HERMOSILLO, Sonora — An activist who publicly accused police officers of kidnapping his teenage son was shot to death in an attack that instantly fueled Mexico's 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.
The prosecutor's office in the northern 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 of Sonora, which borders Arizona.
The exchange of blame for Moreno's death echoed a wider national dispute.
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 gave the president documents about his son's case, and told Calderon that he feared for his own security and the safety of his family, a spokesman for the movement said. Moreno said in a video interview posted by the movement online that he had been repeatedly threatened by the men who grabbed his son, whom he described as police working with organized crime.
"We hold state and federal authorities responsible for their inaction in this death, for not responding to the requests for protection put forth by our comrade," spokesman Pietro Ameglio said.
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.
"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.
Castillo reported from Mexico City. Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.