Disarmed local police patrol Tijuana

Officers, often considered corrupt, have been stripped of weapons by military

January 07, 2007|By Richard Marosi, Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar | Richard Marosi, Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar,Los Angeles Times

TIJUANA, Mexico -- Disarmed municipal police patrolled alongside armed state police Friday, a sight that brought some comfort to many in this border city, where municipal police are often equated with corruption and drug-fueled violence.

Municipal officers, their holsters empty, directed traffic and made the rounds a day after stopping work in response to being stripped of their weapons by the Mexican military.

The army operation in Tijuana and a similar incursion in the southern state of Michoacan, some analysts say, have been a political boon to President Felipe Calderon, who recently took office, enabling him to project an image of strength and decisiveness.

Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City analyst who has written extensively on the country's drug wars, said that although Calderon's crackdown in Tijuana "has zero chance of stopping the buying and selling of drugs," limiting the number of drug killings to the relatively lower numbers of the recent past is an achievable goal.

"What he's saying is that there are some things that won't be permitted," Chabat said. "You can't be cutting people's heads off. It's a question of image. You can't allow Tijuana to look like a civil war in Africa."

Mexican and U.S. federal authorities say some police are active members of drug-trafficking organizations, and several officers have been arrested over the years. Several kidnap victims say that police officers took part in their abductions. The city has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world.

Tijuana, a sprawling metropolis of about 1.5 million people, was bustling as usual Friday, and there were no signs of social unrest or public disorder two days after more than 3,500 soldiers and federal agents starting arriving as part of Operation Tijuana.

Members of the 2,300-strong municipal police force were ordered by the military to turn in their weapons to see whether any are linked with homicides and other crimes. More than 2,000 weapons, most of them 9 mm handguns, but also some automatic weapons and shotguns, are being inspected.

Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon said in an interview that he had feared putting unarmed police at risk and had ordered them off the streets Thursday after receiving assurances from the general in charge of Operation Tijuana, Hector Sanchez Gutierrez, that his troops would maintain order.

The 18 hours without municipal police went without any major incidents, though there were some complaints of no law enforcement response to a few minor traffic accidents. And at the jail holding facility in the red light district, Municipal Judge Oscar Gonzalez Valdez said he had freed some detainees - mostly drinking-related offenders - because there were no transit police to take them to the main jail across the city.

Municipal police may get their weapons back within two weeks, Tijuana officials say, but many residents aren't demanding urgent action.

"This is stupendous," said Alfredo Arias, the manager of a restaurant in the tough neighborhood of La Libertad that was riddled by hundreds of bullets in a shootout last year between masked gunmen and federal agents.

Arias, like other residents and experts, say police weapons are not properly accounted for and are often lent out to criminal rings. "This will obligate them to take care of their weapons," Arias said.

Alberto Capella, president of Tijuana's citizens advisory council on public safety, said disarming the police had met with widespread support. "In some ways it's a necessary evil ... part of the cleansing we need to improve the department." he said.

Gregorio Martinez, 55, who has lived in Tijuana for 35 years, said the military operation was a bold first strike.

"I bet the number of assaults goes down until the police get their guns back. I feel pretty safe right now," he said.

But Martinez, like others, wonders whether the operation will have a long-term effect.

A similar feeling swept Nuevo Laredo on the Texas border last year when then-President Vicente Fox sent federal police and army to replace local police, notorious for their brutality and corruption.

For the first weeks and months, federal patrols drove city streets and residents said they felt a great weight lifted off their shoulders. The feeling didn't last.

By summer, the last of the federal police left, leaving the border town back in the hands of a local police department operating with only half of the department's 600 positions filled. Robbery and kidnappings have surged, along with homicides.

The recent operation in Michoacan has also flopped, according to one U.S. law enforcement source, saying the deployment failed to result in any significant drug seizures or arrests.

Richard Marosi, Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar write for the Los Angeles Times.

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