turned themselves into mercenaries. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, leader of the Gulf cartel, who is currently in jail, created the group in the 1990s.The suspect had probably arrived in Tijuana with two accomplices at the beginning of the year, he said.

The leads followed by Zeta since the beginning coincide with those currently being followed by the Lower California prosecutor’s office. Mario Alberto Rivera Lopez, chief of a hit squad run by the Arellano Félix brothers drug cartel, arrested on 24 June with seven accomplices, was dropped as a suspect on 29 June.

In its 25 June edition, Zeta named three suspect groups. These were: The "Zetas", believed acting for Guillén; the Barrio Logan gang, linked to the Arellano Felix brothers and Jorge Hank Rhon, a politician of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). One of Rhon’s bodyguards was implicated in the 1988 death of journalist Héctor Felix Miranda, which Ortíz Franco had been investigating. The journalist was a member of a commission set up by the government and the Inter American Press Society (SIP) to re-launch an investigation into Félix Miranda’s murder.

In his 2 July article, Blancornelas said he believed the murderers "received an order to kill [Ortíz Franco] and were paid for doing it. No-one yet knows who gave the orders," he said. He added that there was no confirmation of the fact that the killers acted under the orders of Guillén or the Arellano Felix brothers."

As for the motive, according to Blancornelas, Ortíz Franco was preparing to make fresh revelations about drug-traffickers. One of his informers had apparently given him new information so compromising that a gang decided to silence him.

He contended that "the Arellano brothers knew who the murderer was." He was also convinced that the Lower California prosecutor’s office knew who was behind the killing. He believed the suspect and his accomplices had fled and were in hiding.

The Zeta editor said the naming of a special judge and the handling of the case by the specialised united against organised crime (UECO), a week after the murder, had slowed down the investigation. On 29 June, the Lower California prosecutor’s office named Alonso Méndez, a member of UECO, as the judge handling the investigation. It also announced that the American FBI would have a role. In an unprecedented step a reward was offered of one million pesos (71,500 euros) for information on the case and a telephone line made available for information to be given anonymously. "Very few people will take the risk of giving information for a million pesos, knowing that they would be in danger of being killed in their turn," said Blancornelas.

Since the murder, two Tijuana media have been threatened. Overnight on 23 June, the daily Frontera received phoned death threats. The following day the weekly Cicuta got the following message: "You are next on the list".

23.06.2004 - Reporters Without Borders shocked at murder of journalist in Tijuana

Reporters Without Borders has expressed deep shock at the murder in Tijuana, north-west of Mexico of Francisco Javier Ortíz Franco of the weekly Zeta, in front of his two young children.

"We wish to express our solidarity with the editorial staff of Zeta, which has already suffered two previous attacks in the past because of its investigations into drug-trafficking and corruption", said Robert Ménard, secretary-general of the international press freedom organisation. "We are all the more concerned because Franco is the second journalist who exposed drug-trafficking and corruption along the US border to be killed this year. Roberto Javier Mora García was murdered on 19 March. "As in the Mora García case, we urge the authorities to keep us informed of the progress of the investigation, that we will follow closely to ensure that the link with his work is fully investigated, the organisation added.

Ortíz Franco was killed on 22 June as he was preparing to return home at midday. A masked and armed man got out of a black jeep and stood beside the journalist’s car just after he got into it. The gunman fired four times at point blank range killing him instantly. He suffered gunshot wounds to the head, body and left shoulder.

The gunman and an accomplice, who was also masked, drove away in their vehicle that was found by police the same evening a few streets from the murder scene. Ortíz Franco’s two children aged eight and 10, who were in the car with him at the time, were uninjured.

The weekly newspaper has called for a full investigation to find the killers and those behind the murder. "The editorial board is not pointing the finger at any suspect and has no theories until we have all the information. Legally the case is in the hands of the authorities," it said in a statement released the same day.

President Vicente Fox also expressed "concern and indignation". In a letter to the weekly’s editor Jésus Blancornelas, he assured him he "has given orders to all federal security bodies to co-operate fully with the local authorities."

A founding member of Zeta in 1980, Ortíz Franco, 48, was the newspaper’s chief editorial writer and was known for his articles and reports on corruption and drugs.

The murder was the third such attack against Zeta. Journalist and co-founder of the paper Hector Felix Miranda was murdered on 20 April 1988 and more recently, on 27 November 1997, the editor Blancornelas, was injured in a murder attempt in which his bodyguard was killed.

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