An El Paso news photographer was kidnaped in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, late last month by an accused Mexican drug trafficker who beat and interrogated him for 12 hours before dumping him on the side of a road, according to officials of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Al Gutierrez, 34, a free-lance photgrapher for The El Paso Herald-Post, was sent to photograph a hotel development project allegedly owned by Gilberto Ontiveros, 33, a multimillionaire who has been charged as a drug trafficker in the United States and Mexico.
The newspaper has run a series of stories on Ontiveros' alleged drug activities and on the Mexican justice system that it said allowed Ontiveros to operate openly until his arrest after the kidnaping.
According to an internal DEA cable describing the incident, in the early afternoon of April 23, Gutierrez drove to the hotel project in a posh shopping district just across the border from El Paso and went to the manager's office to ask permission to shoot the photos. There, he met Ontiveros.
"Ontiveros put a .45 pistol to Gutierrez's head. Six men soon entered the room, put a pillow case over Gutierrez's head and ordered him to lie on the floor," the cable said.
According to the cable, the men beat Gutierrez, forced him to undress, threatened to rape and torture him, and interrogated him about whether he worked for the DEA. They also told him they planned to kill Terrence Poppa, the Herald-Post reporter who wrote the series of stories about Ontiveros.
Early the next morning, the photographer was driven to the outskirts of Juarez and dumped by the side of a highway.
In the wake of the incident, Herald-Post editor Jay Ambrose said that some reporters were put up in local hotels for several nights for security purposes.
Later that week Ontiveros was arrested by the Mexican Federal Judicial Police and charged, not with kidnaping, but with cocaine and weapons violations.
Ambrose said that things have returned to near normal at the newspaper, with reporters traveling back and forth across the border as they have in the past. But he added that the newspaper has learned recently that the Mexican state police in bordering Chihuahua are planning retaliation for a scheduled series of stories about police corruption.
Gutierrez, meanwhile, may have left the El Paso area, Ambrose said. His telephone has been disconnected, and he could not be reached for comment.
Phil Jordan, special agent in charge of DEA's Dallas office, which is handling the case,said, "The kid had no idea what he was getting himself into. He's lucky to be alive because of the viciousness this person is known for."
Jordan said Ontiveros, known as El Grenas, the one with shaggy hair, has a long record of cocaine, marijuana and weapons trafficking dating back to 1975 and is a fugitive on 1982 U.S. drug charges. "He would be considered a top level, significant trafficker along the U.S.-Mexican border," Jordan said.
Jordan said Ontiveros' assets include the luxury Cesar's Palace Hotel development project, another fashionable hotel and two "luxury" residences in Juarez.
In addition, Jordan said, Ontiveros owns a vacation home in Cuernavaca that was once owned by the late Shah of Iran, a fashion boutique, several car dealerships and a number of expensive cars.
In his Herald-Post series, Poppa reported that Ontiveros traveled around Juarez in a Mercedes limousine with a carload of "pistoleros" in front or back. Poppa said Ontiveros' trademark was a briefcase with the words "The Boss" spelled out in diamonds.
Jordan said DEA intelligence indicates that Ontiveros was a person of great "influence" in Juarez. "He obviously did not anticipate the kind of heat he was going to get from picking on an innocent photographer."
Jordan compared the incident to the kidnaping and brutal murder last year of DEA agent Enrique (Kiki) Camarena Salazar by Mexican drug dealers. That incident has led to a major confrontation between the United States and Mexico over drug trafficking and official corruption in that country.
"Like those that murdered our agent, Ontiveros probably wishes now he hadn't done what he did to that photographer," Jordan said.
The incident has caused some uneasiness at The Herald-Post because of continued threats of retaliation and the feeling, shared by the DEA, that Mexican authorities arrested Ontiveros only because of public outrage over the kidnaping.
Gutierrez has refused to return to Mexico to press charges, Ambrose said, because, "He felt that if he pressed charges, Ontiveros would come to get him . . . . He was grateful that he got out alive.
"These people are pretty unpredictable. Organized crime in the United States has pretty much left the press alone . . . . but we don't really know what their Mexican counterparts are capable of," he said.
But Ambrose said his newspaper will not back away from its efforts to cover corruption and drug trafficking in Juarez. "We ran a front page editorial where I called Gilberto a few names . . . Al Capone, a few things like that. I mentioned that they had threatened to kill one of our reporters . . . and said we were going to pursue this thing with everything we had . . . . If you let these poeple push you around, the game's lost."