Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

The New Face of Border Violence

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 |

The Sand Diego Union Tribune

Tijuana Border - A violent chapter in the storied battle against international drug trafficking is now being written along the U.S.-Mexican border. In December 2006, upon taking office, Mexican President Felix Calderón launched an all-out assault on Mexico’s drug cartels.

Unlike past initiatives, designed as showpieces for the U.S. government, Calderón’s effort has been waged in earnest, including the dispatch of 45,000 troops and 5,000 federal police officers to 18 Mexican states.

In response, drug cartels went on a rampage, escalating attacks on law enforcement and competing traffickers. Since 2007, news reports put the death toll somewhere between 11,000 and 13,500.

The Los Angeles Times Web site shows the bloody tally like an old fashioned Wall Street ticker-tape, the numbers ascending ominously. But the Times graphic trails its own news tally, demonstrating that symbols of the carnage can’t keep pace with its reality.

On one recent day alone, police in the southern state of Guerrero found the mutilated bodies of nine people in the back of a pickup truck. Beheaded and hacked into pieces, the victims were stuffed into black plastic bags.

Meanwhile, in Juarez, gunmen wearing black hoods, entered a drug-treatment center, lined up patients, and executed them. Eighteen people died.

Our closest Mexican neighbor, Baja California, has suffered some of the worst bloodshed. In 2009, Tijuana officials reported 844 homicides, most stemming from narco-violence.

For a time, at the close of last year, it appeared there would be an abeyance in killings. But 2010 began badly. On Jan. 6, 17-year-old José Fernando Labastida Fimbres, a student at Mater Dei High School in Chula Vista, was killed at his upscale home in Tijuana.

The Baja California attorney general confirmed that the youngster was the target of a cartel-style hit. Gunmen fired 59 shots from assault rifles as Jose, the grandson and son of successful supermarket chain owners, sat in his car outside his home.

Days later, three students were leaving Ricardo Flores High School in Tijuana when gunmen rounded a corner and sprayed gunfire from their car. Two boys and a girl were killed, punctuating a spate of violence that included the beheadings of two women.

No longer are targets of violence confined to drug rivals or even law enforcement adversaries. Rather, the targets are now the innocents, the children. These young victims represent the new face of border violence.

It was widely predicted that the battle to our south would translate into record levels of crime in San Diego County. Calderón’s full-scale attack on drug cartels naturally forces criminals to look north to continue their enterprise. Indeed, there is evidence of this spillover.

Over the summer, I stood with San Diego County’s district attorney as she announced the indictment of 17 members of a Mexican drug gang for crimes committed in this county. Kidnappings, torture and murder are counted among the crimes of this Tijuana-based gang, a rogue cell of the Arellano-Félix drug cartel. In one instance, gang members posed as FBI agents to kidnap their victims.

After ransoms were paid, they killed them anyway. Two of the bodies were found dissolved in chemicals. Significantly, the victims were not associated with drug dealing, but had left Tijuana to live in safety in San Diego County.

Incidents of this nature, tragic and brutal, naturally capture public attention, reminding us of the real risk we face. Yet, there is a strategy being played out quietly and effectively in San Diego County that is reducing the risk and even driving down crime precisely in those areas where it was predicted to rise.

In 2009, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department achieved national prominence with its “multilayered, all-threats, integrated approach” to combating crimes associated with cartels and with human smuggling into the U.S.

In addition to being cited as a “Best Practice” by the U.S. Department of Justice for border violence suppression, the department’s Operation Stonegarden earned $13.7 million in support from the Department of Homeland Security, the largest such award in the nation.

To this we’ve added our Southwest Border Crime Suppression Team, professionals dedicated to combating border violence. Together the strategies make up our Border Crimes Initiative. Lt. Dave Myers, who leads these operations, recently reported encouraging results.

Because of our efforts, crime in the targeted areas has dropped. We have seen auto thefts drop 68 percent, robberies 37 percent and burglaries 32 percent. Indeed, crime figures overall for the targeted area dropped by half.

Reduced crime does not, of course, equate to reduced threat. But, working with our partner agencies – local police and probation officers, state agents and our federal colleagues – the men and women on the front line of the Sheriff’s Border Crimes Initiative are confounding the projections of doom.

Those projections never counted upon the coordinated, full-scale response of regional law enforcement. Together we’re keeping our residents safe and protecting our quality of life.

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