Sonora's state police chief slain in Nogales - Attack with guns, grenades targets him outside hotel
By Brady McCombs
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona Published: 11.04.2008 http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/mailstory-clickthru/265517.php
Gunmen ambushed the director of Sonora's state police Sunday night, killing him with a barrage of gunfire as well as grenades as he entered his hotel in central Nogales alongside his bodyguard and other law-enforcement officials.
Juan Manuel Pavón Félix died a short time later in a local hospital, according to a news release from the Sonora Attorney General's Office. The killing is the latest example of the bloody battle being waged in Nogales, Sonora, between the drug cartels and Mexican law enforcement. But it is the first time a high-ranking law-enforcement official has been killed in Sonora since Agua Prieta Police Chief Ramón Tacho Verdugo was killed on Feb. 27, 2007.
"We are just in shock this morning," said David Gonzales, U.S. marshal in Arizona.
Gonzales and others in Arizona's law enforcement community knew Pavón from his involvement in a binational police organization called Policia Internacional Sonora-Arizona that brings together law enforcement from the two states each year. Pavón was in Tucson last week for an event hosted by the U.S. Marshals Service to honor him and others for their work in capturing fugitives.
Luis Noriega, the Mexico investigative liaison for the U.S. Marshals Service in Arizona, met with Pávon on Saturday in Tucson and said Pavón didn't express any concerns about his safety. Noriega described Pávon as personable, friendly, professional, compassionate and a man of honor.
"He was a good person, I can't say enough good things about him," Noriega said. "It's a tragic loss for all of us."
The assassination occurred at 8:30 p.m. Sunday at the Marqués de Cima Hotel, about 2 1/2 miles south of the border off Avenida Alvaro Obregon, which runs south from the downtown Dennis DeConcini port of entry and out of the city.
Pavón was getting out of the car when gunmen in the upper part of the building opened fire and launched grenades, the release said. The Marqués de Cima is a five-story hotel on the west side of Avenida Álvaro Obregón.
Pavón was still alive when he was taken to a hospital but died a few minutes later. Three other officers were wounded in the attack and are in stable condition.
Pavón and other law-enforcement officials from out of town were staying in the hotel. Most of them were in their rooms when the attack occurred, the attorney general news release said.
The attack prompted Mexican authorities to stop allowing traffic from the U.S. into Mexico through the Nogales ports of entry for about two hours Sunday night, said Brian Levin, Customs and Border Protection spokesman. Traffic into the U.S. never stopped, but it was delayed for a while, Levin said.
State police have been in Nogales for the past two months working in a special operation along with city and federal police to combat violence fueled by drug cartels that has reached unprecedented levels this year in the border city.
There had been 76 homicides recorded in Nogales through September, the latest figures available, surpassing the 2007 total of 52 and more than doubling the 2006 total of 35. Most of the killing has been attributed to feuding drug cartels.
The bloodshed landed Nogales for the first time on the U.S. State Department's new "travel alert" issued on Oct. 14 alongside notoriously dangerous cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo. The alert — which cautions U.S. citizens about ongoing issues but doesn't instruct them not to travel in Mexico — mentions Nogales as one of the cities that "recently experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues."
On Oct. 23, violence returned to the city when state police killed 10 organized-crime gunmen during a rolling gunbattle that went past supermarkets and malls and down side streets before ending in an industrial park.
Some have theorized the assassination of Pavón could be in retaliation for that shootout, in which Pavón's state police units played the lead role.
"It could have been payback," said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, speaking without direct knowledge of the slaying. But, officially, the motive behind the attack on Pavón remains unclear.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Arizona couldn't talk about the motives behind the shooting since it's part of an ongoing investigation and U.S. Marshal Gonzales said he has no knowledge of why it happened.
El Imparcial newspaper in Sonora speculated that a shootout Saturday in Nogales that led to the arrest of four gunmen, one of whom was wounded, could have triggered the attack on Pavón. Police arrested the four and seized six rifles, ammunition, magazines, bulletproof vests and helmets and their vehicle.
Whatever the motive, the assassination of Pavón has U.S. officials more concerned than ever about their counterparts across the border. "It's got to be frustrating for them over there," Estrada said. "They are trying to make an impact on what's happening and this is a major setback in those efforts."
The cartels are working hard to establish their power in response to the government crackdown, Gonzales said.
"This is a power struggle," Gonzales said. "They are sending a statement that 'we are in charge and we are in power' and trying to get the government to back down by gunning down high-ranking police officers."
On Monday afternoon, Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours said Mexican President Felipe Calderón informed him that 300 federal agents will be sent to join the crackdown in Nogales, Hermosillo and Caborca, El Imparcial reported. They'll join 100 federal agents already in Nogales working in the three level operation.
Pávon, who was married with two children, took over as chief of the state police on March 6, 2007, according to El Imparcial. He was known for a Christmas Eve event he hosted each year in Hermosillo for poor children, the newspaper said.
He had worked previously as an investigator for the Sonoran Investigative police in Guaymas, Ciudad Obregón, Puerto Peñasco and Navojoa, among others.
The U.S. Marshals Service spoke with Pávon nearly once a week to stay in touch on ongoing investigations regrading fugitives, Gonzales said. "He was a great ally working with us on detaining fugitives out of Mexico," he said