The United States issued a rare call Monday for a formal investigation into the slaying of an American businessman after a Mexico City judge released the murder suspects and called their leader a “modern-day Robin Hood.”
Despite assurances from Mexican authorities that they plan to investigate, the court ruling is certain to heighten tensions between the United States and Mexico and draw attention to the rampant violence that has consumed Mexico City in recent years.
The victim, John Peter Zarate, 40, of California, was shot and killed Dec. 15 during a taxicab robbery in Mexico City. He was a father of four and worked for the New York-based Cushman & Wakefield real estate corporation. Investigators arrested five gang members in the killing Dec. 30, and Mexico City prosecutors said the men confessed in detail.
But Friday, Judge Maria Claudia Campuzano released the suspects, according to Mexico City prosecutors.
She called the trigger man a “modern-day Robin Hood who not only steals and redistributes what he obtains in the robberies but also gives his accomplices their share without taking anything himself.”
According to prosecutors, the judge also attacked the credibility of Zarate’s wife and said that a friend of the victim’s had obstructed the investigation.
In addition, Campuzano suggested that robbery might not have been the motive in Zarate’s killing, noting he still was wearing his wristwatch and had credit cards on him at the time of his death.
Mexico City prosecutors said they planned to investigate the judge and anyone else who might have played a role in the release of the suspects.
U.S. officials in Mexico City, who generally remain silent on issues involving U.S.-Mexico relations, including corruption among Mexico officials, issued a strongly worded statement.
“The release of the men federal prosecutors say confessed to the murder of U.S. citizen John Peter Zarate is deeply disturbing to us,” the statement said. The embassy said the United States is especially disturbed by newspaper stories attributing “strange remarks” to Judge Campuzano.
“The judge is alleged to have claimed, among other things, improper behavior on the part of Mr. Zarate’s widow and the existence of some motive for the crime other than robbery,” the U.S. statement said. “We cannot imagine what basis the judge has for any of these remarks.”
The U.S. statement said federal district prosecutors had publicly denounced the judge’s action and comments, and “this remains a most unusual and troubling situation. With so many elements of this homicide case unclear, we are formally seeking an official explanation of the entire matter.”
The Clinton administration is scheduled to decide by April whether to certify Mexico as an ally in the drug war, a process that historically has strained relations between the two neighbors.
Zarate’s killing last month prompted the U.S. Embassy to warn American travelers against hailing cabs on the street. A similar warning last year enraged Mexican officials and prompted protests by taxi drivers.
During the past couple of years, scores of people, including U.S. Embassy personnel and foreign journalists, have been robbed and assaulted after taking cabs off the street. U.S. officials advise visitors to use taxi stands.