By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 9, 2009
CANCUN, Mexico -- The general didn't get much time. After a long, controversial career, Brig. Gen. Mauro Enrique Tello Quiñones retired from active duty last month and moved to this Caribbean playground to work for the Cancun mayor and fight the drug cartels that have penetrated much of Mexican society. He lasted a week.
Tello, 63, along with his bodyguard and a driver, were kidnapped in downtown Cancun last Monday evening, taken to a hidden location, methodically tortured, then driven out to the jungle and shot in the head. Their bodies were found Tuesday in the cab of a pickup truck on the side of a highway leading out of town. An autopsy revealed that both the general's arms and legs had been broken.
The audacious kidnapping and killing of one of the highest-ranking military officers in Mexico drew immediate expressions of outrage from the top echelons of the Mexican government, which pledged to continue the fight against organized crime that took the lives of more than 5,300 people last year. Military leaders, who are increasingly at the front lines of the war against the cartels, vowed not to let Tello's death go unsolved or unpunished.
In the wake of the triple killing, the Mexican army swept into Cancun in a show of brute force. The military is now running high-visibility patrols and roadblocks around the Yucatan resort capital, complete with masked soldiers with automatic rifles rumbling in open trucks past the gleaming white rows of tourist hotels.
President Felipe Calderón and his top cabinet members attended Tello's full-dress military funeral Wednesday and stood as an honor guard. The photograph spoke volumes: Calderón, his defense secretary, his attorney general, his security secretary, flanking a coffin containing a dead general, abducted and killed by forces still unknown.
A senior U.S. official described the attack as a brazen attempt by organized crime to cow another city into submission. "That's why it was done," the official said. "He was going in to take back the streets."
On Friday night, after a quickly called meeting to coordinate a response, Gov. Félix González of Quintana Roo state, which includes Cancun, said in an interview, "This case is the maximum priority of both the state and federal governments." Unlike many other such slayings in Mexico, González promised, this one would be solved.
González said Tello was "among the most highly decorated generals in the army, which is one of the strongest institutions in the country, which has the highest confidence of the people." He described his torture-murder as "truly horrible." González said that although organized crime operates in Cancun, the city has experienced far less violence than the chaotic northern border cities, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. But, he added, "all over the country now we're seeing a big fight over control of the biggest cities," between the cartels and the government.
"And we are on a border of sorts," González said. The seaside city is located between the cocaine-producing countries of Colombia and Peru and the consumer market of the United States. Cancun has an international airport, miles of open water and plenty of opportunities to launder drug money -- in hotels and nightclubs, money-exchange operations and luxury shops. Cancun also has a consumption problem -- tourists and locals purchase cocaine, marijuana and other drugs here, according to law enforcement officials.
Officials are loath to see Cancun portrayed as dangerous. It is the No. 1 beach destination in Mexico, and each year it swells with tens of thousands of U.S. college students on spring break. Tourism is vital to the Mexican economy, bringing in $14 billion in revenue in 2008 from 18 million visitors, about 80 percent of them from the United States.
"We have traditionally been one of the safest places in Mexico," the governor said.
The general was brought to the resort city to keep it that way. Tello was working for the Cancun mayor, Gregorio "Greg" Sánchez, who hired him to recruit, train and run an elite special forces police group. As Sánchez described the 100-man squad, it would be part SWAT team, part intelligence unit, made up of former federal agents and military officers. It would include sharpshooters, investigators and experts on kidnapping. Many officers in the team would come from Mexico City, Sánchez said, where Tello had served in the army's presidential guard. "The unit would answer directly to me, to my office, and no one else," Sánchez said in an interview.
One of the great challenges faced by Calderón and his administration is that they are waging their war with a law enforcement organization that is honeycombed with corruption and incompetence, from local beat cops to the highest levels. In Cancun, the mayor was essentially seeking to outflank his municipal police force by organizing his own crime-fighting unit.
The chief of the Cancun city police, Francisco Velasco Delgado, known to everyone here as "El Vikingo," or the Viking, was brought in to meet with military and federal investigators after Tello's killing. The police chief said in an interview that he was not interrogated about the slaying but was brought in to coordinate with state, federal and military officials. He also said he is not a suspect. Velasco, however, was not invited to participate in Friday's meeting to discuss security.
Asked about Tello's work, Velasco said, "I don't know anything about it. I didn't know the general. I had never met him." Asked if he feared for his life, Velasco, whose office is adorned with viking helmets, answered: "Of course. I am only human."
In the local media, reporters citing government officials said Velasco is under investigation. The governor said, "We know as a fact that people who pursue elicit businesses often penetrate the police. We assume here that we have parts of the police that must be cleaned out."
Asked whether Velasco still had his confidence, the Cancun mayor said: "Yes. At this moment, yes."
Federal agents are pursuing several lines of investigation into who killed Tello; his aide and bodyguard, Getulio César Román Zúñiga, who was an active lieutenant in the Mexican army; and their driver, Juan Ramírez Sánchez, who was a cousin of the Cancun mayor.
The Gulf cartel is known to operate in Cancun, as does its increasingly independent enforcer gang, known as the Zetas, assassins whose ranks include former Mexican military officers. There is also reportedly a group of corrupt officers and ex-officers from the local police that is known as La Hermandad, or the Brotherhood. The killings, too, could have been a conspiracy by cartels and police.
The Cancun mayor said he believes that "the strongest theory" points to the Zetas because of the brutality of the crime and its sophistication. Also, during his long military career, Tello served as the commander of army forces in the state of Michoacan, a drug production and trafficking hot spot. "The general worked very hard and did a lot of work in Michoacan, where the Zetas have a very strong presence, a very active cell," Mayor Sánchez said.
There are other possible motives. A decade ago, Tello served as a leader of Mexico City's public security agency, where he was accused of torturing and killing six detained youths. He was cleared of the charges.
According to reports in the local media, there are a number of clues, including footprints and fingerprints on the pickup truck in which the three bodies were found in the jungle, and video camera images from the streets around downtown Cancun where the men were abducted.