We'd Like to Know More About Our Policemen

— The man who decided to drug-test all the cops in Tijuana is satisfied. Marco Antonio González Arenas says the front-page color photos of police officers lining up at a table loaded with their urine samples are proof that this Tijuana government is cleaning house.

Especially after 97 cops -- 8.4 percent of those tested -- were found to have either marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, or other opiates in their systems on the day of the test, April 10. They have been suspended from the force.

Drug-testing Tijuana cops is radical medicine but not new: it was first tried three years ago. "In September 1998, about 900 officers took it," says González. "Twelve percent had drugs in their system -- about 110. Today we have more officers [around 1300] but a lower percentage testing positive for drugs."

What is new this time is González's idea of demanding that every police officer fill out a declaration of assets, including money and property. He wants to see who is living beyond his or her means -- an indication of income from other sources. The declarations should have been handed in by April 10, but González was offering some leeway. Some cops were having trouble filling their sheets in correctly, but those who don't file or who lie on the declaration or have assets they can't explain "will be fired," he says. "It will take us up to three months to investigate them all."

González is the sindico procurador, chief of the city council's internal self-policing arm in the Tijuana government. It's his job to investigate all complaints of wrongful actions within the municipal administration. Police chief Carlos Besneirigoyen Ontiveros, who replaced Alfredo de la Torre Márquez, agreed to the tests, he says. He was more reluctant about the declaration of assets. González's big challenge will be to adequately check the declarations to see if they are complete -- and completely honest.

Staying safe could be a challenge for him too, with 97 discontented ex-policemen, perhaps some with grudges and powerful friends. But the sindico procurador says he knows the risks. "They must understand that they made the error. We're just doing our job."

Still, for the suspended cops, it's not necessarily the end of the road. González admits that taking nearly one in ten cops off the street will make it harder than ever to "prevent crimes" -- the municipal police's stated mission.

So rather than treat them like any other addict and throw them in jail at La Ocho (the downtown Tijuana jail on Eighth and Constitución), González wants to rehabilitate them. "I believe [it's possible] if they can accept blame for using the drug," he says.

He may be acceding to the city council's assistant chief of public security, Renato Sandoval Franco, who has been pushing for the cops not to be fired. "Send a cop with a drug addiction onto the street, and with the knowledge of police techniques, and if he stays without work, he could use these strengths on the other side of the law."

Carlos Murguía Mejia, managing secretary of the security commission, was not so understanding. He told Frontera newspaper the Tijuana city council is not a "public charity," that each employee should be responsible for his acts. "If the police officer, however modest his job may be, can't adjust to the legal requirements of the corporation, he should leave. Better put [the rehabilitation] money towards those whose only crime is being too poor to pay for water, light, or school fees."

González confesses that police chief Alfredo de la Torre's death triggered this round of housecleaning. "In part, yes, but these actions had been planned since January 1999 when this administration began."

Should state and federal authorities follow suit and institute drug tests and asset-declaration in their police forces? González laughs. "Yes! I'm sure about that. But [the most] we can do is provide an example to them and hope they emulate us. So far we're not hearing anything. We know that state police and federal agents have people keeping a watch on their behavior, but we'd like them to do something similar to this."

"The underlying problem," says Sandoval, "is that the PRI [the nationally dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party] is too deeply enmeshed in relations with drug cartels. The [corruption and violence] won't stop until the federal government's ways change. I was born in Tijuana. I remember when someone being killed by a car was big news. Now, we've become accustomed to an incredible level of violence. It's sad we had to lose Alfredo [de la Torre] to get action at last, and for the three police forces to start working together, but at least so far they are, for the first time."

Sandoval has been in city hall long enough to remember the first police chief who died at the hands of assassins -- allegedly federal policemen.

"I was in the city police department for three years with [then-police chief] Federico Benítez. He was very honest, very stubborn. He had intended becoming a priest, but his wife persuaded him not to. He was a man who loved the city very much. He was very worried about it. He wanted his family to live without fear in it. That's why he started his crusade. We warned him several times. It was very hard. He told us that he didn't care if he was going to die, but he was determined to get rid of this cancer on society. When it happened, in April 1994, it was a real shock. People were very frightened because they didn't know who ordered it.

"You've got to remember: eight, ten years ago, before Benítez, everybody [assumed] that the chiefs were somehow involved with these [cartel] people. But every year we have been making it more difficult for the chiefs of any branch of police to get involved. And that's why we've been seeing an increase in the deaths in the city."

Sandoval says an election year like this one touches and distorts everything. He himself is currently the subject of a conflict-of-interest claim, that his family business is selling goods to the city government that employs him. He says Baja California, where the right-leaning opposition PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) runs both the state government and Baja's most important cities -- including Mexicali and Ensenada -- is particularly vulnerable to PRI-inspired troublemaking.

"Tijuana's a place where we started something, a movement that has spread all over Mexico. Now PAN has begun winning in the biggest cities in Mexico as an opposition party. So everyone from the PRI in Mexico City would love to see us lose in Tijuana. And [an issue like] corruption in the police or involving the drug lords would be something they would use to the limit. Because the PRI and their officials are so deep in their relationship with the drug leaders, they cannot [extricate] themselves from the old kind of corruption, such has grown up over 70 years."

As a PAN appointee, Sandoval believes only an opposition leader like PAN's Vicente Fox can move Mexico away from the corrupting influence of the cartels. "We need someone with no baggage. With the old kind of people out, they will be able to move freely [against the cartels]. I think [our police] will then get a lot of help from some agencies in the U.S. I don't think they trust the present government. Maybe that's why they don't talk too much to us.

"And as a Mexican I think we all feel ashamed that the United States has to give us a certification, a validation of our country. It offends us. We hope to have a government that doesn't depend on any certificate from any country."

The drug-testing and asset-listing are attempts at starting over. Especially after the accused assassins of Alfredo de la Torre told investigators the killers had been hired from within the municipal police force. Sandoval was there at the interrogation, days after De la Torre's killing. The seven accused weren't beaten into confession, he insists. "They confessed without coercion. The [state police] invited me to come. When I was there, I could see the [suspects] confessing everything. There were only three people in the room at one time. One secretary taking the confession onto a computer, and an attorney. So I felt confident that what they said was unforced."

They said it was an inside job. "And they were very professional. Even Juan de Dios Montenegro Tapia [a suspect still at large] did a lot of practicing at the [police] shooting range. The reason we didn't detect him before, the reason Alfredo trusted him, was that he was a very good police officer.

"That's why we are doing this, cleaning out the force," adds sindico procurador González. "It's commonly known that the Arellano brothers own Tijuana. But we don't want them to own us."

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