“Project Miroslava”: 5 Other Suspicious Deaths Linked to Miroslava Breach’s Murder?
Two young women who were taking a selfie next to a landing strip in la Sierra Tarahumara, died, apparently by accident; a pilot who used to fly to this same Sierra and a martial arts teacher were murdered in 2017. Before the year was over, another man died riddled by bullets in northern Mexico. All of the deaths ended up being be linked, in one way or another, to the assassination of Miroslava Breach, which took place on March 23, 2017 in Chihuahua. The Colectivo 23 de Marzo, created by Mexican journalists, in collaboration with international organisations Forbidden Stories, Bellingcat and the Latinoamerican Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), investigated what was true and what was not about how these deaths were linked to that of the journalist.
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Each March, northern music singers land on a clandestine strip in Chínipas, Chihuahua, close to the border with the state of Sonora in Mexico. They come to celebrate Alfredo Salazar’s birthday. Also known as El Muñeco, Salazar is a partner of the Sinaloa cartel, now in prison and requested in extradition by a court in the United States for smuggling cocaine into that country.
He is also the son of Adán Salazar Zamorano, ‘Don Adán’, who has been in jail since 2011, and who is the patriarch and founder of a violent criminal clan called Los Salazar or Los Salazares. Miroslava Breach exposed this group as having infiltrated local politics and the local police of several municipalities in the Sierra Tarahumara.
On Saturday March 25, 2017, two days after the murder of Miroslava in Chihuahua city, people were gathering at Chínipas landing strip to see a horse race, as part of celebrations for Alfredo Salazar’s birthday. Among them were 18-year-old Nitzia Mendoza and her friend 17-year-old Yoselín Morquecho. They had climbed on the back of a pickup truck to watch the horserace. After 2 pm, just at the moment the women were taking their selfie, as the press reported, a small airplane hit them on the head. They died instantly.
Even though authorities did not speak about the incident and later tried to deny the facts, such an unusual accident became world news.
A witness to the events told this journalistic team that the tragedy can be explained because several planes were landing at the same time. A pilot rushing imprudently landed at one extreme of the airstrip where Yoselín y Nitzia did not see it coming. “They picked up the girls, took them the health center and the pilot automatically, immediately left. That quickly”, this witness said.
Then, something happened that left all Chinipenses mute: a group of armed men stopped them from leaving town until they made sure they had erased each photo and video of their mobile phones. This was published days later by El Diario de Chihuahua and confirmed by the witness: “When people were leaving the airstrip there were people there who picked up all the phones (…) right there they erased everything (…) then people left. Nobody left earlier.”
When the local media tried to interview public officers from the municipality about the tragedy, no one wanted to speak. The Chínipas police denied that the accident ever happened. A lot of material has often been published in YouTube after parties honoring the Salazar. You can find videos of artists singing ballads exalting the “feats” of members of the criminal group (although the US Drug Enforcement Administration DEA is after a few of them). However, there are no songs or parties to be found in the internet regarding the events of March 25, 2017. British investigative media Bellingcat, an expert in probing open sources, confirmed that “there is an absence of open source information, such as images and /or videos taken by participants in that event on that March 25.”
The Mexican Communications and Transportation Ministry did not investigate what happened in that accident. It did not even list it among aviation accidents in 2017, although its responsibility is to investigate any incident. The state prosecutor’s office said it did not have the license number of the airplane in question. There was no further investigation.
When this journalistic team asked several people about the deaths of Nitzia and Yoselín in Chínipas and other places in Chihuahua and Sonora, most hung up on us when we explained why we were calling. Some of them even shouted in fear that they would be killed if they spoke. Five people who dared to speak said that Los Salazar have intercepted cell phone calls and monitor social media posts originated in their region.
Months later it became clear why everyone was so hermetic about the incident. It was on December 25, 2017, when governor Javier Corral twitted that Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa, a.k.a El Larry had been apprehended and he identified him as “the mastermind of the murder of journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea.” El Larry has been accused of being the hitmans’ boss in Chínipas.
The courageous journalist, who like Los Salazar hails from Chínipas, had denounced that it was a town with no law. She personally covered the forced displacement and murders that resulted from the clan’s territorial disputes and attempts to control the municipality, not just using weapons. They secured the PRI party’s blessing for one of their own (Juan Salazar Gaxiola) as candidate for municipal president in the local elections of June 2016.
After she managed to derail his candidacy (with a story published jointly with Proceso’s correspondent in Chihuahua), even though she received threats, Miroslava continued publishing her investigations in La Jornada and El Norte de Ciudad Juarez. She accused the then municipal president of protecting the drug lords and the local police (which denied the plane accident ever happened). She also said the head of the municipal police was a nephew of Los Salazares with a criminal record. The town itself, she wrote, was infiltrated by drug trafficking organisations, just like others in Chihuahua state.
In the preliminary hearing of Moreno Ochoa’s trial, the prosecutor revealed that witnesses signalled that on March 25th, he had boarded an airplane from Chihuahua international airport to the Sierra. He was accompanied by university student Wilberth Jaciel Vega Villa, who had been raised up with him and who –according to the state prosecutor- drove the alleged triggerman to Miroslava’s house in his own car on the day of her murder.
In a story published the following day, in December 2017, El Heraldo de Chihuahua informed that “the plane that killed the two young girls in Chínipas was El Larry’s” and that “he returned to that town after supervising the journalist’s murder.” In fact, two witnesses agree that Vega Villa arrived in Chínipas that afternoon, and that he took a selfie and sent it to a Whatsapp group. The young man, godson of Alfredo Salazar, has been a fugitive ever since.
The circumstances surrounding this accident continue to be confusing. Versions of it overlap and often contradict each other, with elements like the identity of the plane’s passengers changing according to the source. One says the plane picked a very sick person, another that it transported a singer, yet another that an armed man disembarked or that it was not one, but several planes landing at the same time.
Photographs of the two young girl’s lifeless bodies, obtained by this collective, show that the mortal wounds are small and precise: 2 to 5 centimetres long. According to an expert’s opinion, consulted by the collective, They do not seem like the type of wounds a plane in movement would cause. The investigation apparently classified the accident like a reckless homicide and closed the case.
There is no clarity as to who piloted the airplane that landed in Chínipas that March 25, 2017 afternoon. But 16 days later, Jorge David Coughanour Buckenhofer was shot to death as he left a restaurant in Chihuahua city. Coughanour was a pilot and owner of aero taxi company AeroCoconor, well known locally for his aviation skills in the highland area; for using his planes as ambulances to transport sick passengers from that remote mountainous area; and for piloting National Geographic photographers, mining businessmen, federal employees or politicians. Governor Javier Corral and former governor César Duarte had been his clients.
On the night of April 10, 2017, as he left a restaurant, a car parked beside his Mercedes Benz. A man got out and shot him at least six times. Even though he carried his aviation credentials with him –according to case file number 19-2017-0009981- the investigative agents did not contact Coughanour’s family. Neither did they answer the persistent phone calls from relatives concerned about his disappearance. His corpse remained in the morgue throughout the night, as an anonymous person. The state prosecutor’s office inquired into his personal life, his clients in the Sierra, his bank accounts and whether he had been forced into transporting drugs, rather than the circumstances surrounding his own death.
On April 12, the press published that the state prosecutor’s office had discovered that the gun used to murder Miroslava Breach had been the same one used to kill the pilot. Five days later, state police director Oscar Aparicio confirmed this finding. However, in a document dated April 11, a ballistics forensic expert of the state government had ruled out any match.
Late that year, when governor Corral announced El Larry’s arrest, the pilot was once again linked to Miroslava. El Heraldo de Chihuahua stated that Coughanour was “Los Salazar’s pilot”, that he had helped Breach’s murderers escape and had therefore caused the young girls’ death. The paper did not attribute this information to a source.
On January 5, 2018, the pilot’s pained father published a letter refuting the paper’s version. “No airplane from the company (AeroCoconor) was flying in the area at the hour of the fatal accident. My son and his pilots were in Chihuahua city, as proven by the state prosecutor’s office at the time,” he wrote. Indeed, the state case file had a flight log from AeroCoconor from March 18 to 27 of 2017, which has no reference to flights to Chínipas. Mobile phone records, which Coughanour’s family handed to the state prosecutor’s office, show he was in Chihuahua city those days.
El Heraldo claimed that the source for that information on Coughanour was the state prosecutor’s office. The journalist who wrote the story became a state policeman one year later.
The karate teacher
A week later, on April 18, 2017, at a different point in the town of Chihuahua, retired martial arts teacher and psychologist Gabriel Ochoa Cardenas was assassinated by gunshots in front of a henhouse Ochoa looked after at a neighbour’s yard. Over the hand of the teacher’s body, police found a collectors Colt pistol, .38 super calibre. The pistol has special engravings: a profile of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, an Aztec serpent and a sentence by Zapata. The company had only made 200 such guns. Next to the body also, was a cardboard sign that warned: « This is the pig that killed journalist Miroslava on orders of El 80 ».
El 80’s name is Arturo Quintana, and at that time (March 2017) he was the regional boss of the North-western area of Chihuahua, belonging to La Linea, associated to the Juarez Cartel, and enemy group of Los Salazar. Allegedly El 80 had also left a note some meters away from Miroslava’s body, acknowledging he was responsible for that crime. (See first part of Project Miroslava).
The killing of martial arts teacher Ochoa came one day after governor Corral announced authorities had identified Breach’s killers. Several media outlets published that Gabriel Ochoa resembled the identikit picture of the shooter who killed the journalist. However, their characteristics did not match. The killer, for example, looked like a 25-yeard-old person in the video that captured him walking, while the karate teacher was 56. The state’s prosecutor showed this video of the killer to the teacher’s oldest brother several times, to see if he could recognize him. And several times too, the brother denied that the hitman was his brother.
Little is known about the teacher’s life. He was reserved, walked with difficulty, had given karate lessons and he had policemen among his clients.
An man who had taken his karate lessons, and who was one of the first to run to the crime scene when he heard the shots, said when interviewed by our team of reporters that the gun he saw next to the body was different than the flashy one shown later by the media. « I heard them (the policemen) saying that the gun was of some colour and then I saw pictures in the papers, and it had a different colour. I did not know when the gun was changed ». The police log and a testimony in the case file, both coincide that it was a regular gun, and not a fine and flashy gun.
The theory shared by a state prosecutor to this collective is that when they knew they had been caught, the culprits of Miroslava’s crime, killed the teacher to mislead investigators. The prosecutor said that the teacher was killed with a gun of different calibre than the one that was « planted » next to his body. He also said that this collector’s gun with the Zapata engraving was indeed the one used to kill Miroslava. Who planted this gun at the teacher’s crime scene is still unknown. Even though authorities have the images of the assassins leaving the scene of the crime in their cars, no one has been detained yet.
The man shown as the hitman
A hand-written police report, dated December 20, 2017, says that a male between 25 and 30 was found with a bullet in his body on a backward road in Alamos, Sonora. He was identified as Ramón Andrés Zabala Corral, and according to the state prosecutor, the hitman who shot Breach.
Zabala was born, lived and died in Álamos, south of Sonora, on an area where Los Salazares run drug-trafficking and migrant-smuggling businesses.
None the images captured by street cameras of the journalist’s killers identifies a face. A witness who first told the Chihuahua state prosecutor that he had seen the killer while fleeing from Miroslava’s house, after killing her, later said to the Federal Prosecutor General that he had never seen the hitman’s face.
Zabala was also linked to the crime because, according to the case file, his phone number appears in the log of calls made by Vega Villa from the crime scene.
This Colectivo 23 de Marzo identified three Facebook accounts under Zabala’s name. His relatives declared in Sonora that he was a quiet man, who left home for long periods of time, who often changed his mobile phone and who got angry at the family when they paid attention to street gossip about him.
It is not known exactly when or how Zabala fled from to the Sierra, nor what he did during the nine months he was a fugitive. Identifying a Federal Police report as his source, a columnist of national daily El Universal wrote that Zabala was in Alamos for some months, and that as soon as he got off the plane in Chínipas, El Larry, the killer now in jail, had taken refuge at the Palmarejo mine (belonging to US company Coeur Mining) and that both men had protection from local authorities. The Coeur Mining representative did not respond to the interview request made by our team to hear their side of the story to corroborate the serious accusations
Almost two-an-a-half months after Zabala’s killing, on February 9, 2018, this team asked state prosecutor for the Central Zone, Carlos Mario Jiménez, why had the authorities failed to capture Zabala, particularly after what governor Corral announced about having the killers identified since mid-April. Prosecutor Jiménez responded: “We decided not to ask for help in Sonora. This people (Los Salazar) have been there for many years and everything and it would not be safer (…) It was a strategic decision.”
So far only Moreno Ochoa, El Larry, has been detained and presented as the one responsible for Breach’s killing.
In the files of both the federal and the state prosecutors there is no sign that they have investigated if the mining company employees could have helped hide the fugitive, even though a media outlet had already made public this suspicion. It does not appear in the files either, that authorities had analysed the flight logs of airplanes that left Chihuahua airport on the days in question. Nor are there reports in the file regarding any possible interviews to pilots, airport personnel or Chínipas’ public officers regarding the movement of airplanes. The files do not show any reports of the authorities having travelled to the Sierra Tarahumara region, despite the control that criminal groups exposed by Breach have there.
State prosecutor Cesar Augusto Peniche did not respond to our interview request. It was stated in the judicial proceedings publicly that the Special Federal Prosecutor’s office (FEADLE), who took on the case of the journalist’s killing, has not added new evidence to the case against El Larry. Questions raised by this journalistic investigation are still unanswered.