The killing of a federal judge in central Mexico has underlined both how vulnerable judges are in the context of the country’s decade-long drug war, and how relatively unscathed they have been until now.
Security camera footage shows Judge Vicente Bermúdez Zacarías gently jogging near his home in the wealthy city of Metepec Monday morning when a man in black sprints up behind him, shoots him in the head, and then runs off. The judge is seen falling to the ground. He was rushed to a hospital, and died soon after.
Bermúdez Zacarías is the first federal judge killed in Mexico in more than 10 years.
The 37-year-old judge had no obvious special security arrangements despite playing a role in numerous cases involving well-known drug traffickers, including legendary Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
The cartel cases
The sheer number of high-profile drug cartel cases Bermúdez Zacarías had a hand in is striking. During his relatively short career, he was tasked with overseeing a variety of cases involving prominent members of Mexico’s most powerful cartels. These cases included the Jalisco New Generation Cartel’s top associate, Abigail González Valencia, known as El Cuini, after he was arrested last year, and the alleged links between a major newspaper owner and the same cartel.
Mexican media has linked Bermúdez Zacarías to legal proceedings involving the former Zeta leader Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as Z-40, as well as a key player in the 2014 case of 43 students allegedly killed by the Guerreros Unidos drug gang.
Bermúdez Zacarías reportedly played a small role in the long and tortuous legal battle surrounding U.S. efforts to extradite “El Chapo.”
First major attack on judge in over 10 years
The previous judge to be killed in this manner was René Hilario Nieto Contreras, who was attacked not far from the spot where Bermúdez Zacarías died in the central city of Toluca in August 2006. At the time he was attached to the court at a high-security prison and associated with cases involving Gulf and Tijuana cartels.
Though at least two other judges have survived armed attacks in the intervening decade, judges haven’t been targeted in these kinds of attacks nearly as much as police chiefs, mayors, priests, and journalists have.
According to security expert Alejandro Hope, the Federal Judicial Council follows a security protocol in which judges who feel under threat can ask for protection. Hope wrote in an opinion piece in the newspaper El Universal that in 2012 the council reported that 21 judges had bodyguards and 78 used armored vehicles. The federal judicial council told VICE News that it could not give any information about current security measures provided for judges or whether Bermúdez Zacarías had requested any special measures before his death.
The murder of Bermúdez Zacarías prompted a particularly strong response from the political and judicial establishment on Monday.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto expressed his dismay and announced that he had instructed the attorney general to take over the case from local authorities. And Attorney General Arely Gómez tweeted her personal condolences to the judge’s family, and to the judicial institutions in general.
The president of Mexico’s Supreme Court, Luis María Aguilar, sent a message to federal judges extolling their bravery and demanding more security. “Federal judges put their lives at the service of justice,” he said. “You need to know that we are behind you and will continue to be there so that you can fulfill your duty.”