Image: Nepomuceno Moreno
Ivan Castaneira  /  AP
Nepomuceno Moreno holds up images of missing people, including his son, top left, during a protest of the Peace Caravan, a civilian anti-crime protest movement, in Mexico's Oaxaca state in September.
updated 11/29/2011 2:30:20 PM ET 2011-11-29T19:30:20

An activist who publicly accused police officers of kidnapping his teenage son was shot to death as he drove through his hometown in northern Mexico, a slaying that instantly fueled a bitter nationwide debate over crime and corruption.

Corrupt officials were being blamed Tuesday by citizen activists who worked with Nepomuceno Moreno in a national anti-crime movement that has been calling for an end to organized crime, police abuse and a military-led government assault on drug cartels.

Patrolling 'smugglers' alley' by air along the Rio Grande

The prosecutor's office in the border state of Sonora told reporters, however, that Moreno had a criminal past and it was that, not activism, which appeared to have led to his death. Officials said Moreno was shot at least five times when he stopped his van at an intersection Monday afternoon in Hermosillo, the capital city Sonora, which borders Arizona.

The rival accounts echoed a wider national dispute.

Officials blamed
Many Mexicans focus the blame for tens of thousands of crime-related deaths on the incompetence and corruption of federal, state and local authorities. President Felipe Calderon, in turn, has outraged crime victims and their families by saying that 90 percent of those slain in a 5-year-old government war on drug cartels were themselves involved in crime.

Moreno, a 56-year-old sidewalk seafood vendor, became one of the most visible faces of Mexico's anti-crime movement after his 18-year-old son Jorge Mario disappeared in July last year.

Saying masked police had snatched his son and two other young men, Moreno pleaded his case directly to Calderon last month in a meeting between the conservative leader and members of poet Javier Sicilia's Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity.

Moreno also said he had been repeatedly threatened by the men who grabbed his son, whom he described as police working with organized crime.\

Mexican trucker gets 16 years for drug tunnels

Sicilia launched his movement after his son Juan Francisco was killed March 28 in the central city of Cuernavaca along with six other people in what officials called a case of mistaken identity by drug-cartel members warring with other criminals. The movement has organized a series of increasingly high-profile marches and protests throughout the country.

Since the meeting with Moreno and other victims' families, Calderon has altered some of his rhetoric about the drug war, saying that victims of violence should be the focus of national attention regardless of whether they had been involved in crime.

Sicilia said Tuesday that Moreno's relatives now feared for their lives, and he focused the blame for the killing on unidentified people in authority.

Family 'terrified'
"The family is terrified," Sicilia told Milenio television. "This is collusion with crime. Otherwise it's not possible for a man to be killed like this. ... I don't know where the state ends and organized crime begins."

A spokesman for the Sonora state attorney general's office, Jose Larrinaga Talamantes, told reporters that the principal line of investigation in Moreno's death was drug trafficking, saying the victim had been involved with organized crime at least since his 1979 arrest in Arizona for heroin smuggling and possession.

In 1997, Moreno was jailed again on drug-related charges, Larrinaga said.

"There are various lines of investigation that remain open, but the principal one is his relationship with organized crime," Larrinaga said. Moreno's son's kidnapping was also being looked at, Larrinaga said.

Violence attributed to organized crime has killed more than 35,000 people between December 2006, when Calderon sent soldiers to his home state of Michoacan in western Mexico, and the end of 2010. Authorities have provided no figures for 2011, although some groups including Sicilia's say the death toll has now climbed above 40,000.

Charges are never filed in most of the deaths.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Danger zone for Americans

  1. Transcript of: Danger zone for Americans

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We're back now with a frightening look at the dangers facing American farmers and ranchers living under the constant threat of violence, in constant fear, all because of where they happen to live and work, along our nation's southern border with Mexico . NBC 's Mark Potter reports tonight in his award winning series of reports THE WAR NEXT DOOR .

    Offscreen Voice #1: There's the bundle right there, a large narcotics load right under the helicopter.

    MARK POTTER reporting: South of the Texas border, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande , a surveillance video of what police say are smugglers loading illicit drugs bound for the United States .

    Offscreen Voice #2: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven bundles.

    POTTER: Day and night , the drugs are floated across the river in rafts and are then often carried across private property in the US, where increasingly American farmers and ranchers along the border say they and their workers are being confronted, even threatened by armed Mexican traffickers.

    General BARRY McCAFFREY , Retired ; It clearly has intimidated US citizens, who in many cases just don't believe they're safe on their own land in their own country.

    Offscreen Voice #3: They went off road, avoided the spikes.

    POTTER: Fearing retribution from Mexican smugglers, this farmer would only speak on camera with his face and voice disguised. He says he was told by a federal agent to protect himself.

    Unidentified Farmer: One of them recommended that I look into buying a bulletproof vest.

    POTTER: While you're farming?

    Farmer: While I'm farming.

    POTTER: The problem for farmers and ranchers isn't just confined to those right on the border. Also affected are land owners miles inland, where smuggling is still a huge problem.

    Dr. MIKE VICKERS: How does this look?

    POTTER: Veterinarian Mike Vickers leads a group of Texas land owners who work closely with law enforcement. They worry about Mexican drug and immigrant smugglers threatening their homes and trampling their land.

    Dr. VICKERS: This fence was cut, no question. It was cut and pulled up.

    POTTER: With hidden cameras, they've documented waves of smugglers crossing private property.

    Dr. VICKERS: You know he's carrying at least 40 pounds of drugs in that backpack. We suspect cocaine.

    POTTER: Vickers says many ranchers have moved their families off their land for safety, while others arm themselves.

    Dr. VICKERS: This is happening on American soil. This is a war zone here. There's no question about it.

    Offscreen Voice #4: Right beside the helicopter there's another crew, about...

    POTTER: The Obama administration and some local officials dispute the war zone claim; but with Mexican traffickers not letting up, US land owners are asking for more federal protection at the front door to their own country. Mark Potter , NBC News , along the Rio Grande .


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