New state police chief Héctor Huerta plans to root out corruption

"He is like an island in a big ocean"

Licenciado Héctor Huerta Suárez, the State Judicial Police station commander, looks up at the familiar gray portrait on the wall beside his new desk. "I love that man," he says. "Emiliano Zapata is my hero."

Zapata led the Mexican Revolution nearly 90 years ago. He fought for agrarian reform and the restoration of land to the Indians. He was known for his incorruptibility.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Tijuana's State Judicial Police. They're currently most famous for a recent gun battle they allegedly fought against federal forces -- in defense of drug cartel members. A 1993 investigation accused state police of torturing prisoners, selling their own police credentials to the highest bidders, and charging U.S. insurance companies up to $2000 to reclaim stolen American-owned cars. It became common to see state police agents using stolen U.S. cars as their patrol vehicles.

But Héctor Huerta says he is part of a new wave that's going to change all that. The new police chief of this new police station in the Otay Mesa section of Tijuana isn't a policeman at all. He's a lawyer. He says that on January 7, 1998, the state attorney general, Marco Antonio de la Fuente Villareal, asked him to join "about ten" other lawyers to take positions in the state police's various stations around the city. The idea was to help bring law and order and some respect back to the nearly 2000-strong police force.

For most of the year, Huerta was in charge of homicide in the Rosarito Beach area. Two months ago, Licensiado de la Fuente asked him to take the job as chief of this just-built Otay Mesa station, covering a 25-mile stretch of borderline from San Ysidro to Rodriguez airport and on to Tecate.

But the man who wrote the 1993 investigation report says the idea of someone like Huerta bucking the system is worrisome. "I don't know if Héctor wants to become a hero in society," says Licenciado Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights. "It is so difficult because he can be killed. There are certain limits you cannot exceed. If you take the next step, dar el siguente paso, you're signing your death sentence."

Huerta felt the chill earlier this year, when the old guard made it clear they didn't like non-cops like Huerta telling them what to do. "Oh yes. They used to fight, not because they didn't like us, but because they didn't feel it was okay for an attorney, and not a police officer, to be chief of police," says the wiry 34-year-old Huerta. "They say that we are too young to understand or too young to try to change anything. But that is my personal reason to join, to change an institution that had the worst reputation in the Mexican police."

Today the station's cells were supposed to open for business, but the rubberized blue paint on the floor hasn't dried yet. In bare new offices next door, plainclothes detectives with large handlebar mustaches and big black guns stuck into their jeans check a pinned map of the area. Bloody faces of murder victims stare out from pictures on cork boards.

Some cops wear blue jackets with white letters across the backs. MPFC. Ministerio Público del Fuero Común(Common Jurisdiction of the District Attorney). They're the nearest thing to a uniform here. State police fit between municipal and federal forces. They're the plainclothes detectives who deal with all felonies except for drug trafficking and firearms violations. They leave those offenses to the federales and misdemeanors to the municipal cops.

"I'm just putting in the grass over there," Huerta says, speaking as if he's a proud new homeowner, as we walk outside. "And I have to put my trees on my land." He points to rows of young, spindly ficus lining the compound. "They gave me the building with no grass, no trees. So I called the city government, and they gave me all these."

He has also been given 25 officers, 5 secretaries, 3 deputy district attorneys, and 7 assistant police. "Forty people. Even though it's brand new, they can't all [fit]. Only the police who are working," he says.

You can tell which cars in the yard are recovered stolen vehicles -- they're the dirty ones. "It used to be that police officers here in Tijuana used a stolen car from the United States for work. Part of the reason was that the government couldn't buy them their own patrol cars. But here, that is a thing of the past. I put a sign on the wall, that they are not to use stolen cars. Not even cars that are not stolen that have an American plate on. If it is not Mexican, already imported, it's not [to be] used."

But everything in this border world, he acknowledges, conspires to tempt cops to bend the rules. Especially here near the Otay Mesa crossing, where huge amounts of cargo and containers move both ways across the line.

"The average salary on my staff is around $110, maybe $130 a week, under $500 a month," says Huerta, who gets $1300 a month as chief. "If you have a police officer working for so little money, and a drug lord offers them five, ten times that amount just to let them pass through our jurisdiction, of course there is a very big temptation. So cops have to be people who not only don't like money as the first thing in their life, but have strong family stability, strong values.

"It's not easy. I cannot put my hand in the fire and say that none of my officers have a problem like that. But what I can assure you is that if there is a police officer who is selling protection to that kind of people, of course he will appear before me. Not like before, when they were doing nothing and working with the drug lords. Now they know that if I catch them, the least I'll do is remove them from my jurisdiction."

He swears there is no chance he'll allow his cops to use torture "interrogation" methods such as the beatings, electric shock, and plastic bag asphyxiation techniques human rights activists have alleged in the past.

And he's stopped all use of aspirinas -- ex-cops or wannabe cops working freelance at recovering stolen cars and goods for the police. The aspirinas drew no salary from the state and have had the reputation of making money through extortion or robbery.

"The old officers said they were useful because we can't afford to hire enough legitimate police," Huerta says. "But the truth is we'll never have enough officers. Three cars a day are stolen in this area. We get maybe seven or ten burglaries a day. Burglars from all over the city come to work in this place. But you don't solve one bad thing with another."

It's 10:00 p.m. Huerta drives his official white Crown Victoria through the dark canyons west of Otay. Yes, he says, there are limits to what he can safely do. "I know that there are many, many drugs involved in my jurisdiction. You must use good judgment, take precautions. I don't try to push too hard because you can have problems [with other police]. All the police get jealous and [say] you are not doing your job at the state level, because you are trying to solve the other [federal-assigned, drug] ones. The only time that we hit on them is when it's open.... But we don't do investigations."

He says it's not just corruption, it's also law enforcement turf wars that make things so tough. He points to an old, beat-up car weaving in the lane to the right of us. "For example, if I catch that guy right now, as the state police, I could call on the radio and find out if a state judge [had] issued a warrant against him. But I could not possibly know if there is a federal warrant for that guy. Why? Because we don't share information right now. That's great for criminals. They're happy we don't share everything. The good criminals -- people who know how to be a criminal, who studied how to be a criminal -- they're free. Ninety percent of the population in penitentiaries are poor people who don't know how to play with the system."

Huerta used to be in private practice. "I was a litigator in penal law here in Tijuana. I took this job for two reasons: one -- I've got to be honest with you -- legal practice in Tijuana or Mexico is not as good pay as the American practice. But, two, I also love public work, I love politics. You've got to start somewhere."

Huerta gets some of his drive to reform from membership in the left-of-center prd (Partido de la Revolución Democrática). "There is the new kind of young people around, 35 years old and younger. We think that we can change things. Why? Because we're the generation after the '60s and '70s, when many more people started going to school. The people who can't read are [fewer]. People have a chance at least [to go to] elementary school, and more people attend university now. That proves the only way to change the masses and countries is through education. And the only way we [in the state police] can prove to Mexican citizens and United States citizens that things are changing is to give all the information that we have and show everything we have and work in front of everybody, so everybody knows for a fact that things are changing, the deputies are changing, and we're trying to make a novel and faithful effort to build a new country. Victor [Clark] can make a surprise visit here any time he wants."

"Héctor Huerta es como una isla en el mar," replies Clark, the human rights activist and social anthropologist. "He is like an island in a big ocean. Probably there are other small islands like him, but the ocean of corruption is very big."

Clark says he doesn't doubt Huerta's sincerity. "It is true that there are important efforts to try to clean up the state police, but it is also true that the levels of corruption are stronger. It is a problem of interest inside the state police, because the low salaries, the possibilities of receiving money through corruption, are very [tempting]."

And if Huerta tries too hard, says Clark ominously, he will become a roadblock others will want to clear. "If Héctor touches interests that bother other groups, his life will be in danger. Drugs are a federal jurisdiction, but it is true that many state police [still] protect drug traffickers [against] federal agents. It's the main problem that they have between them and the federales. It is a confrontation, a fight between them over the groups they protect.

"Héctor is only a minor part of all these things. Corruption in Mexico is institutionalized. It is a problem of national security, and not only drugs. Organized crime is also kidnapping, robbing banks, and trafficking arms southward from the United States."

And, Clark says, for every corrupt cop and official on the Mexican side, there's another on the American side too.

"If you have people who are [taking] large amounts of drugs through Tijuana or through El Paso or through Nogales, it is because they are giving money to Mexican and to American authorities. You cannot enter with a ton of cocaine in Los Angeles and distribute it without paying someone money. When you speak with Mexican authorities off the record, they blame the American authorities, saying that they also are as corrupted as Mexicans, that the difference is that in our country, at least it is recognized by society. At least some of our cartel leaders are in jail. In the United States they don't publicly recognize the levels of corruption. The American media is more interested in the Lewinsky-Clinton case. It gives the impression that the corrupted people are only south [of the border]."

But Clark, who will be a visiting professor next year at SDSU, doesn't underestimate the challenge Huerta is taking on. "I'm not going to advise him to become corrupted," he says, "but it is difficult in these times, at this moment in Mexico's history, to become a hero, because the risk is you'll be killed. So my advice for Héctor is that he [should] know how far he can go. Because you know that if you cross the line, you will not be alive the next day."

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