Peter Pringle's America: Chronicle of a death foretold

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The Independent Online
THE SORDID tale of the first American journalist killed on the orders of a Colombian drug lord ended last week with the conviction of a teenage assassin. It was a depressing reminder of the global reach of the South American cartels and how they use hungry immigrant punks to do their dirty work. Six Colombians involved in the murder pleaded guilty in the hope of lighter sentences, leaving a young footsoldier, a pimply youth too young to buy a beer, to take the rap. The drug lord, of course, got away.

The journalist, Manuel de Dios Unanue, had led a local crusade against drugs and was a hero in his own Spanish-speaking community of Queens. Now he is a martyr. He was 48 years old when he was executed Mafia-style by a hooded gunman who pumped two bullets into his head as he sat in a restaurant.

The killer was a stripling of 17 fresh off the boat from Colombia. With crew-cut and baby-face, the youth, Alejandro Mejia Velez, looked a lot more like a newspaper delivery boy than a hit man.

At the time of his death, two years ago, de Dios was publishing two Spanish-language magazines: Crimen (Crime), and Cambio XXI (Change 21), a journal of possible social change in the 21st century. He was a former editor-in-chief of Diario-La Prensa, New York's leading Spanish-language daily. He had written a book about the Medellin drug cartel and was about to publish another on the Cali cartel. In his articles he showed how the Cali gang smuggled its cocaine into the US in cargo ships, stashed it in suburban homes, sold it on the streets and used companies fronting as travel agencies to launder the money back to Colombia.

The de Dios exposes, courageous and insightful as they were, did not have much effect on the cartel's business, which continued to prosper. The cartel is better organised than many US corporations, and does hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of business each year in New York, controlling between 60 and 80 per cent of the city's cocaine trade, according to the drug trade experts. Until de Dios's murder the Cali gang was reckoned to be somewhat less violent than others, but the FBI found out how wrong this assessment was.

The drug lords decided de Dios had to be silenced: the journalist had challenged their authority and others might be emboldened by his example. The assassination order came from the top: Jose Santacruz Londono, known as 'Don Chepe', or 'The Shepherd', gave the job to his finance director, Guillermo Restropo, according to the court records. In September 1991, Restropo sent out the order plus dollars 50,000 hit money to John Mena, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant who came to the United States in 1986 and became the manager of the cartel's New York operation.

Mena toiled in the kitchens of various New York restaurants before falling in love with Restropo's sister, who persuaded her brother to engage him full- time in the family trade. Mena proved his mettle immediately. He was soon moving 4,000 kilos of cocaine and laundering dollars 15m a year. He would do anything to keep himself in business; executions were part of the routine. By his own account, when the order to kill de Dios arrived, he had already supervised at least two other murders for Don Chepe, but these contracts were for unknown, shadowy figures of the underworld. Finding someone to kill de Dios, who had a public following, was a different matter.

Mena called on Carlos Velasco, a colleague who had helped in the previous murders, but Velasco was past his prime killing days and wanted no direct part in the deal. He looked around for others in the Queens restaurant where young hit men are known to hang out. There he found 'Scarface'and 'Pocho', both looking for work.

The dollars 50,000 from Don Chepe was now only dollars 15,000, Restropo having skimmed dollars 30,000 for himself and Mena, and Velasco having split dollars 5,000. The dollars 15,000 was on the low side for a hit on a public figure such as de Dios, so Velasco told Scarface and Pocho nothing about de Dios's background. He said the target was a small-time dope-peddler. The two men agreed, but decided not to do the job themselves, so they kept dollars 5,000 each and gave the rest, dollars 5,000 minus dollars 500 expenses to the trigger youth, Alejandro Mejia Velez. .

At the trial the assassin's lawyer said he was a boy of limited intellect, who 'didn't have a clue' what was happening. But he was sufficiently alert to cover his head with a grey hood, go to de Dios's favourite restaurant, calmly kill the journalist with two 9mm shots to the back of his head and avoid arrest until his commanders began to feel the heat and snitched on him.

Unable to rebut the evidence against the youth, his lawyer could only call the middle-men names. Mena, Velasco, Scarface and Pocho were 'pieces of garbage', grovelling to avoid the death penalty for the murders they had committed in other crimes.

Mena, who pleaded guilty, broke down and sobbed on the witness stand as he testified against his young killer. 'I have a right to be repentant, don't I?' he begged. He even invoked the 'abuse excuse'. 'My father used to humiliate us,' he began, '. . . I never had a father who gave me love . . . in my conscience I relive all the bad things I have done.'

'Were you crying the night Mr de Dios was killed?' asked the defence lawyer. No answer. What abuse is worse than giving a hungry and green follower a few dollars and asking him to kill another human being?