Tijuanan columnist Hector Felix Miranda's murder stirs PEN West dust-up

An unquiet death grows louder

"We’d like to see Felix become a case that all of Southern California can use to press Mexico for reforms..."
  • "We’d like to see Felix become a case that all of Southern California can use to press Mexico for reforms..."
  • Image by Miguel Cervantes Sahagun

Five years have passed since two fatal shotgun rounds were fired through the windshield of Hector Felix Miranda’s blue Ford LTD on a subdued residential street in Tijuana. As a caustic and popular columnist for the Tijuanan newsweekly Zeta, Felix’s mysterious assassination, possibly linked to Jorge Hank Rhon, a former president of Caliente racetrack, generated an outcry that remains undiminished, and which may soon, in fact, start growing. Last month the executive board of PEN West, the Los Angeles branch of the international organization that monitors press and literary freedom, voted to adopt Felix as a “candidate of honor.” While this posthumous award, and the publicity it may generate, should be of little solace to Felix, the PEN West board hopes his adoption will serve as a discomfort to the administration of Mexico’s President Salinas.

Such PEN West hopes have, however, in the past, stirred unwanted controversy, and not all of it in Mexico. On March 8, 1992, Merle Linda Wolin, a former Latin America correspondent for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, had some unpleasant things to say about PEN West’s well-intentioned aspirations. In a tartly worded opinion piece printed in the L.A. Times, Wolin alleged that PEN West had been less than ethical in its investigations of the Mexican government’s colorful relation to freedom of the press. Wolin had taken part in a November 1991 PEN West-sponsored fact-finding mission to Mexico. In her Times article, she charged that the PEN West delegation had drafted its report on the deaths of Mexican journalists and other alleged governmental abuses prior to the fact-finding mission, and that much of the information in the report itself was “false or unsubstantiated, or had been edited to suit the narrow political purposes of a few [PEN West] members.” Wolin was particularly irked that the report had been presented at a subsequent PEN International convention in Vienna, at which the organization ratified a resolution that posited Mexico’s human rights violations as means to blocking, or delaying, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Wolin had not been shy about her displeasure. In January 1992, El Nacional, a pro-government Mexico City daily, covered her accusations and the PEN International resolution for two full weeks. Following Wolin’s March 1992 L. A. Times opinion piece, PEN West dismissed her article as “replete with the sort of unsubstantiated allegations, deliberately self-serving distortions of reality, and outright lies that we at PEN have come to expect from Wolin.”

Such ruckus could only have been unwelcomed by PEN West, which, according to Jack Miles, books editor for the L.A. Times, has only in the past few years gained some measure of respectability.[PEN West members] aren’t real writers, they’re screenwriters,’ goes a dismissal of PEN West still heard in some literary circles,” according to Miles.) One former PEN West member, writing in Wolin’s support to the Times, said, “I can understand [Wolin’s] frustration with the conduct of its governing board. The leaders of the Los Angeles PEN chapter have often overwhelmed me with their shallowness. They may be activists for the ‘freedom to write,’ but their main activity seems to be planning Brentwood garden parties. They are situation-comedy liberals.” Margaret Saine, the PEN West member assigned to Hector Felix Miranda’s case, writes neither screenplays nor situation comedies. As the weary chairperson of the foreign languages department at Chapman College in Orange, California, her interests are mainly academic. Born in Nuremburg, Germany, Saine came to the United States in 1963 and describes herself as a sort of “one-man army against Hitler and his kind. I can’t do much, but I do what I can.” Saine is not much interested in the Wolin scandal, saying of it only that, “ [Wolin] didn’t understand the purpose of the mission, and didn’t understand PEN’s overall aims. We are an advocacy group. We’re not just an objective, fact-finding organization. The fact was that there had been documented abuses. This all happened, mind you, before Salinas appointed the head of the National Human Rights Commission as his Attorney General.”

Saine does concede that Felix’s election as a “candidate of honor” was itself the subject of some debate by the PEN West board. “Usually, PEN helps writers who are in prison, or in exile. The difference with Felix is, of course, that he is dead. There were some members who felt that we should spend our resources trying to help the living. But others brought up the question of impunity — should governments, or others who are responsible, be allowed to get away with it. There are so many writers in Latin America who are killed that some of us felt that if we didn’t pursue these cases, the authorities would continue killing because, unlike putting someone in prison, there would be no continuous pressure.”

Saine says the time was ripe for PEN to elect Felix as a candidate of honor for several reasons. The Salinas administration, goaded by NAFTA worries, has taken an increasing interest in human rights abuses in Baja California. She cites as an example Salinas’s recent efforts to push Baja authorities into a full investigation of the death of Joe Amado, a U.S. citizen who died under suspicious circumstances in June 1992 in a Rosarito jail.

“We’re beginning to see that border areas are particularly sensitive to human rights abuses. And San Diego and Tijuana are not isolated. The border area includes all of Southern California. We’d like to see Felix become a case that all of Southern California can use to press Mexico for reforms, especially in light of NAFTA.”

Although three men have been arrested and charged with Felix’s murder, the “intellectual author of the crime” — whoever it was that actually ordered the killing — is still at large. And Saine says PEN West wants to see this person brought to justice. Recently, PEN West drafted and sent a letter, signed by Aram Saroyan, son of William, to Salinas in Mexico City, asking for an exhaustive investigation leading to the crime’s “intellectual author.” The Salinas administration’s speedy response simply indicated that the letter had been passed on to the Baja California, state government.

“Their letter was written in an odd fashion,” says Saine. “It was signed by the assistant to the attorney general, who had sent the letter to Baja California. Their letter actually indicated that the attorney general may have never seen our letter.”

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