Vicente Antonio Bermudez Zacarias, a Mexican federal judge who handled cases related to organized crime, was gunned down by an unknown assailant in Mexico state on Monday morning, dying on the way to the hospital.
Bermudez, 37, was shot in the head at point-blank range while jogging near his home in the town of Metepec.
The motive behind Bermudez’s killing is not yet known, but the judge himself has overseen several cases involving high-profile cartel figures.
He was made a federal district judge at the end of 2013 and served on the Fifth District Court for Appeals and Civil Judgments based in Mexico state, and the court handled cases related to organized-crime.
Prior to his appointment to the federal level, Burmudez was a specialized judge, and had a case involving Abigael Gonzalez Valencia, who at one point was the head of Los Cuinis, an organized-crime group tied to the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG) and believed to run the latter group’s finances.
Bermudez also handled legal challenges filed by lawyers for Miguel Treviño, the currently incarcerated leader of the Zetas cartel, and by attorneys representing Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
In March this year, two months after Guzmán was recaptured, Bermudez issued a suspension of the extradition proceedings against the kingpin.
Bermudez’s involvement in organized-crime cases has led to suspicions that cartels or other criminal groups may be linked to his death.
In an interview on Tuesday morning, Guzmán’s lawyers denied suggestions the Sinaloa capo had a role in the killing.
José Refugio Rodríguez, one of Guzmán’s lawyers, told Mexican journalist Carlos Loret that there was no reason to involve Guzmán with the judge’s killing, saying that his client wasn’t affected and didn’t benefit from the resolution of the case on the part of Bermudez, as an appeals case “is only to win time,” he said, according to Mexican newspaper Excelsior.
Carlos Castillo Castillo, another one of Guzmán’s lawyers, downplayed Bermudez’s involvement with the kingpin’s appeal, saying that the judge had not taken his position when the case was considered.
“When this appeal case was settled effectively it gave a full suspension … in order to avoid a possible extradition of Mr. Guzmán,” Castillo told radio host Ciro Gómez Leyva. “But at that moment, at that point, [Bermudez] was still not head of that court.”
Castillo also called it an “abuse” to tie the judge’s killing to Guzmán’s legal situation, while Rodríguez said linking the killing to the judge’s involvement in Guzmán’s appeal “is sensationalism, it is to speak without base.”
‘Something to look out for’
Mexico’s drug war has in the past claimed the lives of Mexican officials, but judges are not usually targeted with lethal violence.
“In Mexico, judges don’t tend to be murdered. You have to look quite hard for another case, even over the last few years. Policemen, politicians, mayors even state governors do tend to get killed, rather than judges,” Al Jazeera’s John Holman reported from Mexico City. “That’s something interesting and maybe something to look out for in Mexico going forward.”
During the years when Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel sat atop Mexico’s narco hierarchy, it was suspected of having an extensive network of officials from every government branch on its payroll, though reportedly more from law-enforcement bodies than elsewhere.
In recent years, the Sinaloa cartel and the CJNG have come into conflict, clashing over territory and attacking high-level cartel figures.
There’s no evidence that Bermudez had been caught up in this feud, though it can’t yet be discounted. (Bermudez was killed not far from Altiplano federal prison, where Treviño is currently held and where Guzmán broke out of in July 2015 and was briefly reincarcerated this year.)
Mexican officials have expressed shock at Bermudez’s killing, and called for a thorough investigation.
“I have given instruction to the attorney general to take up this case, undertake the corresponding investigations and find those responsible for this terrible event,” President Enrique Peña Nieto said during an international meeting of judges that had been scheduled prior to the killing, according to Al Jazeera.
“Federal judges are people who dedicate their lives, their personal, moral and physical integrity to serve federal justice in our country,” said Luis Maria Aguilar Morales, the country’s Supreme Court president.
“They require security and peace conditions that guarantee their independence because in an atmosphere of peace and security, judges can reflect on their decisions,” he added, according to AFP.