Cardinal caught in the crossfire of drugs and state: Accounts of how he died are numerous and contradictory. His death stunned Mexico. Phil Reeves in Guadalajara on the slaying of an archbishop

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THE CARDINAL lay on his back, his face turned up to the spires of the cathedral and the heavens beyond. He was wearing his gold and white robes of office, and holding a crucifix across his bullet-punctured chest. His right hand was clutching a silver rosary.

By the tens of thousands they shuffled silently past his coffin, pausing only for a few seconds to cross themselves and cast a sickened glance at his bier. Outside, the queue stretched for hundreds of yards, a coil of quiet indignation that weaved around the plaza, through its trees and fountain and colonnades. Two days passed before the procession thinned to a trickle.

At first the Mexican crowd had been angry, waving newspapers that demanded 'Justice]'. When their president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, came to Guadalajara Cathedral to pay his respects, some shouted abuse.

Crime and politics have exacted a bloody price in Mexico's history, but never before has the country mourned the murder of a Roman Catholic cardinal, the apparent victim of a shooting by a drugs cartel. Mexicans, 93 per cent of whom are baptised as Catholics, were appalled. So was Guadalajara, its second largest city, a conservative society with a tradition of intense loyalty to the Church.

It happened on Monday afternoon. Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, the Archbishop of Guadalajara, was sitting next to his chauffeur in the car park of the city's international airport. They were awaiting the arrival of the Vatican's diplomatic envoy, Jeronimo Prigione, from Mexico City. His visit was to be a low-key affair, an opportunity to underscore the already strong relationship between the Church and local business by pressing the flesh at the opening of a furniture store.

The cardinal was in his new car, a 1993 white Grand Marquis that had recently replaced his rather more drab Ford Topaz. As usual, despite his status as Mexico's second most senior churchman, he was without an entourage. To pass the time, he read a religious text, Liturgia de las Horas. A few chaotic moments later, the cardinal and his driver were slumped in their seats, killed by a volley of automatic weapon fire. Five others lay dead, some in the car park, but a number inside the airport terminal.

The authorities took more than 48 hours to get their stories straight. At first, they claimed that the cardinal died after being caught 'in cross-fire' during a gun battle between drugs traffickers that happened to erupt while he was at the airport. But this version, always highly improbable, crumbled after the Jalisco state coroner revealed that the cleric was shot 14 times, mostly from just 3ft away. The shooting looked like a deliberate cold-blooded slaying.

As public anger and scepticism swelled, the media were summoned to the official residence of the Jalisco governor to hear a revised account. The coroner was absolutely right, declared the state attorney-general, Leobardo Larios. The cardinal had been shot from close range. But this was because the elderly cleric had been confused with a narcotics trafficker. The assassins had gone to the airport to murder a notorious drug baron, Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman, who has been waging a vendetta against a rival cartel.

Mr Larios speculated that the murderers mistook the cardinal for 'El Chapo' himself. The cardinal's flashy new car was the sort of vehicle that narcotics traffickers drive. And his black clerical suit was their kind of attire. The fact that the portly churchman was 66 (some two decades older than the drug baron for whom he was supposedly mistaken) was glossed over. So were the clerical collar and chain he was wearing.

More convincingly, the attorney-general argued that a cartel would hardly need to send 15 gunmen with an arsenal of military-style equipment (including 17 rifles, five grenades, flak jackets and cellular phones) just to kill an unprotected churchman. Their true target was the highly dangerous Guzman, who never went anywhere without a praetorian guard of 10 heavily armed thugs. The weapons, however, have yet to be put on public display.

The government's story may yet be true, as may its claim that Guzman and his cronies escaped the scene by private aircraft shortly after the shooting. But it failed to convince the elders of the Catholic Church. At the cardinal's funeral mass on Thursday, senior churchmen repeatedly demanded a 'credible explanation' and a full investigation.

Their scepticism is embarrassing for the Salinas administration, which last year re-established diplomatic relations with the Vatican after a rift that lasted more than a century. Until then, Mexico's 76-year-old constitution banned the Church from owning property, and prohibited clergy from wearing clerical garb publicly - an anti-clerical era graphically described in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.

But neither the church nor anyone else has been able to supply another believable explanation for the killing. Many maintain that the cardinal was targeted by drug runners because he had criticised them. Yet his reputation is that of a moderate conservative, a diplomat no more outspoken than any other senior Mexican cleric.

Another view is that the drug lords killed him as a show of force to the government: a savage demonstration that recent attempts to clamp down on their activities had not diminished their capacity to wreak havoc. They chose the cardinal because of his prominence; he was the certain successor to the head of the Catholic Church in Mexico, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio, who is due to retire next year. This is more plausible. But it does not address the lingering suspicion that the Mexican federal police may have been involved, possibly by tacitly assisting the attack of one cartel on another.

One of the dead 'bystanders' apparently carried police identification. And the police have yet to explain how the gunmen, supposedly more than a dozen of them, managed to get away along the 12-mile open road leading from the airport, without being stopped.

Few doubt the claim, however, that the drug barons played a role. Much of the public outrage flows from a growing frustration with the government's failure to curb the handful of small but immensely rich and powerful bands of narcotics traffickers who annually ship billions of dollars worth of drugs across the border into the United States, much of it from Colombia. The past six months have been punctuated by drug-related killings, including the murder of more than 60 people in 20 days in Sinoloa, the country's drug capital.

The Salinas administration has jailed some of the country's leading godfathers - Los Desperados, as they are known - seized record quantities of drugs and launched an investigation into several hundred allegedly corrupt police officers. Its efforts have won the praise of the United States, with which it now works closely. The authorities have managed to mend some of the diplomatic damage caused by the kidnap and gruesome murder of the US Drugs Enforcement Administration agent, Kiki Camarena, in Guadalajara in 1985.

Yet the cartels are as active as ever. They are believed to handle up to 70 per cent of the cocaine smuggled into the US, as well as large quantities of marijuana and imported Thai heroin. In recent months, they have been engaged in a ferocious territorial war, partly created by the imprisonment of Mafia don Felix Gallardo. Gallardo, who carried on business with a fax and telephone from his cell, controlled the western end of the Mexico-US border, territory coveted by Guzman.

In Guadalajara, the cartels' presence is discreet, and yet they cast a shadow over the community. The western Mexican city's communications and industries - it has four breweries and is the capital of Jalisco state, the world centre of tequila production - make it an ideal shipment and money-laundering centre.

'Sometimes you come across them,' said Manuel, (not his real name), an English teacher. 'They dress like cowboys, swaggering around the place in leather boots and shades. You know when you see them that they are either 'narco' or the federal police. You know not to catch their eye.'

Next time he may choose to look more closely. The government, desperate to clear up the matter, is willing to pay for information leading to the arrest of the gangsters whom it blames for the cardinal's murder.

The size of the reward reflects the fear that the drug barons inspire: dollars 5m (pounds 3m).

(Photographs omitted)