A Crusader Falls

updated 03/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/30/1992 01:00AM

FOLDED INSIDE THE SHOCK OF Manuel de Dios Unanue's murder on March 11 was another small surprise: He had died sitting in a restaurant with his back to the door. For years death threats had been trailing this crusading Hispanic journalist like a cloud of bees. Though he scoffed at them, De Dios—a scourge of drug lords and crooked public officials—did make it a rule when dining out to position himself where he could keep a wary eye on the entrance. Not so, however, that Wednesday evening, as he perched at the bar of Meson Asturias restaurant in the New York City borough of Queens, near his home. So it was that a slim Hispanic man in a hooded gray sweatshirt was able to slip up behind him, fire two 9-mm bullets into his head and run, leaving De Dios dead, faceup on the floor. Next day a detective was calling the murder an extraordinary event: "It looks like all the rules are off."

Still, if any muckraker in New-York City was ever ripe for a hit, it was this one. The Cuban-born De Dios, 48, had made such a reputation as a firebrand—particularly with his whiplash editing in the '80s of El Diario-La Prensa, the city's largest Spanish-language daily—that "those of us who knew him always expected he'd be killed," says Rossana Rosado, the paper's former city editor. "There was almost a zaniness to Manuel, one step beyond crusading." Along with his dedication and courage, says El Diario publisher Carlos Ramirez, "he took pleasure in pushing people's buttons, in provoking them. That's what got his adrenaline flowing and overrode any fear."

Routinely, De Dios would publish names of drug dealers and photos of locations where drugs were sold. So clamorous was he that police last week were looking into at least eight possible motives for his slaying. Perhaps De Dios antagonized powerful figures in Puerto Rico with his recent accusations of police and government conspiracy there. Or perhaps an extremist Cuban exile group, like Omega 7, decided to kill him for favoring dialogue with Castro. (The group is suspected of having once planted a bomb in El Diario's lobby.)

But the heavy betting now, both among detectives and journalists, is that De Dios was murdered because of his holy war on the Colombian drug cartels. "He was absolutely the most prominent American journalist to expose the cartels," says Rosado. Over the years, De Dios tattooed the drug lords with exposés, including a 1988 book, The Secrets of the Medellín Cartel. At the time of his death he was at work on another volume, on the Cali cartel. His murder may thus be a nasty watershed: Though more than 50 journalists have been killed in Colombia in the past decade, this would mark the first time that the smugglers' revenge has jumped to the U.S. As Miguel Perez, editor of the New York weekly Latino News and a friend of De Dios, says, "Many of us are very shook up. We thought we were immune."

This mood of unease, mingled with mourning for De Dios himself, prompted a great wash of telephone calls to El Diario on the day after his death. Those who had known De Dios shared memories of him: of his chain-smoking, his natty three-piece suits, his relish for fine foods and sambuca, and the intemperate idealism that went back to his youth.

He got a bellyful of repressive governments early on. The De Dios family, headed by a businessman father, bounced from Castro's Cuba to Franco's Spain to, finally, Puerto Rico in 1967. After earning a master's degree in criminal justice from the Inter American University, De Dios migrated to New York City in 1973. There, while working for the Hispanic Criminal Justice Task Force, a government agency, the restive De Dios exposed abuses of migrant workers from Puerto Rico. In 1977 he joined El Diario and edited it, commando-style, from 1984 to 1989. Since then he had founded two magazines, Cambio XXI (Change in the 21st Century) and Crimen (Crime).

De Dios was buried on Saturday, March 14, in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, as rain sifted through the surrounding cypress trees. His mother, three sisters and a brother placed small Cuban and Puerto Rican flags on his coffin. De Dios's girlfriend, Vicky Sanchez, editor of a U.S. soccer publication, tended their 2-year-old daughter, Melody. Reportedly, becoming a father had mellowed De Dios a trifle. "He had become very dedicated to his family," says one friend.

Back in America, many newspeople were taking stock of their risks in the pall of his death. But for a core of Hispanic journalists, fighting the Latin American drug lords seems still to have a messianic appeal. "Mr. de Dios's cause is also my cause," says Hector Rodriguez, an El Diario reporter. "My wife and three kids, they are prepared for it, if I am killed. This is what I chose, and they know it."

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