Bonita's First Blood

When the kids get off the trolley at San Ysidro these spring evenings, you sense the bravado. With so much news about murders, cartels, allegations of government corruption, it's impossible to think about Tijuana the way their moms and dads did when they were young. "Tijuana Jail" sounds more ominous now than when it was just a Kingston Trio song.

Yet for all the narco-corruption, murders, kidnappings, people- and gun-smuggling going on -- perhaps partly because of it -- the thrill of hitting Revolución and the Zona Rio is as strong as ever.

But if it's thrills these kids want, why bother crossing the border? Recent San Diego murders, attempted murders, and evidence of narco-traffickers north of the border makes some wonder whether -- despite Operation Gatekeeper and the triple fence -- Tijuana's violence isn't already infecting San Diego.

The latest wake-up call came March 20, at 1:30 a.m. when masked gunmen entered the million-dollar Bonita home of Tijuana businessman Rigoberto Morfin and demanded $80,000. According to the sheriff's department, when Morfin and his wife Esperanza said they "didn't keep that kind of cash" in the house, the robbers bound the couple with tape and doused them with gasoline.

Eighty thousand dollars shouldn't be a problem for Morfin. He owns a maquiladora in Tijuana's Otay Industrial Park that produces picture frames. Standard Frame International employs more than 200 workers and sells to U.S. outlets such as Aaron Brothers Art and Framing. Morfin also owns land and buildings in Otay Mesa on the U.S. side and a building in Chula Vista.

But the robbers weren't in the mood to wait or make deals. They went straight to another bedroom, found the Morfins' son Rigoberto Terán Morfin Jr., and shot him in the head three times, according to the sheriff's department. Then they ransacked the house and set it on fire.

The Morfins and a maid were able to free themselves and help their son out of the house. Miraculously, Rigoberto Jr. is expected to recover. The damage to the house is estimated at $1 million, but the fire didn't reach Morfin's dozen antique cars parked in a garage.

The FBI weren't surprised to get a call from the sheriffs, asking for help in this case. That same week they were wrapping up another case against a Bonita resident, Sergio Sandoval Ruvalcaba. Sandoval, a former top official of Baja California's State Judicial Police, who lived in a luxurious $470,000 house at 1472 Rimcrest Court, pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court to overseeing a drug-transportation ring.

The 35-year-old ex-cop had been waiting in jail since last May 4, when 150 federal agents swooped in on houses and businesses from Chula Vista and National City to Lakeside, El Cajon, Hemet, and San Bernardino, as well as the international border. They seized Sandoval, ten other suspected drug traffickers, and property that included 2490 pounds of marijuana, a Ford Expedition, a Nissan 300 ZX, the swank home in Bonita, a $25,000 30-foot Bayliner power boat, a $117,000 yacht named No Sé Nada ("I Don't Know Nothing"), and a $500,000 Bell "Huey" helicopter.

Sandoval's arrest was significant, said Larry A. Mefford, Assistant Special Agent in charge of the FBI in San Diego, because of who Sandoval worked for. He was "a key lieutenant and a key aspect of the Arellano Félix organization in San Diego and in Southern California. Sergio Sandoval had been operating in the United States with impunity for many years."

Other recent warnings for San Diegans:

-- The March 11 arrest in Tijuana of Jesús Labra Avilés, accused of being the financial "brain" of the Arellano Félix drug cartel. Records indicate he may have lived at three different Bonita addresses between March 1997 and November 1999.

-- After the February 27 assassination of Alfredo de la Torre, Tijuana's municipal police chief, seven suspects were arrested, but two more escaped and were thought to have crossed the line into San Diego. They were both active-duty police officers. Reports from Mexican media sources and Associated Press said that assistant precinct commander Juan de Dios Montenegro Tapia and officer Praxedis Osuna Solís may have ordered De la Torre's execution. They say Montenegro had promised each of the seven suspects $15,000 each but never paid them. Instead he and Osuna fled into the United States. The FBI agreed to help, but FBI spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said earlier this week that they had not received the formal request necessary to take action. They have yet to place the two men's names on a national-fugitive lookout system that alerts all U.S. law-enforcement agencies.

-- Rumors have it the Arellano Félix brothers may spend part of their time in San Diego.

A week after De la Torre's death, a congressional subcommittee held hearings at the U.S. Coast Guard station on Harbor Drive to hear evidence of Baja's violence. Local law-enforcement officials and politicians detailed how the drug trade drained their resources and how its violence has affected San Diego. Florida Republican representative John Mica, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources responded with strong opinions.

"The situation is out of control on [the Mexican] side of the border," Mica was quoted in the U-T as saying during the hearings. Mexico "is corrupt from the bottom to the top."

Representative Brian Bilbray (R-Imperial Beach), who had asked for such a hearing last fall, worried aloud that De la Torre's killing happened just "a few kilometers from where my family lives.... The violence of drug activities is not far away from me."

Captain Fred Moeller, the commanding officer of SDPD's Southern Division, which reaches from Nestor across to Otay and south to the border, says he's not seeing anything new in his jurisdiction. "There have not been any trends to indicate anything has been changing over on this side [of the border]. We have no indication that [the Arellano brothers] are in this area. In fact, the total crime index from 1995 to 1999 just in the Southern Division has dropped 14.4 percent."

For her part, Baja California's deputy attorney general, Subprocuradora Olga Jiménez Muñoz, is upbeat, even though she has 80 murders -- apart from the Tijuana police chief's -- to investigate from this year alone. In an upstairs office of a '50s-style building not far from where De la Torre was killed, she waxed almost lyrical. "Progress is magnificent. The [seven suspects] have already been auto de formal prisión, which means they've been formally indicted and are in jail without bail. A judge has already declared them probably responsible for a 'qualified felony.' "

To catch them, she says, the city, state, and federal police agencies -- notoriously suspicious of each other -- improved their cooperation. "The truth is, since the homicide of Alfredo de la Torre, several agencies have cooperated. The organized-crime unit from the [federal attorney general]...provided all help possible, as did the municipal police. They wanted to cooperate with us and even participated in the operativos -- raids -- executing search warrants. Before, everybody worked their investigations independently. This time it was together. Several agencies from California offered their labs -- even on Sundays. And cooperation with San Diego law enforcement is always good. We meet whenever is necessary."

So why hasn't the Mexican government asked the FBI to help locate murder suspects Juan de Dios Montenegro Tapia and officer Praxedis Osuna Solís yet? The delay may be due to U.S. law-enforcement opinions aired in the Union-Tribune shortly after De la Torre was killed. "Before De la Torre's death," the paper said on March 19, "[anonymous] informants told two U.S. agencies that the police chief was being paid by the Arellanos to allow drug loads to cross the border unimpeded."

"It's lamentable that the memory of a deceased person is not respected," says Jiménez Muñoz. "I personally think that if a person is dead, there isn't any need to make these kinds of allegations towards his person. If they knew that he had that kind of a relationship, they should have [exposed] it when he was alive, so he could respond."

But an anonymous Tijuana source once close to De la Torre told the Reader the U.S. assessment is accurate, insisting that the police chief had little choice but to cooperate with the cartel, given the power of the drug lords.

One indication things are reaching a new level of insecurity across the border is the news that the governor of Baja California, Alejandro González Alcocer, has acquired two armored cars. Tijuana's Frontera newspaper reports one is a gray 2000 model Suburban, which promises an "intermediate" level of protection; the other is a white 2000 model Ford Lobo pick-up with a double cabin and "highest-level" armor-plate protection, capable of stopping high-powered rifle bullets. Governor González told the paper he would use one vehicle and let the state attorney-general, Juan Manuel Salazar Pimentel, use the other.

Subprocuradura Jiménez has no armored car, but she has been budgeted two bodyguards. (Reliable sources claim she hired them from the municipal police, not from within her own state-police ranks.) She appears confident about her safety. "We knew this was what to expect when we came to the job," she says. "It's normal, nothing extraordinary."

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