Searching for Mecca

Investigating the Unsolved Murder of Malcolm X’s Grandson

By John L. Mitchell and Jack Chang

Malcolm Shabazz, the 28-year-old grandson of Malcolm X, was killed in Mexico City this past May. All illustrations by Esra Røise.

Malcolm L. Shabazz, the 28-year-old grandson of Malcolm X, crossed the border from California into Tijuana in early May for two reasons. His labor-activist friend, Miguel Suarez, had just been deported from the Bay Area, and Malcolm wanted to offer moral support and eventually get him back to California.

Malcolm was also running from himself. Back in the United States, he had bounced from one arrest to another for various misdeeds like public drunkenness, marijuana possession, and petty larceny. The trip south, he hoped, would provide refuge and anonymity from his troubled history and inspire him to overcome his own doubts about whether he could live up to his legacy as the first male heir to one of the fiercest crusaders for African American rights in US history.

On a two-day bus ride from Tijuana to the country’s capital, Malcolm and Miguel swapped tales, took in the scenery, and sampled street food at the tiny towns along the route. They conjured up a grandiose plan to unite black and brown people across the US and Latin America by connecting Mexico’s African heritage with Malcolm X’s message of self-defense and human rights.

Malcolm and Miguel, in other words, had big dreams. They wanted to climb the Teotihuacan pyramids outside the capital and explore the African Mexican communities of Veracruz state. They had even planned to hop over to Cuba, hang out with fugitive and former Black Panther Assata Shakur, and maybe even pay a visit to Fidel Castro.

But they only made it as far as the Plaza Garibaldi, a hustler’s hunting ground in the center of Mexico City where mariachis tantalize tourists with music and prostitutes scout for johns. On May 8, 2013, the day after their arrival, they followed a couple of beautiful women into a seedy bar called the Palace Club. Something went terribly wrong: Malcolm's near lifeless body was discovered on the sidewalk, and within several hours he was dead.

It was global news, a tragic twist to the Malcolm X story. “Grandson of Malcolm X Said to Have Died in Mexico,” read the New York Times story on May 10. Yet the newspapers—like the police and everyone else—had little idea what exactly had happened in the hours and days before young Malcolm’s death.

In a country where few murders ever result in prison sentences—only 1.8 percent of all homicides in 2012—Mexican police and prosecutors are unusually tight-lipped about murder cases. We decided the only way to even get close to the truth was to travel to the scene and investigate for ourselves.

When we began our reporting, the details of Malcolm’s murder were still murky, but one thing was clear. He and Miguel had fallen victim to one of Mexico City’s most infamous bar scams: pretty ladies lure you into a club, chat you up, convince you to buy them drinks, and dance with you for hours. When the bill arrives—a dozen beers for close to a thousand dollars—you either pay or fight.

But typical bar scams don’t end in murder, and after word of the passing of Malcolm X’s grandson trickled out on social media, blogs, and news outlets, all sorts of theories were floated. Was he thrown off a rooftop or beaten inside the Palace Club and dragged out afterward? Was Miguel, his friend and travel partner, somehow involved? There were even suggestions that Malcolm’s death was part of a sinister government plot—the kind, some believe, that was behind his grandfather’s assassination in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City in February 1965.

1 On April 1, Malcolm L. Shabazz was arrested at a bar in South Bend, Indiana, where he was visiting friends. “America is eating me alive,” he told his imam.
2 He returned to his hometown in the Hudson Valley and flew to Los Angeles to meet his friend Miguel Suarez.
3 Miguel, a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant and labor organizer, was deported from Oakland on April 18. Malcolm met him in Tijuana, hoping a trip south would inspire him to live up to his legacy as Malcolm X’s grandson.
4 Miguel and Malcolm took a two-day bus ride to Mexico City. They dreamed up a plan to unite black and brown people in Mexico and beyond.
5 On May 8, their plans—and Malcolm’s tumultuous life—were cut short after a bar scam they fell for went horribly wrong near the Plaza Garibaldi.
Map by Chris Classens

Before any serious investigation could take place, we had to answer one question: Who was Malcolm Shabazz? He was born in Paris on October 8, 1984, to Malcolm X’s daughter Qubilah Shabazz. He never had a relationship with his father. When Qubilah returned to the US with young Malcolm, they drifted from city to city. They moved to Minneapolis, where, in 1995, Qubilah became ensnared by an FBI informant and implicated in a plot to assassinate the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whom she and some of her family blamed for her father’s death. Under a plea bargain, she took responsibility for her actions and agreed to undergo psychological counseling and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

Like many other members of the Malcolm X clan, the defining event in Malcolm’s life was a tragedy. When Malcolm was 12 years old, he was living with his grandmother—Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow—in Yonkers, New York. In a misguided cry for attention, he set a fire in the apartment. His grandmother suffered burns on more than 80 percent of her body while trying to rescue young Malcolm, and later died. At Malcolm’s juvenile-court trial for arson, experts described him as psychotic and schizophrenic, but also brilliant. He spent four years in juvenile detention.

At Leake & Watts Children’s Home in Yonkers, Malcolm had a surprising amount of freedom. According to a 2003 New York Times profile, he would sneak out of the compound and travel to Middletown, New York, a small city in the Hudson Valley about an hour north that would become his de facto hometown. In those years, he acquired the nickname Mecca, and the handle captured one of the contradictions of Malcolm’s early life. It’s rumored that his nickname signified a gang allegiance, but Malcolm never acknowledged it meant anything other than a tribute to his family’s legacy of spirituality and activism.

Malcolm was released at age 18, but he spent the next few years in and out of jail for other petty crimes. It wasn’t until 2008—when Malcolm was 24—that he was once again a free man determined to accept his family’s legacy and not recoil from it. “I am the grandson, namesake, and first male heir to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz,” he would tell audiences during political speaking tours that he began giving around this time, referring to Malcolm X’s chosen Islamic name.

But wherever he went, he was often confronted by questions about the fire he set as a troubled 12-year-old. “For anyone to lose a grandmother, that hurts,” he told an audience in Philadelphia. “I lost my grandmother through my own careless and reckless action. It’s something I ask for forgiveness for, and I continue to ask for forgiveness for and always ask for forgiveness for.”

In turn, Malcolm embraced his grandfather’s legacy. He had converted to Shia Islam in prison, and after his release lived in Damascus, Syria, for a year, and traveled throughout much of the Middle East. He visited Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Lebanon. He also visited Saudi Arabia, where he made the hajj, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. The pilgrimage lent his street name—Mecca—a clearer significance that distanced him further from the teenage gang affiliation that he renounced while in prison.

It was in 2011 that Malcolm met Miguel at the Black Dot Café in Oakland, where Malcolm gave a speech about racism in America. Miguel was born in Mexico in 1982, but he’d lived in the Bay Area since he was 17, where he had for years been an undocumented immigrant. He worked as a construction worker and, in his spare time, a labor organizer.

After the speech, the two introduced themselves, and became fast friends. In coming months, Miguel would help organize events for Malcolm whenever his friend was in town, distributing flyers and packing each venue with supporters. Malcolm would promise to raise money among friends in the Middle East to build a mosque, which Miguel had found a site for in Oakland, and at night the two men would hit the clubs. They both had a wild side, but also a politically radical streak—a combination that solidified their bond.

The same year Malcolm got to know Miguel, he joined a delegation led by former US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and visited a conference in Libya where he met Muammar al-Gaddafi. By that time, Malcolm’s face was all over the internet—tall and thin with a bright smile—posed in photos based on iconic images of his grandfather, and he appeared in a music video produced in Amsterdam, featuring a Moroccan-born singer.

By the spring of 2013, however, Malcolm’s world was closing in on him. He had gotten engaged, and his fiancée was pregnant; his mother was in the hospital. Malcolm, according to his fiancée, was taking medication for a bleeding ulcer. And to top it all off, at least four arrest warrants had been issued after repeated brushes with the law.

On his personal website in March, Malcolm accused the police in Middletown, where he then shared an apartment with his fiancée, of working with an FBI counterterrorism unit to harass him and his friends. According to Middletown police records, Malcolm was arrested six times from August 2012 through February 2013, on charges ranging from domestic abuse to noise complaints, consuming alcohol in public, failing to use the crosswalk, petty larceny, and attempted assault.

Hashim Ali Alauddeen, Malcolm’s Islamic spiritual advisor in Richmond, California, said he believed the police were likely targeting Malcolm, but the young man was also suffering inner turmoil. That’s when Malcolm began making arrangements to get out of the country. That deep conflict, Iman Alaudeen said, was part of his struggle with his faith.

“It’s not like you become a Muslim, someone throws some water on you, and you are perfect,” Alauddeen said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It may not happen, but this is the struggle. The greatest jihad is the fight you have within yourself.”

On April 1, police reported that Malcolm was found, reeking of alcohol, trying to open the front door of a South Bend, Indiana, bar at three in the morning. He was in the Midwest visiting Muslim friends. The waitress had kicked Malcolm out after she claimed he refused to leave and made sexual advances at her.

He continued loitering around the restaurant and was arrested on the spot and released later on bail. Malcolm returned to Middletown and, shortly afterward, flew to Los Angeles, around the same time he learned that his old pal Miguel had been deported. Malcolm arranged to meet Miguel in Tijuana, and they traveled down to Mexico City together.

“America is eating me alive,” he told Alauddeen. The iman was making arrangements for Malcolm to fly to a Muslim country when he learned he’d gone to Mexico.

Malcolm Shabazz, at age 12, being led from a juvenile-court hearing in Yonkers, New York, after he set a fire that killed his grandmother. Experts at his trial described him as psychotic and schizophrenic, but also brilliant.

Less than a month after Malcolm’s murder, we retrieved his personal belongings from Miguel and delivered them to Qubilah Shabazz, Malcolm’s mother. She lives in a hamlet tucked in the Catskills of upstate New York. Intensely private, she had refused any and all requests for interviews after her son’s murder, but she agreed to meet us for breakfast at a diner near her house.

 

Qubilah, a massage therapist, maintained her isolation by keeping intimate details of her life under wraps. Malcolm X named the second of his six daughters after Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. At the age of four, she witnessed—and still remembers—her father’s assassination.

Malcolm’s two small backpacks were packed tight with light clothing, toiletries, cell phones, a Qur’an, a Bible, an introduction to Freemasonry, and a small burgundy prayer rug, among other personal items that would seem more fit for a spiritual retreat than a drinking binge in Mexico City.

Inside the restaurant, Qubilah said that she was convinced that Miguel was withholding information about the murder, but she also wondered how her son might have contributed to his own demise.

“My son died because he was spread too thin,” she said softly.

Qubilah objected to Malcolm’s travels overseas and meetings with international figures. She disapproved of the photographs he posed for, replicating the classic images of her father, in a 60s-era suit, holding a rifle before a window.

Malcolm X knew to guard himself against risk—or at least where to draw the line. He never sat with his back to the door, yet he was still snatched away from this earth without warning, gunned down before her eyes.

“You can’t trust everyone,” she told us. “You can’t really be trusting of anyone.”

A year after Malcolm was released from prison, after he had traveled to the Middle East and began his transformation into a political activist, Qubilah asked journalist A. Peter Bailey, a pallbearer at Malcolm X’s funeral, to advise her son about the obstacles he faced.

“Don’t let people use you. Study your grandfather,” Peter recalled telling Malcolm when we reached him by phone. “You need to take six months to a year to learn as much as you can about your grandfather before stepping out on your own.” Malcolm’s grandson had “potential,” but needed time to flourish.

While we were at the diner, Qubilah looked back on her own childhood too, recalling how her godfather, Gordon Parks, the renowned photographer, mistook her lack of outward emotion over her father’s death as an absence of sorrow.

That same outer reserve served as a source of strength when she was called to view her son’s severely beaten corpse before the traditional Muslim bathing by Alauddeen in preparation for the funeral at the Islamic Cultural Center in Oakland. Most of the men in the room broke down and cried when they saw the body.

“Qubilah stood firm,” Alauddeen said. “She was a soldier. She gave us strength.”

Outside the diner, amid an awkward silence, we put her son’s belongings into the trunk of her aging Cadillac—as if somehow the arrival of the two backpacks from Mexico made the reality of Malcolm’s death all the more final, his quest for redemption an ultimately fruitless effort.

At Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, Malcolm’s grave still doesn’t have a marker more than six months after his burial. He is interred not far from his grandfather and grandmother.

Malcolm’s mom, Qubilah Shabazz, lives in upstate New York and rarely speaks publicly about the death of her son or father, Malcolm X.

After Malcolm’s murder, police questioned Miguel, who was one of the first people to discover Malcolm’s body on the sidewalk outside the Palace Club. Miguel told authorities that he hadn’t seen the actual murder. He was simply, like Malcolm, a victim of the scam and had just been lucky to escape with his own life. After he was questioned, he fled Mexico City and went into hiding in his family’s hometown in Veracruz state.

We found Miguel after talking to a taxi driver who drove Miguel around Mexico City that night. He gave us Miguel’s number, since Miguel had borrowed his phone to call his father in Veracruz. We called Miguel and arranged to meet in his father’s town, which he asked us not to name for security reasons. Other news sources had contacted him, he said, but he’d agreed to talk to us because he trusted us. He wanted to air his complete side of the story. We talked to him all day and recovered Malcolm’s backpacks several days later.

On that first visit with Miguel, ten days after Malcolm’s death, we learned that Miguel had received death threats and been accused of complicity in the murder. Some of the messages even urged him to commit suicide.

“If they want to go to war, I’m going to the war,” he told us, referring to those who suspected that he had a hand in Malcolm’s death. “Because this isn’t fair, man. This isn’t fair at all.”

In his version of events, the fateful night had begun with him and Malcolm sharing a cheap bottle of mezcal they’d bought on their bus ride from Tijuana to Mexico City. They arrived at Plaza Garibaldi amid a blur of tourists, mariachis, and street vendors. A family acquaintance of Miguel’s had invited them to dinner there, and arriving early, the two friends waited in the plaza’s only classy spot, the modern, glass-faced Tequila and Mezcal Museum.

Covering a drab half block in the heart of Mexico City, Plaza Garibaldi glowed with neon menace despite the government’s attempts over the years to clean it up. Musicians prowled the pavement looking for tips as disco lights leaked out of crumbling bars widely known as fronts for prostitution. According to Miguel, their night consisted of ordering shots of tequila at the museum and later having beers and dinner at an outdoor restaurant.

By midnight, Malcolm and Miguel were ready to head back to the hotel. An architect friend of Miguel’s was picking them up early the next morning to visit the pyramids, an excursion that had been an impetus for the trip down south; Malcolm, Miguel told us, was eager to re-create the famous picture of his grandfather standing in front of the Giza pyramids in Egypt.

But before they could leave, two blond girls approached them. “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” Miguel recalled. “Told us they were not from the city and that they were recommended to this nice lounge.”

Outside the Palace Club, where Malcolm and Miguel were given an inflated bar tab, after being lured in by two women they’d met a few hours earlier. Photo by Eunice Adorno

This was the Palace Club, situated on the second floor of a beige, three-story building on the other side of the Eje Central, one of Mexico City’s main boulevards.

“I look at Malcolm,” Miguel said, “and he has this big smile like, ‘Let’s go,’ and I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ I always told my friends, ‘How can I say no to the grandson of Malcolm X, man?’”

Miguel’s account of what happened runs smoothly up to this point, with no one else we talked to seriously contesting the details. But then, as he and Malcolm followed the women to the bar, the story splits into alternate versions, depending on who’s talking.

According to Miguel, prosecutors, and a witness inside the bar whom we interviewed under the condition of anonymity, the two men followed the women into the Palace Club. Miguel told us they were then asked to present their IDs, which confirmed they were both Americans (though he’d been deported, Miguel still had a California ID). They ordered two buckets of beer, containing six to eight bottles each, requested songs from the DJ, and danced with the women.

At around 3 AM, the bar presented Miguel with the bill, which he said added up to 11,800 pesos, or over $900. According to the witness, each beer they bought for the women cost 400 pesos ($30). Each song requested cost 25 pesos (about $2). The privilege of dancing with the women alone was priced at 4,200 pesos ($320), a fee they didn’t know they were incurring.

Miguel had hoped to take the women back to their hotel near the Virgin of Guadalupe shrine, unaware their companions worked for the bar and were in on the scam. At first, Miguel said, he thought the bill was a joke, but when the long-haired “Spanish-looking” cashier demanded payment, Miguel complained that they were being ripped off. Malcolm was dancing with one of the women by a row of windows overlooking the Eje Central, oblivious to the rising tensions, Miguel said.

“They got pissed off when I told them it was extortion and that I was really sad about what my country has become,” Miguel told us. Suddenly, according to Miguel, a short, muscular man appeared with a small gun.

“Here,” he said, seemingly referring to Mexico, “you pay us!” Miguel recalled him saying, while another man with gelled hair twisted his arm behind his back. Miguel said he hadn’t seen the two men before. They forced him into a cramped dressing room near the front door, the gun pressed to Miguel’s forehead.

This is where the various accounts of the story diverge. The witness we interviewed said only the short man confronted Miguel and never held a gun—instead, he simply pushed Miguel into the dressing room.

Marco Enrique Reyes Peña, the main prosecutor on the investigation, told us that based on witness accounts, two waiters—Daniel Hernández Cruz and Manuel Alejandro Pérez de Jesús—were later arrested in connection with the murder. He also told us that his office was looking for an additional two men who are believed to be connected to the murder; he hinted that they were the men Miguel alleges forced him into the dressing room.

Miguel Suarez, who was in Mexico City with Malcolm, went into hiding after the murder.

While Miguel said he couldn’t see what was going on in the bar once he was in the dressing room, the witness who spoke to us said the short man stripped off his shirt and confronted Malcolm, who the witness said appeared to be high or drunk. Malcolm knew only a few words of Spanish; the witness didn’t hear the short man speak any English.

Tests later put Malcolm’s blood alcohol level at the time of his death at 267.82 milligrams, which is enough to severely inhibit the motor skills of an average adult. Still, the witness said, Malcolm somehow managed to run across the dance floor to the emergency exit, with the short man in pursuit.

The bar’s employees later told investigators that Malcolm had climbed two flights of stairs to the building’s roof and either fell off or was pushed three floors down onto the sidewalk. The employees weren’t on the roof and had no way of knowing what transpired up there. When we visited the building months after the incident, we noticed that if Malcolm had dashed out of the emergency exit, he would have come out right where the stairs climbed up to the third floor and then to the roof. His only other option would have been to make it to another set of stairs down to the street. But that option would have meant first running the length of the hallway and passing the Palace’s main entrance, where his assailants could have been waiting. Either way, he would have been cut off.

What happened to Malcolm while Miguel was trapped in the dressing room is perhaps the biggest split in the narrative and the crux of the mystery. According to Miguel, he was there for about ten minutes, with a gun pressed against his head. He, like the bar’s employees, didn’t see what happened.

According to the prosecutor, the autopsy revealed that Malcolm died from injuries to the ribs, jaw, and in particular, the back of the skull—wounds consistent with receiving a fierce beating with a blunt object rather than a fall off a three-story roof.

The prosecutor added that based on the detained waiters’ testimony, the attack went down inside the bar, and Malcolm’s body was later carried downstairs and left on the sidewalk in front of a gay club next door. Adding to the confusion, the prosecutor said at least one of the waiters had first testified after his arrest that Malcolm jumped off the roof, contradicting the account of the other waiter who said the beating had happened inside the bar. Prosecutors ultimately concluded that the first account was false.

During the confrontation the patrons of the Palace Club evacuated and people rushed into the dressing room, where Miguel was being held, to gather their belongings. Miguel said he managed to escape in the fracas and that he didn’t hear the sounds of any beating or yelling. As the bar cleared out, he searched for Malcolm, but the only thing he found was Malcolm’s passport, left on the couch where they had been sitting near the front door.

Once out on the street, Miguel said he considered the possibility that Malcolm had left the bar and was wandering the neighborhood. He crossed Eje Central to grab a taxi, and the driver told him Malcolm was lying outside the bar, Miguel said. He found his friend still conscious, moaning for Miguel to “take me out of here, bro.”

“I grab him, and I put him on my knee,” Miguel recalled to us. “I’m rubbing his chest, cleaning his blood, and telling him everything’s going to be fine. And I start yelling, ‘What happened? Who did this to my friend? Come on, didn’t anybody see anything?’”

The prosecutor said investigators couldn’t find anyone who could account for how Malcolm made it to the sidewalk, but everyone agrees that’s where he ended up. How he got there no one will say. We talked to mariachis, parking-garage attendants, and street vendors near the bar. Everyone said they hadn’t seen a thing.

An ambulance ultimately arrived and took Malcolm to the Hospital General Balbuena, about four miles from Plaza Garibaldi. Although several hospitals were much closer to the Palace, Malcolm ended up at Balbuena, near Mexico City’s international airport, because its ambulance got to the scene first. The hospital refused to comment on the case and directed us to Mexico City’s health secretary, who also didn’t comment

According to Miguel, a nurse at the hospital told him Malcolm’s condition was stable. There was nowhere for him to wait inside the hospital, so Miguel took a taxi back to the hotel to collect their belongings. When he returned a few hours later, Malcolm was dead.

Malcolm Shabazz’s unmarked grave in Ferncliff, New York. His grandfather and grandmother are buried in the same cemetery. Photos by Christian Storm

In the five months since Malcolm’s death, prosecutors say they’ve interviewed approximately 20 people about the case and inspected the bar more than four times. The Palace was closed following the incident and was still shuttered as of press time.

Still, the authorities haven’t arrested the Palace Club’s owner, and prosecutors say the bar’s security-camera recordings, which would go a long way to clearing up this mystery, were themselves mysteriously removed before police secured the scene.

Meanwhile, the arrested waiters are awaiting trial in Mexico City’s eastern prison. Their government-appointed attorney refused to comment on the case.

Miguel said he hasn’t spoken to the authorities since the day of the murder and hasn’t been called to identify anyone in a lineup. Miguel’s hometown is a few hundred miles from Mexico City and the prosecutor said investigators were sent to Miguel’s home once but were unable to locate him. He said Miguel’s testimony, taken just hours after the crime, in addition to testimony from witnesses from the scene of the crime were enough to charge the waiters.

As we prepared to leave Veracruz and said goodbye to Miguel, he insisted a final time that he had nothing to do with the murder. Why would he have set up his pal? After all, he and Malcolm were dear friends and comrades.

As evidence, Miguel recalled one emotional night in California, back when he and Malcolm were still kicking around the dreams of opening up a mosque and uniting blacks and Latinos. After a night of partying in Oakland, Malcolm had pulled out an iPod and portable speakers and cranked up a rare recording of his grandfather’s assassination, while tearfully confessing his frustrations with living up to his familiy’s legacy. As the voices and shots rang out, Malcolm told Miguel not to look at him.

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