MEXICO CITY (AP) – The drug-cartel enforcer told an unsettling story: A woman who worked in the Mexican border’s biggest U.S. consulate had helped a rival gang obtain American visas. And for that, the enforcer said, he ordered her killed.
Nonsense, says a U.S. official, who said Friday the motive for the slaying remains unknown.
The employee, Lesley Enriquez, and two other people connected to the U.S. consulate in the city of Ciudad Juarez were killed March 13 in attacks that raised concerns that Americans were being caught up in drug-related border violence.
Jesus Ernesto Chavez, whose arrest was announced Friday, confessed to ordering the killings, said Ramon Pequeno, the head of anti-narcotics for the Federal Police. Pequeno said Chavez leads a band of hit men for a street gang tied to the Juarez cartel.
Enriquez and her husband were killed in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, as they drove toward a border crossing. Chavez also is accused in a nearly simultaneous attack that killed the husband of a Mexican employee of the consulate.
Pequeno said Chavez told police that Enriquez was targeted because she helped provide visas to a rival gang.
A U.S. federal official familiar with the investigation said Friday that after the killings, U.S. officials investigated possible corruption involving Enriquez and found none. The official was not authorized to speak about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said the motive behind the killing remains unclear.
Officials with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City declined to comment. At the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler law enforcement “continues to work closely with our Mexican counterparts to bring to justice individuals involved in these murders.”
U.S. Embassy officials previously said that Enriquez was never in a position to provide visas and worked in a section that provides basic services to U.S. citizens in Mexico.
Mexican police provided no further details from Chavez’s confession on how Enriquez might have helped provide visas to a drug gang.
Enriquez was four months pregnant when she and her husband, Arthur H. Redelfs, were killed by gunmen who opened fire on their vehicle after the couple left a children’s birthday party. Their 7-month-old daughter was found wailing in the back seat.
Jorge Alberto Salcido, the husband of a Mexican employee of the consulate, also was killed by gunmen after leaving the same event in a separate vehicle.
Chavez told police that gunmen opened fire on Salcido because the two cars were the same color and the hit men did not know which one Enriquez was in, Pequeno said.
Investigators also have looked at whether Redelfs may have been targeted because of his work at an El Paso County jail that holds several members of the Barrio Azteca, the gang believed to be responsible for the attacks. Pequeno said Chavez belongs to Barrio Azteca, which works for the Juarez cartel on both sides of the border.
In March, U.S. federal, state and local law enforcement officers swept through El Paso, picking up suspected members of the gang in an effort to find new leads in the killings. A suspect detained in Mexico shortly after the shooting confessed to acting as a lookout as the Azteca gang supposedly hunted down Redelfs, but he was never charged and was released without explanation.
Officials also have speculated that both attacks could have been a case of mistaken identity.
More than 23,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched an all-out offensive against drug gangs in 2006.
Much of the violence stems from rival drug- and migrant-smuggling gangs vying for power, including a firefight Thursday that left 21 people dead and at least six others wounded about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the Arizona border.
The shootings took place in a sparsely populated area near the border city of Nogales that is considered a prime corridor for migrant and drug smuggling. Sonora state prosecutors said all those killed were gang members.
Gangs often fight for control of the routes they use to smuggle drugs and people across the border, and also abduct migrants from each other. The violence near the Arizona border is one reason given for a controversial law passed in April requiring police there to ask people about their immigration status in certain situations.
The turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, meanwhile, has made Ciudad Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world. More than 2,600 people were killed last year in the city of 1.3 million people.
Chavez, 41, served five years in a Louisiana prison on drug distribution charges, according to Mexico’s central intelligence database. He was detained in Mexico in 2008 by the Mexican army on drug trafficking allegations and released, only to be promoted within the Azteca gang, Federal Police said.
Chavez was arrested along with five suspected gang associates who are accused of carrying out killings or providing support. Six assault rifles, a sub-machine gun and ammunition were seized.
Aside from the killings related to the U.S. consulate, Mexican police say Chavez also confessed to participating in the Jan. 31 killing of 15 youths at a party that was mistaken as a gathering of drug-gang rivals. That massacre fueled outrage over innocents killed.
The State Department, meanwhile, announced new travel restrictions Friday for U.S. government employees working away from the border in Mexico and Central America. As of July 15, they and their families are barred from crossing anywhere along Texas’ border, north or south, because of safety concerns. The U.S. government continues to urge Americans to exercise extreme caution or defer unnecessary travel to certain parts of Mexico.