Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

More Cops Die as Drug Lord Wants Chief Out

Friday, July 31, 2009 |

TIJUANA — The first attack came at 7 p.m. Monday. Gerónimo Calderón Jiménez was getting off guard duty in southern Tijuana when heavily armed men shot him repeatedly and left behind a handwritten sign: Five officers will die each week unless police chief Julián Leyzaola resigns.


Gerónimo Calderón

The next 15 hours saw four more assaults in Tijuana and Rosarito Beach that left two officers dead, one wounded and one unhurt but badly shaken. In the brutal showdown between drug cartels and Mexican law enforcement, these victims were shot at random, authorities said – officers who found themselves in harm's way as a brutal drug lord named Teodoro García Simental sent a deadly message.


Eva González Cruz

A half-hour after Calderón was killed, miles away in the seaside city of Rosarito Beach, gunmen fired at a 20-year-old Rosarito Beach officer, a member of the city's tourist police unit, as she stopped at a food stand in a neighborhood west of the toll road. She escaped injury, but blocks away and moments later, they killed Officer Rubén Villegas Bartolini, 42, behind the wheel of a patrol vehicle.
 

Rubén Villegas

Another half-hour later, this time on Bulevar Insurgentes in eastern Tijuana, gunmen attacked an unarmed auxiliary police officer outside a Smart & Final store. When he was taken to the Red Cross Hospital for treatment, officers were assigned to stand guard outside. At 10 a.m. the next day, attackers sprayed gunfire on their pickups, killing Officer Eva González Cruz on her 38th birthday.

“The fight to recover Tijuana's tranquillity will continue,” Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos vowed Thursday after a City Hall ceremony honoring Calderón and González. “It is not with little anonymous messages that they are going to make the Mexican state back down.”

Authorities believe the attacks were carried on the orders of García – commonly known as “El Teo” – who is said to control trafficking routes and the domestic drug market in much of eastern Tijuana and Rosarito Beach. In recent weeks, García's group has suffered serious losses, as the military and civilian law enforcement forces have arrested some of his top deputies, best known by their nicknames: “El Rambo,” “El Chuletas,” “La Perra,” “El Cande.”

Garcia has wielded power in the region by building a network of corrupt police officers, but authorities say that in recent months, many of his allies in Tijuana's 2,200-member department have been arrested, dropped from the force or voluntarily resigned.

The man García wants removed, Leyzaola, is an outspoken retired military lieutenant colonel who says Tijuana's residents have a right to feel safe again. He has vowed to root out corruption and has personally participated in police chases and sensitive detentions. He has forged strong links with military authorities spearheading the fight against traffickers in the region.

This week's attacks come 2½ months after a series of similar assaults on municipal police April 27 left seven dead in 45 minutes. Police commanders said they are taking new measures to protect officers after this week's attacks, but several officers interviewed this week said they are more fearful than ever.

“Organized crime isn't taking notice if you're a woman, if you're innocent, or if you owe something and are involved in criminal activities,” a 27-year-old officer who would not give her name said as she ended her shift in Playas de Tijuana one afternoon this week.

Though the Mexican military Wednesday presented eight suspects “presumed to have participated” in Monday's attacks, the state's top organized-crime investigator, Fermín Gómez, said the investigation was just beginning.

Investigators are looking at the possibility that the assailants cooperated with police to carry out the attacks, said a law enforcement source who asked to remain anonymous because the sensitivity of the investigation.

As the three officers were buried this week, their families and fellow officers mourned their loss. “He was a good officer; he was enterprising, always ready to work,” Public Safety Secretary Jorge Eduardo Montero Alvarez, said of Villegas, a father of two.

“He was an honest officer who always was concerned about his family,” Rubén Nieto, commander of Tijuana's commercial police, said of Calderón, who had a 1-year-old son.

Officer Ermogenes Castorena said González had been his friend since she joined the department 15 years ago.

“From the moment we put on our uniforms, we take risks,” Castorena said. “But they caught her while she was sitting down, at peace. It wasn't her time to die.”

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