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Jury Convicts Colombian Teen in Slaying of Anti-Drug Journalist

March 10, 1994

NEW YORK (AP) _ A Colombian teen-ager was convicted Wednesday in the contract killing of a crusading anti-drug journalist who was gunned down on what authorities said were orders from a drug lord.

Wilson Alejandro Mejia-Velez, 19, was convicted of violating federal interstate commerce laws in the murder-for-hire plot that involved telephone calls between Colombia and the United States.

Manuel de Dios Unanue, the former editor in chief of El Diario-La Prensa, a New York-based Spanish-language daily, was sitting at a bar on March 11, 1992, when a hooded gunman walked up and shot him twice in the back of the head.

Prosecutors said Mejia-Velez carried out the hit on orders of Colombia’s Cali drug cartel to silence de Dios’ attacks on drug lords in his two magazines and a book he was about to begin.

De Dios’ former companion and business partner, Victoria Sanchez, cried when the verdict was read.

″Justice has been done for Manuel, for his daughter, for his family and for all the journalists killed by the drug lords,″ she said.

Jurors deliberated seven hours and returned their verdict shortly after asking the judge for a definition of reasonable doubt. Mejia-Velez faces up to life in prison. The judge did not set a sentencing date.

The defendant, wearing headphones and listening as his fate was translated from English to Spanish, remained poker-faced as the jury forewoman announced the verdict, which came on his birthday.

Mejia-Velez’s mother, Rosalba Velez de Mejia, broke into tears after the verdict. ″I’d rather be killed,″ she said in Spanish. ″Kill me, too.″

During the two-week trial, defense lawyer Susan Kellman tried to cast doubt on the credibility of Mejia-Velez’s two accomplices, who plea-bargained with prosecutors and identified Mejia-Velez as the triggerman. She called them liars ″worse than garbage.″

Kellman argued that Mejia-Velez was not the gunman, but a convenient patsy for the others. She said she would appeal.

Prosecutors said Cali cocaine baron Jose Santacruz Londono, a fugitive, had offered $50,000 for the execution. The murder contract was then subcontracted out several times until it reached Mejia-Velez and two others, who agreed to do it for $5,000 a piece, they said.

Mejia-Velez’s two accomplices testified they assumed their target was a snitch or drug dealer and did not know until later that de Dios was a well- known journalist.

De Dios, 48, had been writing, editing and publishing two magazines, Cambio XXI and Crimen, which is Spanish for crime.

In his first issue of Crimen, which came out shortly before his death, he wrote a story about authorities breaking up a cell of the Cali drug ring. In it, he named Santacruz and Gilberto Rodriquez-Orejuela as ring leaders. De Dios also was about to begin writing a book about the Cali cartel.

The two key government witnesses, Elkin Farley Salazar and Jose Jaime Benitez, were among six people who plea-bargained with prosecutors on charges ranging from drug dealing to murder. They testified that they stayed in the car while Mejia-Velez killed de Dios.

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