On the afternoon of May 30, 1984 journalist Manuel Buendía was murdered in Mexico City. Shortly before, as he was leaving his office, a man approached him from behind and shot him five times. The unidentified assailant jumped on a motorcycle being driven by another man and fled.
Buendía wrote a column titled “Red Privada” (Private Network), which was the most widely read and respected in Mexico for the high level of information it contained. The attack was regarded by other columnists and specialists as a crime of the government.
Now, 27 years later, in an unprecedented action the Federal District’s Access to Public Information Institute ordered the Mexico City High Court to hand over a full version of the case files on the two criminal proceedings that were pursued regarding the journalist’s murder, erasing only personal details.
Buendía was a renowned and highly respected newsman. The level of information he presented in each of his columns was unique in the media at the time. In those Cold War years in his “Red Privada” column he would write about the operations of the CIA in Mexico, ultra-rightwing groups, questionable businessmen, the dark doings of officials, drug traffickers’ powerful tentacles, and corruption in government.
Recapping how the crime occurred, the conditions under which investigations into it were carried out and the charges made against those responsible not only enables it to be recalled but to identify the answers that were come up with and which would serve as an example at this time in Mexico, in which attacks upon journalists and freedom of expression have increased in number and intensity.
It could be useful to recognize that regarding the murder of Buendía a group of journalists did not cease putting pressure on the government, the powers that were given to the public prosecutor’s office, the manner in which the crime was investigated, and the political will that existed.
An emblematic crime
When Buendía was murdered José Antonio Zorilla Pérez was head of the Federal Security Agency – a police division devoted to political investigations which some years later would disappear because of its high level of corruption and penetration by drug traffickers – and he was subsequently named by the then president of Mexico, Miguel de la Madrid, as the person in charge of the investigations in the first few months.
After four years and with no progress being made the Buendía family and a group of journalists who had been following the case throughout called on the president to appoint a special prosecutor for the inquiries and proposed, because of his record, Miguel Ángel García Domínguez, who the president formerly named on January 29, 1988.
At a previous meeting of the family and García Domínguez the latter had suggested a series of conditions to be able to have success in the inquiries, which were:
A) That he have the full support of the government, shown in an effective political will expressed at the highest level. This would require the appointment to be made by the Mexican President;
B) That full autonomy be given for handling the investigation, the resources and communication;
C) That the investigation be conduced on an exclusive basis, such that there would be no interference from any agency or dependency of the government, particularly any police force;
D) That in order to ensure autonomy the sufficient resources needed would be provided, and
E) Premises outside the State Attorney’s Office should be used, so as to make the exclusivity in the investigation truly effective and ensure that it could be conducted with the required discretion.
Practically all the conditions were authorized for the inquiries to be put under way. According to the public prosecutor’s report 276 theories were raised concerning possible masterminds, based on the work Buendía had done as a journalist.
Fifteen months after the public prosecutor’s work was begun his office obtained the first evidence and testimonies, which, after they were gone into in depth, enabled a request to be made for the arrest of Antonio Zorrilla Pérez.
The charges laid against the former public official were: two of aggravated homicide of Manuel Buendía, as co-perpetrator, and of José Luis Esqueda Gutiérrez; introduction and stockpiling of weapons and cartridges belonging to the Army that were found in his home; unlawful enrichment, because in a short time he had amassed a fortune, which included residences in the United States and several vacation homes in Mexico, in addition to deposits in foreign banks.
The prosecutor also stated in his accusation that Zorrilla Pérez disrupted investigations into the journalist’s murder, so he charged him with committing offenses against the administration of justice, abuse of authority and wrongful exercise of public service.
The motive for the murder, according to the investigator’s report, was that the journalist became aware of links that Zorrilla Pérez had with the illicit drug trade and Esqueda Gutiérrez had evidence of those links and passed it on to him. When the murder was committed the official removed from the columnist’s office recordings and documents he had on the case.
Taking part in Buendía’s murder as joint masterminds were Juventino Prado Hurtado, Raúl Pérez Armona and Sofía Nava Suárez and as perpetrator Rafael Moro Ávila. Participating in the murder of Esqueda Gutiérrez was Alberto Estrella, with agents of the Federal Security Agency actually committing it.
The prosecutor reported at the time that Moro Ávila confessed that he had been ordered to take part in the so-called “Operation News” to silence a person and he admitted having been at the scene of the crime. The rest of those implicated were also said to have confessed.
One line that apparently was never investigated was the murder, by 120 stab wounds, of a colonel committed in Zacatecas state three days after Buendía was killed and whose profile corresponded to one of those who riding the motorcycle that attacked the journalist.
Two important elements
Juan Moro Ávila is the grandson of former Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho and was an officer of the Federal Security Agency. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison as perpetrator of Buendía’s murder, but in a rehearing the sentence was reduced to 25 years, the 6th Criminal Court granting the reduction after determining that he had served two-thirds of the sentence and been on good behavior.
At the North Prison in the early 1990s he joined a rock group calling itself Asociación Delictuosa (Criminal Association) and from the jail there studied Mexico City Autonomous University courses.
The rock group traveled on various occasions to other prisons in the Federal District, with most of the takings being for the prisoners. Because of his good conduct and considering that he had managed to readjust he was granted early release on February 18, 2009.
José Antonio Zorrilla Pérez was put on trial on June 20, 1989. He was sentenced on first hearing to 11 years in prison for the murder of Esqueda Gutiérrez and for that of Buendía 29 years and four months. In federal court he was convicted on charges of wrongful exercise of public service and acting against the administration of justice and sentenced to eight years in prison and payment of a fine of the equivalent of 375 daily wages, and on a charge of stockpiling weapons to nine years and six months. Through several appeals he managed to have the sentences reduced.
In the first few years the former head of the Federal Security Agency was able to enjoy a number of privileges, such as having television in his cell, longer visiting hours and meals cooked especially for him. As the years passed some privileges were reduced and others remained, such as his being held in a cell for him alone and isolated from other prisoners to ensure his safety.
On February 18, 2009 an appeal upheld by the 2nd Criminal Court granted early release to Zorilla Pérez. Immediately journalists and intellectuals protested this decision, calling it unlawful, and they requested that the procedure used to make this grant be investigated, that it be overturned and he be arrested again so he could serve his sentence in full.
Almost four months later, on June 13, 2009, the Federal District government overturned the early release granted to Zorrilla Pérez on the grounds that he had failed to provide a letter offering him work or the moral assurance that were required for him to remain free.
Access to the case file
In an historic development the Federal District’s Access to Public Information (InfoDF in its Spanish acronym) in full ordered the Mexico City High Court to hand over 3,000 sequential pages of the case file dealing with criminal proceedings numbers 104/89 and 107/89 concerning the murder of journalist Manuel Buendía.
The body was very clear in its decision in establishing that the documents should be provided without any crossings out, mutilations or amendments, as had been delivered to the one requesting information previously, resulting in this latter putting to the InfoDF a plea for the case to be reopened, which it ruled in favor of on May 16 this year.
The Court may erase only information considered to be confidential, once this is determined by the agency’s Transparency Committee.
InfoDF member Salvador Guerrero Chiprés declared that with the decision the Institute is contributing, within its area of competence, to the battle against impunity in murders of journalists in their coverage of the violence existing in the country.
“Those who are precursors and allies of the defense of the right to access to information and the protection of personal details have, with today’s decision, the backing of the full Institute, so that with our modest contribution there be set off a series of proceedings aimed at clarifying what happened with the information regarding particular professional, political and social situations of journalists and the impossibility of reporting, including under their bylines, on what is happening in the country regarding the illicit drug trade,” he said.
On one occasion Buendía wrote in his column: “In general terms the government is respectful of that freedom (of expression); but frequently it leaves it to the tyranny of local political bosses. A governor, a city council chairman, a police commander, a labor union leader can make moves on a journalist who he or she does not like, and heads of government are not always seen to act with the required speed and clarity.”