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Mexican drug cartel forces lawyer's video confessions

By William Booth and Nick Miroff Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 11:20 PM

CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO - Armed men in military uniforms stormed the law offices of Mario Gonzalez 10 days ago and whisked him away in a pickup truck. But the kidnappers were after much more than money.

Gonzalez has since appeared in two Internet videos, sitting handcuffed in a chair, surrounded by five commandos in black masks, as they level automatic weapons at his head. Then the interrogation begins.

"What group do you belong to?" barks an off-camera voice.

"The group called La Linea or the Juarez Cartel," Gonzalez answers on cue.

"What is your job?"

"I am the link to the prosecutor, my sister. . . . "

The 41-year-old lawyer describes to the camera how he and his sister Patricia Gonzalez, the former state attorney general, worked for the Juarez drug cartel and orchestrated some of the state's most sensational political murders.

Patricia Gonzalez denies her brother's charges. He was being tortured, she said.

The videos have circulated widely on social networking sites, drug-war blogs and Twitter. The abductors have promised a third and final installment.

Gonzalez's kidnapping and his forced video "confession," with its similarities to the propaganda produced by terrorists, represent a stark escalation in a drug war that has left 30,000 dead over the past four years. The warring cartels often accuse government officials of corruption but rarely in such al-Qaeda-style videos.

"They did it for revenge, because I would not negotiate with criminals," said Patricia Gonzalez, whose term as attorney general ended Oct. 3. She was seated at the desk where her brother was kidnapped. Two truckloads of heavily armed federal police guarded the entrance outside.

With the country's legal system unable to expose the extent of corruption that allows criminal networks here to flourish, many war-weary Mexicans appear willing to consider the charges made in the videos as possibly true, at least in part.

Chihuahua Gov. Cesar Duarte Jaquez announced that the state, working with the federal attorney general, would investigate the charges and release the results to the public.

Gonzalez described how former Chihuahua Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza and Mexican Army Gen. Felipe Espitia, the head of military's antinarcotics operations here, met with top leaders of the Juarez cartel at a ranch and, along with Patricia Gonzalez, ordered the assassinations of prominent journalists and community leaders. The victims included the lead crime reporter at El Diario newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, a popular local Mormon leader and a rural activist who spoke out against the traffickers.

"I ask forgiveness from God and the people for having killed so many innocent people. We were sick with power, me, my sister, the governor and all of the people in the Juarez cartel," an ashen-faced Gonzalez said in a rote manner in a video uploaded Wednesday.

Promising reform

Patricia Gonzalez arrived in office promising to reform the state's judicial system, reduce police abuses and bring justice to the families of hundreds of women slain in Ciudad Juarez. But Chihuahua's climate of criminal impunity has only worsened.

In Ciudad Juarez, police and prosecutors have identified suspects in only 3 percent of the more than 2,000 homicides committed here between January and August this year, according to tallies by El Diario. "Our justice system has collapsed," Gonzalez said, insisting the state needs to triple the number of prosecutors and state police.

Patricia Gonzalez acknowledged that many might believe the worst about public officials. "They believe there are close ties between drug trafficking and government institutions," she said.

Gonzalez said her brother was kidnapped by a man who calls himself "El Puma Original," leader of a death squad under the command of the Sinaloa cartel, which is at war with the Juarez mafia for control of the state.

She suspects El Puma played the role of grand inquisitor in the videos. A comment posted by an El Puma on a popular Web site boasted that the captors would make Mario Gonzalez "sing."

Gonzalez assumes that El Puma is a former police officer. She said she made many enemies during her six years as attorney general. "We fired 350 police and prosecutors," Gonzalez said. "I think there are clear elements that indicate that the state police are involved in my brother's kidnapping."

Gonzalez said the room where the video of her brother was made looks familiar. "Those colors were colors I chose," she said, when the offices of state police in Ciudad Juarez were renovated two years ago.

$500,000 ransom

The day after her brother was abducted, his wife was told to get $500,000 ready for the ransom. "We hoped they would call again, Saturday and Sunday went by, then they put up the video. I think the ransom could have been a distraction so that authorities would think it was an ordinary kidnapping," Gonzalez said.

In the video, Mario Gonzalez says the former chief of operations for the Chihuahua state police intelligence corps, Fernando Ornelas, worked for the Juarez cartel. Last week, Ornelas was gunned down, alongside his brother, a professional wrestler.

Gonzalez said she was particularly hurt by the "perverse" claims she had helped plan and cover up the killing of Armando "Choco" Rodriguez, a veteran crime reporter for El Diario who was shot dead as he prepared to drive his daughter to school in November 2008.

"Chocito was my friend, and now they want to blame me," she said. "I was the first person who helped him when he started receiving threats."

The case had stalled because a key witness was murdered in jail, Gonzalez said, and the main suspect, a cartel assassin with a missing ear nicknamed "El Sin Oreja," is still at large.

Gonzalez bristled at the allegation that she played a role in the kidnapping and murder of Mormon leader Benjamin Lebaron and his brother-in-law, Luis Stubbs, in July 2009. She said she helped the Lebaron family and the local Mormon community, and helped arrange for the state government to pay a $18,000 ransom when one of the Lebaron brothers was kidnapped.

boothb@washpost.com miroffn@washpost.com

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