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What Really Happened During Mexico City's Airport Shoot-Out?

The 2012 shoot-out at the Mexico City International Airport remains one of the most bizarre and unexplained events of the drug war. Apart from the body count, almost nothing about the official version stands up, and a video leaked this week heightens...

by Jason McGahan
Mar 26 2014, 3:29pm


Deputy Chief Luis Cardenas Palomino at his press conference

At 8:33 in the morning on Monday, June 25, 2012, the sound of gunfire erupted in Terminal 2 of the Mexico City International Airport. The shots were coming from the direction of the food court. Witnesses recalled seeing two separate groups of gunmen, both clad in the dark navy uniforms of the Mexican Federal Police. Travelers and airport personnel dived for cover underneath the neat rows of small round tables.

Altogether, three policemen died at the scene, according to the Federal Public Safety Department, whose uniforms all of the shooters in question were wearing. The two men dressed as police but designated as villains fled the airport on foot.

The shoot-out at the Mexico City International Airport remains one of the most singularly bizarre, alarming, and, above all, unexplained events of the drug war.

Among the dead was the bodyguard to the chief of federal police at the airport, the shift supervisor for land transportation at the terminal, and a patrolmen on duty that morning. The Federal Police were unsure whether the men responsible for their deaths were police, ex-police, or impostors. They were later identified as two patrolmen, dirty cops, the chief said, caught red-handed in a drug deal involving an anonymous network of cocaine traffickers based in Lima, Peru.

Apart from the body count, almost nothing about the official version stands up. The deputy chief of the Federal Public Safety Department, Luis Cardenas Palomino, attributed the shoot-out to a satchel of drugs hidden in an airport men's room. When one of the dirty cops brought it out, that was the signal to move in for the arrest. So then why did 44 minutes elapse on the time-stamped video from the time that a blurry figure is pictured entering a restroom to the moment that a nondescript figure is pictured at the top of the stairs where he will be detained? Why is the satchel of drugs not clearly pictured in any of the still images presented as evidence? Where did it go when the suspects ran away, their arms unencumbered?

It was a drug deal with no evidence of drugs; a special operations team of three officers, all of whom ended up dead; a special operation every moment of which somehow eluded the 430 security cameras filming every inch of the airport at the time, without the knowledge of the airport security personnel who monitored them.

Last week, members of the airport's video-surveillance team leaked never-before-seen footage of the shoot-out to the Mexican news weekly Reporte Indigo. The new footage exposes Deputy Chief Palomino and the Federal Public Safety Department for selectively choosing video and still images to substantiate the story—of a special operation of good cops busting bad cops—that they wanted to transmit to the public.

The new footage shows that Deputy Chief Palomino hid from the public the fact that a second shoot-out occurred in the airport only about a minute after the two patrolmen had already fled. Reporte Indigo cited anonymous sources close to the investigation who believed the patrolman was most likely killed during the second shoot-out, when the suspects were out of the building. 

The footage from 2012 shows the two shooters escaping through the food court at 8:33 AM. In his presentation to the media, Deputy Chief Palomino stops the tape there, at the point time-stamped 8:34:30. The last movements are of terror-stricken patrons of the food court beginning to pick themselves up off the floor. By choosing to stop the footage there, it gives the appearance that the violence was over.


A still from the security footage used by Deputy Chief Palomino

The new footage, however, continues rolling past that point where the deputy chief had stopped the tape. A mere six seconds later, bullets fly in the food court once again.

What did The Federal Public Safety Department have to gain by hiding the fact of a second shoot-out? Certainly, the notion that one group of police was secretly planning to arrest the other could not have survived otherwise. A closer look at the new footage also reveals that more Federal Police were involved in the shoot-outs, and the operation appears larger and more premeditated than previously thought.

The new footage introduces previously unknown characters into leading roles in the shoot-outs. Two unidentified federal police officers appear in one new scene. They are shown leaning against a railing in a busy passageway between the food court and the gates for international flights. It is only a few minutes before the first shoot-out will begin. A civilian wearing a ski mask approaches and greets them, shaking hands. He then crosses to the other side of the busy passageway and greets others at the edge of the frame before disappearing off camera.

The officers display a nonchalance that amounts to a kind of premeditation. Moments before the shooting commences, one of the policemen moves away from the railing and walks over to within a few yards of where the first shots are fired. As panic sets in, and the travelers and employees of the airport are seen running for their lives, the second officer moves without haste to a large screen in the middle of the frame, which he steps behind and which blocks the camera's view of him. His partner returns showing no sign of panic, and both men can be seen speaking on their cell phones as they observe the unfolding action. Neither of them so much as unholsters his firearm.  

A similar figure appears immediately after the second shoot-out in the food court. He is another federal policeman, emerging briefly from a hiding place behind a giant decorative potted plant in the middle of the seating area. Like the others hiding behind the screen, this man seems to be aware of where the security cameras are. He too is seen speaking deliberately into a cell phone, emerging from hiding only momentarily to assess the scene. When a detachment of federal police arrive on camera, they patrol away from the direction in which the shots were fired, rather than toward it.

A week after their escape, the two patrolmen accused of gunning down three of their fellow police reached out to the Mexican news magazine Proceso to tell their version of the story. Daniel Cruz and Zeferino Morales admitted guilt in the deaths, but denied they were involved in drug trafficking.

“And we know that we are going to pay for that, but we cannot acknowledge the other charges because we never got involved in drug trafficking,” Cruz said. “It is very clear who protected drug trafficking and who provided the protections. [The deceased policemen] always used to say that they got along well with Chief Palomino and that they had it all on a silver platter.”

So what are we to make of all this? A quick rundown of the recent criminal history at the airport is enough to suggest that the shoot-out most likely arose from a dispute between rival cliques of corrupt police over the spoils of drug trafficking. As recently as 2008, the then-chief of the federal police, Edgar Millan, was shot to death in his home in Mexico City. One of the suspects was a former anti-narcotics police officer at the airport, and he had in his possession a notebook with detailed information about drug trafficking there.

Less than a year before the shoot-out, a pilot with Aeromexico was caught at Madrid's airport with 92 pounds of cocaine in his personal luggage. Eight months prior to that, three flight attendants with Aeromexico were caught with more than 300 pounds of cocaine between them. A company providing private security at checkpoints in Mexico City International Airport were also arrested in connection with that case.

The airport is known as a transshipment hub for South American cocaine headed to Europe, as well as a recipient of bulk cash deliveries from the United States.

Officers Cruz and Morales remain fugitives. They said they would turn themselves in when there is a  change in the presidential administration. That change happened in December, but neither man has been heard from. The reward for their capture is around half a million dollars. The third man, their shift supervisor, whom they said had nothing to do with the airport shoot-out, was captured and charged on July 15, 2012. In August, 348 federal police officers at the Mexico City International Airport were replaced and reassigned to other states.

The replacements were police officers who passed a double scrutiny, and an exhaustive vetting process, according to a statement that Chief Palomino made at the time. But only time will tell when the next scandal—or shoot-out—occurs.

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