Thursday, February 11, 2010

Arrested Tijuana Cops Were Hailed as Models

The Associated Press

Tijuana BC - Just a few weeks ago, the two officers were lauded as part of a new breed of honest cop, elevated to become key players in a drive to overhaul one of Mexico's most notorious police forces.

Now Francisco Ortega and Juan Carlos Espinoza are among five Tijuana police officers under arrest in a crackdown on a drug gang that has beheaded rivals then hung their mutilated corpses from freeway bridges or dissolved them in vats of caustic soda.

The five officers were caught at a Tijuana house this week along with six cartel members who were holding two rival gangsters captive, Ramon Pequeno, head of the anti-narcotics division of the federal police, said at a news conference Tuesday in Mexico City.

The arrests are a setback to Tijuana's public safety secretary, Julian Leyzaola. He had praised Ortega, 49, at a ceremony to name him commander of the border city's bustling La Mesa zone. Espinoza, also 49, was appointed his deputy.

"We trust his responsibility and his knowledge of police business," Leyzaola told several hundred residents in a school courtyard as Ortega and Espinoza sat stone-faced in the front row. "I'm sure you can count on a committed police force, a police force that will do its best to gain your trust."

During his turn at the podium, Mayor Jorge Ramos highlighted the two men's military backgrounds, a requirement for any zone commander under Leyzaola, a retired army lieutenant colonel. Ramos called the new commanders men with "integrity and a work ethic of service to the people."

"The officers know they have commanders who have the backing, the character and the values to take the necessary decisions to clean up the streets," Ramos said.

As in other zones where Tijuana has introduced police reforms, resources poured in. The La Mesa zone doubled its number of officers to 125 and got dozens of new patrol cars. Officers got radios that, unlike the old models, are difficult for drug traffickers to break into with taunts and ballads that glorify drug violence.

"The police radios are now exclusively for the police," Leyzaola said to applause at the ceremony.

Every three months, Leyzaola brings his reforms to a new zone of the city, with an eye toward finishing in 2011. Under his watch, about 130 Tijuana officers have been jailed on corruption charges in a force of about 2,000. An additional 250 have been fired or pressured to resign.

Federal police arrested the five officers Monday based on information obtained after the capture of two leaders of a gang led by Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, a reputed drug lord who was arrested last month.

The capture of the two leaders - El Teo's brother, Manuel Garcia Simental, and Raydel Lopez Uriarte - dealt a severe blow to the gang, which broke off from the Arellano Felix cartel in 2008. Fighting between the two gangs has been blamed for hundreds of killings in Tijuana.

The two men found captive at the house belonged to the Arellano Felix cartel, federal police said.

Among the other three officers arrested was Jose Enrique Ramirez Zambrano, commander of the city's Sanchez Taboada zone.

Ramirez, who has been on the Tijuana force for decades, told The Associated Press in November that he was unhappy Leyzaola was picking retired military officers with no police experience for zone commanders, saying they commanded little respect from the rank-and-file. He acknowledged, however, that new leaders were needed to root out corruption.

The mayor insisted Tuesday that the arrests of the police officers showed the government is serious about keeping the force clean.

And he noted the Garcia Simental brothers were arrested in La Paz, a city at the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula.

"It shows that they had no peace in Tijuana because of the actions of the three levels of government," Ramos said.

President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers across Mexico to lead the crackdown on cartels. Drug violence has since surged, claiming more than 15,000 lives since Calderon took office in December 2006. Most were victims of turf wars between rival gangs, but police, government officials and journalists have also been targeted.

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