Helicopter crash in Aguascalientes raises questions about attack

26 noviembre, 2022

The death of the Secretary of Public Security of the State of Aguascalientes after a helicopter crash has been a test for the National Action Party government of Teresa Jiménez. The rushed version from the government is that it was an accident, which conflicts with information that opens the possibility it was an attack.

Text by Mónica Cerbón, originally published November 18, 2022 by POPLAB.

At 7:50am on Thursday, November 17, Aguascalientes bore witness to an event without precedent in the state: the death of Porfirio Sánchez Mendoza, the head of the state’s Secretary of Public Security, in what the local government quickly deemed an accident.

The event has put the new government of National Action Party governor Teresa Jiménez Esquivel to the test. Various political actors sent messages of condolence to the state administration and to the families of the victims, at the same time as others questioned what took place.

“I mourn the deaths of Porfirio Sánchez Mendoza, Víctor Manuel Valdez Sánchez, Olegario Andrade Zamorano, Juan Humberto Rincón Martínez and Alejandro Serafín Guerrero. I send my deepest condolences to their families, friends, and the public servants in Aguascalientes,” wrote President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on his official Twitter account.

The governor of Guanajuato state, Diego Dinhue Rodríguez Vallejo, also sent his condolences.

According to available information, at 7am, the Ministerial Police together with the Secretary of Public Security and the National Guard began an operation to search six houses linked to small scale drug dealers in the municipality of Jesús María.

Three of the houses were searched before the crash which killed everyone aboard the helicopter, which occurred at 7:50am, when the Eagle 1 helicopter slammed into a vacant lot in the municipality. The aircraft was completely destroyed.

Just over an hour later, the death of the Secretary and the other four men was confirmed by the state’s Attorney General and the state government. In addition to the death of Sánchez Mendoza, authorities confirmed the deaths of pilot Olegario Andrade Zamorano, Captain Victor Manuel Valdez Sánchez,  and two members of the state police, Juan Humberto Rincón Martínez and Alejandro Serafín Guerrero.

Later, in a press conference, Governor Teresa Jiménez Esquivel affirmed it was an accident, discarding the possibility of an attack. She was accompanied by members of the Secretary of National Defense, as well as Manuel Alonso García, who was then the head of the state’s Criminal Investigation Agency; and Florentino Reyes Berlié, the state government’s General Secretary.

When questioned, the governor did not respond to questions about the evidence she had in order to prove it was an accident. 

She mentioned the helicopter had last received maintenance last September, and that the pilot, Olegario Andrade Zamorano, had carried out a heroic maneuver to avoid crashing near a hospital, and managed to steer towards a vacant lot.

Suspicions about a potential attack were stoked when local media shared a video online in which a witness to the crash, who did not reveal his identity, said he saw between six and seven armed men shoot at the aircraft. One of the bullets hit a helicopter blade, provoking its fall. Later, according to the witness, the men fled on motorcycles.

That version was rejected by Manuel Alonso Garcia, who was brought from Puebla to direct the Criminal Investigations Agency, which is part of the state AG, and which was created by the Jiménez administration in a fast track process in October. During the press conference, García was named the head of the office of the State Secretary of Public Security.

According to García, there is no proof the helicopter was shot at. In a message posted online, he denied that there is evidence of an attack.

“Until now, according to the conditions of the flight and the first information from the investigations done by the state AG, as well as from the personnel who were carrying out the operation on the ground, we do not have evidence that any attack was made on the aircraft,” said Garcia in a video. He added that there was no report from the helicopter, which was connected to the C5-SITEC (the area that oversees security cameras and reports of criminal activity).

Since September, if not earlier, there has been an increase in the appearances of “narcomantas” (banners allegedly created by drug traffickers) in different áreas of the capital and in some municipalities. The banners indicate what appears to be the  beginning of a struggle for territory between trafficking groups, and accuse parts of the state security apparatus of protecting certain groups.

A man with a questionable past

When Porfirio Sánchez Mendoza was named head of Public Security in Aguascalientes by then governor Martín Orozco Sandoval in 2018, it raised alarm bells.

Sánchez Mendoza was part of Luis Cárdenas Palomino’s inner circle, and close to Genaro García Luna, who was head of public security during Felipe Calderón’s administration. Cárdenas Palomino is currently detained for the crime of torture, and García Luna is imprisoned in the United States, where he faces charges for his connections with organized crime.

Over the past years, many negative national security practices under Cárdenas Palomino and García Luna have come to light. During that time, Porfirio Sánchez Mendoza worked for, and was even in charge of, various state agencies accused of torture and faking investigations.

He was the head of Police Investigation of the Federal Investigation Agency (AFI), which was part of the now extinct Attorney General of the Republic (PGR), and later, second in command at the same.

Between 2007 and 2018, after he left AFI, he held various positions in the Federal Police, including head of undercover operations, general director of trafficking and contraband, coordinator of techniques and operation, and coordinator of field investigations for the crime of kidnapping.

His last position with the Federal Police was as director of tactical response in the Special Operations Coordination.

In February, 2022, he was detained by members of the army and the Attorney General of the Republic (FGR) and accused of torture, making false declarations, and abusing authorities. He was imprisoned for six months, and released in September. 

Once freed, Sánchez Mendoza was sworn in as head of the Secretary of Public Security of Aguascalientes, a position he had maintained since the beginning of the Jiménez administration.

Last year, Sánchez Mendoza was denounced by feminist groups and human rights organizations following the violent detention of young women on March 8, International Women’s Day.

That day, Sánchez Mendoza was recorded as a direct participant in the violent detentions of women, who he insulted as he ordered their arrests. Twenty-two women were detained, and eight of them were imprisoned for eight days.

Mónica Cerbón is an investigative journalist and producer, she’s originally from Aguascalientes. Member of Conectas HUB and winner of the IPYS prize 2020-2021. @Monica_Cerbon

This article was written by POPLAB, a member of the media alliance of the Red de Periodistas de a Pie. You can read the original here.