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DEATH OF A JOURNALIST

How the staff of a Tijuana newspaper tracked down the killers of their murdered reporter

 
 

 

J. Jesús Blancornelas

photos courtesy of René Blanco, photo editor, ZETA


 

Héctor Félix Miranda was murdered on April 20, 1988.

 

 

Antonio Vera Palestina, chief bodyguard of Jorge Hank, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the assassination of Héctor Félix Miranda.

 

 

 

Jorge Hank Rhon makes a statement during the trial of his bodyguards.

 

 

 

J. Jesús Blancornelas (seated) at a hearing for the perpetrators of the murder of Héctor Félix Miranda. Standing, the defense lawyer Carlos Flores Ezquerro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Héctor Félix Miranda was killed by two shots. It was the morning of April 20, 1988, and it was raining. He left his house in Los Olivos de Tijuana, a neighborhood near the weekly newspaper ZETA where he had been co-editor since 1980.
He closed his door and opened his umbrella, to protect himself. And, just like every morning, he sat behind the wheel of his ‘79 LTD Crown Victoria.

He never imagined that while he slept, there had been a huge party starring Jorge Hank Rhon, son of the powerful politician Carlos Hank González, and owner of Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana.

Nor did he know that Jorge had been approached by his close friend Alberto Murguia at the height of the party, asking if he’d read what Héctor Félix wrote in ZETA.

That Félix was much too daring. It was time to shut him up. And that if Félix did not listen to reason, it was time to use force.
It was said that Hank Rhon did not answer, that he kept on partying. But such was Murguia’s persistence that finally, Hank Rhon said yes. To go ahead. To do whatever they wanted.
When Héctor Félix turned the key of his Crown Victoria, hurried as he was to escape the rain, he did not guess that across the street a man was watching from a black Transam, its engine running.

His name: Victoriano Medina, a former policeman with the state Attorney General’s Office. Well-built, barely 5’ 6’’, barely over 40 years old. Shrewd. Good with guns. Hired precisely for his knowledge of firearms, to protect Jorge Hank Rhon, the young son of the prominent politician Carlos Hank González.
While tuning the radio, Héctor probably didn’t realize that on the hillside facing his house, maybe 150 feet away, there was a brown Toyota pickup truck with two men aboard.

One wore a baseball cap, a jacket and a short sleeve T-shirt. He also sported Levi’s and work boots. His name was Emigdio Nevárez, who couldn’t have imagined that he would lose his life in the years to come because of his part in this very ambush. He was a former officer with the Attorney General’s Office. His uncle was one of the most famous gamblers in Tijuana. That’s how he got the job as Jorge Hank Rhon’s bodyguard at the racetrack. The second passenger was elegant. Well-dressed: expensive suit, expensive cowboy boots. Gold belt buckle. Expensive cowboy hat. He was the only one wearing a raincoat. He was the leader: Antonio Vera Palestina. He was also the shortest.

But he was the smartest. Years before that April 20, 1988, the patriarch Carlos Hank González chose him as his personal bodyguard. He was always close by when Hank was Mexico City’s mayor.

Because Vera Palestina was trusted, don Carlos sent him to Tijuana to take care of Jorge, whom Don Carlos had put in charge of the Agua Caliente race track.

Antonio Vera Palestina was riding in the passenger’s seat of the Toyota pickup. He had a good-quality shotgun at his feet. And he had binoculars so he could see his target clearly. Vera Palestina had a radio. A radio that was on the race track channel. Victoriano Medina, the Transam driver, also had a radio. From the Toyota on the hill the Hanks’ top bodyguard must have radioed, “He’s leaving,” and those words must have been heard by his compadre Victoriano Medina, down by Héctor Félix’s Crown Victoria. Medina revved the gas pedal on the black Transam, and the engine roared.

The noise made Héctor Félix’s neighbor think that a co-worker had arrived to give him a ride to work. He looked out the window.
But he didn’t see his buddy. He saw a black Transam, and he could see that the driver had curly hair and a mustache. Then he saw his neighbor Héctor Félix get in his car and put away his umbrella.

The first part of the operation was accomplished. The Transam was positioned in front of Félix’s Crown Victoria.

Héctor wouldn’t have realized that. He would have been distracted by the rain.

Héctor’s car ambled along, and the pickup quickly drove down the hill to get in position behind the Crown Victoria.

The second stage of the ambush came off perfectly. The Transam was in front, the Toyota in the back, with the Crown Victoria in the middle.

Héctor was driving leisurely, according to neighbors’ and witnesses’ accounts. The rain and the hour were keeping people inside.

He began a descent on the wide thoroughfare known as López Velarde. It was raining and Héctor was careful not to speed. Witnesses who saw the car along the street said that he was driving very slowly.

Near the bottom of the hill, the black Transam suddenly stopped in front of Héctor. Victoriano Medina did not get out. Héctor Félix had to slam on the breaks to stop his Crown Victoria. He couldn’t back up, because there was a Toyota pickup bearing down behind him.

What happened next he would have never expected. Not him, not us. It happened quickly. In an instant, the Toyota driven by Emigdio Nevarez sped up and pulled up to Héctor.
Antonio Vera Palestina rolled down his window and pulled out his shotgun.

Héctor Félix didn’t see him. From the Toyota pickup, Hank’s bodyguard shot. Once, twice. Extremely accurate. Once near the neck, once in the ribs. The first shot grazed his left shoulder, but it destroyed his insides. The hole was massive. The impact of that first cartridge threw Héctor off his seat to the other side of the car. And when his head bounced against the door, the second cartridge pierced his ribs on the left side. It ripped his arm and almost tore it away. It penetrated his body and exited on the right side of his waist.

His stomach was shattered. The autopsy found 19 pellets from the two cartridges. His chest had four perforations. His second and eleventh ribs were broken. On the left side, his fifth and sixth ribs, shattered.

This is not a soap opera line: his heart was completely destroyed.

His gray “Members Only” jacket was shredded, smelling of gunpowder, soaked in blood and flesh.

His body was left slumped under the dashboard like a rag. When the forensic staff picked him up and took him to the morgue, they used great care, because the body had been nearly destroyed.

“One shot would have been enough,” said a policemen who arrived early to the scene. “With those weapons up close you can’t miss.”

And they did not miss.

That was the third stage of the operation. Executed just as the assassins had planned.

The fourth stage went just as smoothy.

The Transam headed south from the scene of the crime. The Toyota headed west. Both vehicles met near the scene and parked — at the Agua Caliente race track, property of the Hanks.
What do you do when your coworker is gunned down? What now?

1. Do not allow the publisher out on the streets.
2. Do not talk to the press, radio or television until you have concrete details of the event.
3. Organize an investigation with every editor of every section.
4. Listen to all suggestion and write them down.
5. Form reporting teams to comb assigned areas of the crime scene. Analyze Félix Miranda’s columns up to three months earlier, go to the places he used to frequent to gather information.

And that’s how we started our own investigation of the murder. The eve of the murder we called a press conference. We said we would read a statement and distribute it but we would not answer questions, to avoid spreading misinformation distorted by our emotions. In the press release we said we wanted to know who ordered his death and who carried it out. And we decided to make the governor responsible for investigating the crime ASAP.

The killing occurred Wednesday. The next step was to work for the following issue, to be published on Friday.
The headline of the first issue after the murder was blunt: THE SUSPECTS. From a journalistic point of view, we could not lead with the death of our coworker, because it was no longer news. It was important for us to touch on a subject that other media had not yet covered.

We related details of the crime. The accounts of neighbors and witnesses. The police investigation. Our following issue had a veiled trap: THERE WERE FOUR.

We knew there were three suspects. But our trick worked. The rest of the dailies, eager to beat us, got the police to tell the truth. It was now confirmed: there were three of them.

We published a list of suspects we compiled, based on Héctor Félix’s columns: those he criticized, deplored, or vilified. The list included everyone from the governor of Baja California to Jorge Hank Rhon, from the country’s president to other government officials. We published the list and the reasons why they were suspect.

Our journalistic investigation went neck and neck with the police’s. It was discovered that three men had been following Héctor wherever he went. He realized he was being followed, and told a good friend who lived in the United States. He also told a friend in Tijuana. Both of them told him to be careful, to write down the license numbers of the cars that were following him.

But Héctor Félix Miranda didn’t take much seriously; that’s the way he used to write his columns, too. His was essentially a gossip column, but after some time it got popular and became a phenomenon — everybody called him to confide government mishaps, the intimacies of politicians, their peccadilloes - even their X-rated jokes.

Some thought Héctor’s column was vulgar and insulting. Many times I was asked to cancel it, or was told it did not deserve the center spread of our weekly.

But the funny part was that those who hated the column, those who sometimes called upset, would call Héctor Félix later on, perfectly happy to give him the dirt, tell him a joke or relate what happened at a drunken party of high government officials. Sometimes journalists from other publications who were censored by their editors would pass information to Héctor Félix out of spite.

Funniest of all were the politicians who called to tell me they had decided to stop reading ZETA because of Héctor’s insolence. They would call a few days after they were written up to talk about politics or the government, but they’d slip up and mention something that we’d recently published.

Héctor Félix became, without intending to, without really understanding it, the favored columnist of those who dared not speak, out of fear, out of obligation or out of shame.

Of course, he became the most popular columnist. Maybe that’s why he realized, but didn’t take seriously, that he was being followed. But he did mention it to two friends.

One of them later told ZETA and the police that someone had tried to run him over — like in the movies — as he was about to enter his house. That friend decided to leave Tijuana. He moved to the United States, and later moved to central Mexico. This became a focal point of the investigation. Meanwhile, some of those listed as suspects called ZETA to explain that they had not ordered the crime and had nothing to do with it.

The list shrank.

A few days later the truth became clear. The journalist and police investigations coincided. The suspects’ cars were still in the city. They had been spotted at the race track.

The police got the names. One of the men was arrested, and another escaped to the United States.

The governor preferred to cover himself and save his job rather than cover up a murder. He organized the capture of Hank’s bodyguards and allowed journalists to meet them, interview them and then read a copy of their confession.

The first suspect said he’d done it because Félix had criticized him. But ZETA reporters searched through all of Félix’s writings up to a year before his death and he’d never criticized the suspect. The suspect had little choice but to admit he’d taken part in the killing because Félix had criticized his boss, Jorge Hank Rhon.

As one of our colleagues said, “Now we have the key to the mystery.”

The truth is, I never asked Héctor to explain his writings, and he never asked me. We each were responsible for what we did. There was a time when people told me that Félix was offensive, that they did not like what he wrote. But I would tell those who complained to call Félix.

When Jorge Hank Rhon arrived from Mexico City to take charge of the Agua Caliente race track, he either decided or was told to become buddies with Héctor Félix Miranda. It would be a way for the community to get to know Hank. And if Félix wrote favorably about him, he’d be more successful.

The move proved a smart one. Héctor Félix made him so popular that in 1986 Hank was included in the Men of the Year list. By 1987, his name had appeared as a possible candidate for mayor of Tijuana.

To pull this off, Hank had to invite Félix Miranda to every party at the race track. Parties attended by the elite, something the columnist was not used to doing. The casual acquaintance soon became a close friendship. But just the way it started, it ended.

A few weeks before he was killed, one of those nights when the newsroom was quiet, Héctor came in and sat down in front of me.

He said it like this: the son of one of the most powerful politicians in the country was letting his hair and his beard grow as a way of mourning the death of his brother, who had drowned in the Caribbean. Jorge had called Félix to explain his decision and asked him not to mock him publicly, because he intended to let his hair grow as long as possible.

Félix said he understood Hank’s pain, but one day when Jorge was drunk, he let all of Tijuana in on his secret, and Héctor felt betrayed.

Félix then began criticizing Hank in his column, and that attracted all sorts of information from all kinds of people. That the races were fixed, the bets were rigged, — all kinds of things.
Jorge lost his popularity and became vilified. Just like that, he went from well-liked to hated.

Antonio Vera Palestina read all of the columns of Héctor Félix. No doubt he remembered that Hank González asked him to take care of his son.

Félix began being followed right when the criticism of Hank began. It was Vera Palestina., and he was under the orders of Alberto Murguia, Hank’s friend.

The killer had already picked Félix as his target. All he had to do was pull the trigger.

A nd so the pieces quickly fell together: All the vehicles belonged to the race track. The assassins were employees of the race track. They were hiding at the race track. They had cashed a $10,000 ticket before escaping. And there was proof they cashed it.

ZETA reporters followed the killers. They were spotted in California, and details of the sighting were published. Then they were seen in Mexico state. Then in Mexico City.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested Vera Palestina in Los Angeles for not having papers. He’d let his beard grow and he was living with relatives, but he was spotted boarding a bus.

He was deported, jailed in Tijuana and prosecuted. Hank Rhon paid for his defense, but it was unsuccessful. Vera Palestina got 25 years, and Victoriano Medina, the same.

Emigdio, the driver of the Toyota pickup, returned to Tijuana after the sentencing. A few days later, he was shot and his body found in a remote area. Investigators learned that he had been to the race track hours before his death, and that he’d visited his accomplices in jail.

Emigdio’s killer was never found. Our investigation pointed to a race track employee who that same day received $5,000. We lost track of him, but we believe he killed Emigdio to shut him up.

Now, every week we publish a black page in ZETA that asks Hank why his bodyguards killed Félix.

There has been no answer. Two governors from the PRI and one from the PAN have done nothing so far. Some from fear, some out of political reasons.

The National Commission for Human Rights ordered an investigation but nothing has been done. The Inter-american Society of Journalists concluded that a probe was needed. The organization asked the president to launch one, but nothing happened. They insisted, and spoke with the Interior Minister. He promised he would talk to the government of Baja California and the Attorney General’s Office, but he never did. Journalist Eduardo Valle convinced the Chamber of Deputies to reopen the case. Nothing was ever done. The Inter-american Human Rights Commission sent a diplomatic note to the Foreign Ministry that demanded information from the Human Rights Office in Baja California, but so far, nothing has been done.

The fact is, Carlos Hank González weighs more than the body of a murdered journalist.


J. Jesús Blancornelas received the World Press Freedom Prize in 1999.


© 1999 El Andar Magazine