DALLAS — An American businessman, held prisoner for 77 days in a small, sweltering prison in Ojinaga, Mexico, on a highly questionable murder charge, was released Friday evening and yesterday celebrated with hundreds of family members and friends who had vigorously campaigned for his release.
“I thank God for my release and for the incredible show of support from friends on both sides of the border,” Jesus Herrera said after an appeals court judge in Chihuahua, the state capital, ruled there was insufficient evidence against him.
“I’m still in shock,” said Mr. Herrera, 42, who was arrested April 29 as he visited Ojinaga — directly across the International Bridge from Presidio, Texas — to see friends. He said the incarceration had “turned my life upside down. It was a great injustice.”
Police in Ojinaga said Mr. Herrera shot and killed a crusading Mexican reporter, Jose Luis Ortega Mata, on a darkly lit street on Feb. 19. Mr. Ortega had written several stories about leading drug traffickers in the area for Seminario Ojinaga (Ojinaga Weekly). They said they had two eyewitnesses.
The main witness was a heroin-addicted prostitute, Guadalupe Valenzuela, who described the killer as a short, dark-skinned man with a mustache. Mr. Herrera is tall, slender and light-skinned.
A few days after Mrs. Valenzuela’s statement, the police chief in Ojinaga, Ramon Cardona, released jail logs that proved Mrs. Valenzuela had been in police custody that night and could not have witnessed the slaying.
A second witness later recanted, claiming that he had been bribed by a police official — not Mr. Cardona — to bolster the statement.
As the days went on, protesters from both sides of the border bombarded legislators, picketed at the bridge and lobbied human rights and journalism groups for justice for “Junie,” as Mr. Herrera is known.
Once the bridge was closed for five hours with more than 250 sign-carrying demonstrators angrily telling Mexican officials that Ojinagans would no longer be allowed to cross to shop in Presidio. Mr. Herrera sent a written note out, asking his backers to disassemble, saying he feared retaliation.
“I don’t know how they can keep holding me,” Mr. Herrera told The Washington Times by phone a few weeks ago after one of several court hearings ended with no change in his status.
“It’s a terrible thing to be in jail,” he said yesterday. “I’ve never committed a crime, never been arrested in my whole life.”
Under Mexican law, an accused person must prove his innocence — unlike the U.S. system of justice, which treats a person as innocent until proven guilty.
Enjoying his first day of freedom since April, Mr. Herrera said he would appreciate life more than before.
Would he venture back across the border soon?
“Sure,” he replied quickly. “I have lots of friends there. I have done nothing illegal so why wouldn’t I feel free to go over to OJ?”