1998 – Tijuana's grisliest year in review

In a state of bloody mayhem

'Drug War Massacre at El Sauzal." "Tijuana Lawyer's Son Slain." "Mexican Army Tied to Drug Gang." "Tijuana Gunmen Slay 6." "Resort Seized By Mexican Drug Agents." "7 Mexican Border Agents Held In Slaying." "Bomb Call Shuts Border 2 Hours." "Corruption Stains Elite Police Force."

In other words, 1998 was a hell of a year for crime in Tijuana.

"Nineteen ninety-eight," says human-rights activist Victor Clark Alfaro, "was the most violent year in the history of Tijuana."

Baja California's state prosecutor has the figures that bear Clark out. "There were 357 murders in Tijuana last year," says Carlo Castillo, the state prosecutor's spokesman. "That's up from 318 in 1997."

The numbers are staggering when compared to the city of San Diego's 42 murders. San Diego's population is roughly equivalent to Tijuana's 1.2 million. Tijuana's murder rate is more like that of L.A.'s (414), which has four times Tijuana's population.

If the '90s have given Tijuana its wildest ride yet -- and they have -- '98 was the year that topped them all. From a random sampling of the year's news, you might be forgiven for thinking there was a war going on:

April 7: Captain José Luis López Barco, 59, a 31-year veteran of the municipal police force, shot and killed near the Otay Mesa border crossing, trying to stop a tractor-trailer reportedly loaded with marijuana.

April 22: Roberto Pareyón Rosas, 24, son of a well-known labor lawyer, found slumped inside his black 1997 Chevrolet in the well-to-do Chapultepec district, dead from three point-blank shots to the face. Federal authorities say he is a "narco-junior," a wealthy, young cartel thrill killer.

April 24: Mexican federal narcotics agents raid and seize the plush Oasis Resort Hotel and Convention Center, two miles north of Rosarito Beach. Attorney General's Office says it's owned by "El Caballo," Arellano Félix drug cartel council member Manuel Aguirre Galindo.

May 16: San Diego police arrest alleged Mexican money-launderers at Loew's Coronado Resort, Sheraton Hotel and Marina on Harbor Island Drive, and Marriott Suites in downtown San Diego. Tijuana shown to be international crossroad in drug trade as more than 100 people and many banks are indicted for laundering in "Operation Casablanca."

Mid-October, there was the killing of six people by Tijuana gunmen; mid-November, the execution of two students on the campus of the Autonomous University of Baja California; late December, the arrest of suspected snipers just before a visit of Mexico's president Ernesto Zedillo to Tijuana; and on the first of January, the assassination of Ovidio Santos Romo, the newly appointed assistant police chief of Tecate.

The climax of Tijuana's grisly year had to be the September 17 massacre of three families at El Sauzal near Ensenada -- 19 men, women, and children in all -- the worst massacre in Baja California history, according to Mexican officials. Panic appeared to permeate both sides of the border, from the governor of Baja California to the editorial writers of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Two weeks before he died suddenly of a heart attack, Baja governor Héctor Terán Terán said publicly that violence in his state had gone beyond his ability to control it.

When Tijuana's Mayor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán gave his farewell speech at the end of his term last November 25, he admitted public safety was the city's number-one problem. Héctor Castellanos, the Tijuana president of the National Action Party or PAN (Partido Acción Nacional), told the Union-Tribune "the city's resources are not sufficient to resolve the problems.... The city keeps growing in an anarchic and disorderly manner."

The massacre, editorialized the U-T, was the "worst example of the murder and mayhem inflicted on Mexico.... Narcotics trafficking threatens to overrun our southern neighbor."

Is Tijuana reaching a meltdown?

Curiously, the one man who almost became a statistic himself, Zeta newsmagazine's editor Jésus Blancornelas, says he has reasons to feel optimistic.

"Definitely 1998 was the most violent year in Baja California. But the causes are various," he says.

"The first is the traditional battles [among] narco-traffickers. The criminal organizations. They were the most important. But the second cause is that many, many people are coming up from the interior of Mexico to Tijuana who want to cross the border. Then, when they find they can't cross, or when they [end up] back here from the U.S., they find themselves temporarily in Tijuana. That's when they commit crimes."

Tijuana, November 27, 1997.  "My father's been hit, and they killed Valero, the bodyguard."

Tijuana, November 27, 1997. "My father's been hit, and they killed Valero, the bodyguard."

Blancornelas, 62, survived an ambush by cartel gunmen November 27, 1997. He now lives under the 24-hour protection of ten machine-gun-toting soldiers from the Mexican army. The squad is always within sight, both at Zeta's office and in his home, which he travels to and from in an armored car.

Still, he says most of Tijuana's violence doesn't come from the feared Arellano brothers and other organized drug cartels but from "disorganized crime."

"The major number of crimes are lower-level crimes. Crimes of the barrios. Crimes of young people who sell crystal, who sell small amounts of drugs, who break into houses to steal a television set so they can buy drugs with the proceeds. The greatest number of murders during 1998 were carried out in these lower echelons. Disorganized crime. Amateurs. Not professionals."

He insists that the availability of guns from San Diego is a significant factor in the rising murder rate. "You can't get pistols from Mexico, because Mexico doesn't sell them. In the U.S. you have many pistols! When a carload of Barrio Logan types passes from Tijuana to San Ysidro, they're usually pulled over into secondary and inspected. But going south [into Mexico], they're not checked. That's how the arms get through. You buy drugs, Tijuana buys arms."

Blancornelas says he believes the number of organized-crime killings by important narco-traffickers is going down -- despite the massacre at El Sauzal.

"For example, the big narco-traffickers control cocaine, heroin, marijuana," he says. "The minor drug traffickers control crystal. You can make that in your own home. Then they sell them in the alleys. Those who buy may go into houses, steal a television for the money, surprise a housewife, kill her -- that's how these 'minor' drug murders happen."

The editor says the big dealers' influence inside the Tijuana police department is diminishing as pressures grow for law enforcement to clean up its act. "The police have to change. Already now people are clamoring for them to change. They have to change the way things are. Because it can't be allowed to go on."

State police are overwhelmed by the number of crimes they have to investigate and by the lack of contact between different forces, he says. "Yesterday's crimes don't get investigated. They accumulate.... In other words, the state police don't have the capacity to cope [with their caseload]."

Blancornelas says the police force that functions best in Tijuana, though they don't have the best facilities, is the much-maligned municipal police, whose function is officially limited to handling street patrol and traffic duties.

"They are the most professional police we have. Statistics show that when somebody's killed, a bank is robbed, a house is burgled, the first on the scene are the municipal police. They make the most important captures and then they send them on to the federal [or state] police. Of course, I'm sure that if you ask Victor Clark, he'll say the municipal police [are guilty of] many human-rights violations. The reality is the municipal police are the ones that get the most complaints, but here's another important fact: in 1998 more municipal police died precisely because they were the ones [most often pursuing] criminals."

For Clark, who runs Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights, the focus is on corruption within the state and federal police, who are charged with handling all serious crime.

"Have you been following the news in the past two or three months in our state?" he asks. "There is a public fight between the attorney general of the state, Marco Antonio de la Fuente, and the director of the federal prosecutor's office in Baja California [General José Luis Chávez]. Especially from the attorney general, who says that these [federal] people are corrupted, that they must return to Mexico City. When you see this fight in the political discourse, that the attorney general is accusing the others, something is moving underground. And also it means that they are fighting for some interest. That they are touching interests that somebody wants to control. Either one."

Who won? Clark says that two weeks ago, General Chávez was promoted to a post back in Mexico City.

This impasse is partly why Jésus Blancornelas is glad to see army personnel being used by the federal prosecutor's office (Procuradoria General de la República, commonly known as the PGR) to handle anti-narcotics duties. Since 1996 the Mexican government has been using the army because it has felt that anti-drug units within the PGR were too corrupted by the cartels. Terán Terán's successor as Baja California governor, Alejandro González Alcocer, spoke out against using the military for police work. According to reports in the Union-Tribune, he felt the presence of soldiers in the PGR was "an error."

Not so, says Blancornelas. "I look at results," he says. "The [soldiers] get better results than the civilian [law officers]. They have a lot of discipline. In 1997, '98 they captured some very important narco-traffickers in Tijuana, including Amado Cruz Anguiano [accused of being a money launderer for the Arellano brothers]."

But in the long term, Blancornelas, like the new governor, recognizes what's needed is a clean and proficient civilian police force.

"Unfortunately the state and federal police don't share information. It is a personal thing between chief and chief. It's not [a problem] between departments. The most important thing we can do is professionalize the police. We don't have true professional police officers. It's not money. We have that. The [forces] need professionalizing. If I start up a hospital, I don't go to hire curanderos -- witches -- I'm going to hire doctors. If I go to set up the police, I'm going to hire good policemen; but they take licenciados who before were chiefs of [public] relations or who were office chiefs.... They are not professionals. We need professional policemen."

The good news, says the PGR's Carlo Castillo, speaking from Mexicali, is that 60 percent of last year's 357 murders have been "investigated positively."

Blancornelas quotes more good news: 40 percent of the 5691 cars stolen in Tijuana in 1998 were recovered; and from 1000 encounters with armed individuals that Tijuana police faced during 1998, they managed to confiscate 737 weapons.

Castillo also feels it's time to try a new kind of cross-border cooperation. "It's no good, police with police. We want high-level relations between attorneys general. We want formal relations between the security forces of California and Baja California, signed. We don't want police relations. No police. We want exchange of technology, science, and investigation. We have information that's good for you, you have information that's good for us, for the prosecution of crimes."

And he says the state police are making a serious effort to clean up their own internal problems, creating Asuntos Internos, an internal affairs watchdog body. "Something like the police of the police," he says. "They make an investigation to make sure there are no drugs, no corruption, no [bribe] money."

The bad news may be that with the peso losing power, and an expected increase of Central American migrants coming to Tijuana -- stimulated by the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Mitch -- an end to Blancornelas's "disorganized crime" wave could be a long way off.

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