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Tijuana Police Targeted By Drug Cartels


There's a new chapter in the Tijuana drug wars where a battle over control of the drug trade frequently results in gruesome violence. What changes have been made in the last year to fight the drug war raging just across the border?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): There's a new chapter in the violent Tijuana drug wars where a battle raged between drug lords over control of the drug trade. Well, last year, KPBS teamed with to cover the story. It has since changed from a struggle between outlaws to a vendetta against a police chief. So, Vicente, before we look at what’s happening in Tijuana now, bring us up to date. What was happening in the drug war last year at this time?

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, That was the most violent year in history of Tijuana. The homicides registered by the state authorities were 843 at the end of the year. Most of those killings were among people working in some fashion for the organized crime. Either they was drug dealers on the streets or they were enforces for them. They were kidnapping rivals from each other but most of the violence was among these two groups. A renegade lieutenant from the, I would say, more traditional line of the family of the Arellano-Felix drug organization that was – that became too powerful and decided to cut away from them and join another organization, the cartel of Sinaloa. By now, apparently at the beginning of the year, after they invest so much researches in terms of lives and ammunition and drugs and the alternatives, making a lot of confiscations and seizures of the same things, drugs, cash and weapons, apparently they came to a truce. They came to a truce and they began to do some operations together or at least allowing the – each other to work.

PENNER: That makes it even more dangerous, doesn’t it?

CALDERON: Well, yes, because then that’s what we are seeing. They redirected their offensive, their efforts against the police. But by now we understand that it’s basically one of those factions, the one led by Teodoro García Simental, called El Teo, this renegade lieutenant, who controls most of the east side of the city, which is one of the most poor and highly populated area. And he’s the one that apparently feels that it’s more affected in the day-by-day operations. They control a lot of the local distribution of drugs, not just the exportation, quote, unquote, to the U.S. but also the local market. And since their operation was based a lot on all the officers that were working for them in the municipal police, when this new chief got rid of many of those officers, in arguable circumstances, but he got rid of many of those officers, they began to focus on him and they actually sent some threats. And one of the first cases in July, they left a note on one of the squad cars of one of the officers. They killed this officer just by the fact of he was wearing a uniform. It was – the significance of that killing was not against that person but to the police. Until…

PENNER: To the police.

CALDERON: Until Leyzaola, the chief, Julio Leyzaola resigns, we will be killing five officers per week.

PENNER: Ricky, how aware do you believe people on this side of the border are about this vendetta against the Tijuana police by the – by El Teo? It’s El Teo, right?

CALDERON: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: By El Teo, the – this drug lord.

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): I think it tends to pop up when there’s killings as there were. You know, three young men on the streets just a few days ago, killed by AK-47s, well, not by guns but by people. And, you know, it has built a sort of responsibility that’s coming forth more recently where the U.S. government is getting involved. They’re taking more responsibility, putting more resources toward training, toward technology, actually help in the drug wars down there, helping with some new programs to help vet law enforcement officers to make sure they’re not on the take, this sort of thing. And, you know, maybe that should have come years ago but I think it’s interesting to see that things have gotten bad enough or maybe if the change in administration, I don’t know, but they’re getting more involved.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. If you’d like to join the discussion, the question I just asked Ricky Young was, you know, how aware are people on this side of the border about what is going on in Tijuana regarding this operation against the police by El Teo, the drug lord. And what does it mean to you? Do you, at this point, feel perhaps a little safer than you did last year when, as Vicente said, it was the most violent year in Tijuana history. Again 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Corruption in the police force, John Warren, I mean, the concern that the police were kind of somehow affiliated with what was going on with the drug wars, that seems to be somewhat ameliorated now. It looks as though there’s a real attempt to clean up the police.

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, I think this whole process is cyclical. I mean, we’ve seen it over the years. In the past 20 years, there’ve been back and forth battles. And one police chief, I remember, was killed. I was in Tijuana one Thanksgiving when there was a shootout and killed the publisher of the paper there. That – When there’s a change in administration, yes, but here’s the significant difference, that in Mexico the battle against the drug element is a federal battle in terms of the military. This police chief has made it a local municipal battle based on his military background and his commitment to fighting what is taking place. The people on this side of the border, I believe, haven’t really focused that much because there is a spillover. We have had discussion about murders and hits in Chula Vista and coming north, and that’s what we’re fighting now. I think that’s one reason that Alan Bersin was reassigned and appointed because he had been a drug czar and former U.S. Attorney and we have a task force. What’s really different in this situation is that President Calderon made the decision to work with the U.S. and the two agreed to put aside some differences. And so the people here still don’t see the spillover of what’s happening. It’s close. They can feel it. People who have family are concerned in terms of the border but they’re not as affected by the day-to-day violence that we see on the other side.

PENNER: Well, Vicente, what steps are being taken to create a more professional police force there? I think once people on this side feel that they can be well protected by the Tijuana police, they would be more willing to go back to Tijuana.

CALDERON: Yeah, they realize that. They realize that things were so bad that there was no option to take this directly and try to make some changes. It’s very ironic that the new mayor always complains that the previous administrations were not doing enough and that he’s really changing the tide, and the – an interesting point is that the governor – the act – the current governor used to be the president of Tijuana, the Municipal President of Tijuana about ten years ago…

YOUNG: Yeah.

CALDERON: …so he is accusing him indirectly to make – be part of the problem. The things – They are doing several things. They are, first, getting rid of the most corrupted cops, that’s the official statement. They even took – The second in command is, right now, in jail. Because these guy – this is not your traditional, quote, of corruption. These guys were not taking just bribe or looking the other way. These guys became the enforcers, the killers, the kidnappers of these organizations. And I think the approach is right in the sense that you were not able to face these problems. Even when it is not your responsibility, you are right, it is not their responsibility but even the selling of pirate DVD in a swap meet…

YOUNG: Yeah.

CALDERON: …is – it was giving a cut to the organized crime because they knew that it was illegal so they just want to get some part of – percentage of the action. So they are doing everything. So every cop, when he goes to the neighborhood and do – tries to combat crime, ended up facing guys who are protected by the cartels. So they are training them more, they are getting rid of the ones that they know they were working for the organizations, and they are increasing the conditions of – where they are given better equipment. Last year, they have an unprecedented amount of money sent by the federal government through just – it’s called Labeled Budget so this fund need to be directly used for public safety matters. So they’re change – And one interesting point is the U.S. is helping in training these new recruits or these new officers. They are going to be sent to LA to the Sheriff’s Department as part of the media plan to be trained at least for a month in LA and improve their capabilities.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Rick in Linda Vista is with us now. Rick, you’re on with the editors.

RICK (Caller, Linda Vista): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

PENNER: Of course.

RICK: My question is I’m wondering how the Mexican people are reacting to this attack on the drug cartels because the drug cartels aren’t anything new in Mexico and I was curious as to what the reactions in Mexico and whether it’s negative or positive. And I’m wondering if the PAN, which is the political party that’s in power now, if they stand – if they’re going to be reelected or not, and if the PRI should be back in power, is it just going to be like business as usual again. It’s kind of like a three-part question but…

PENNER: Well, that’s okay, we’ll take it. Go ahead, Vicente. Let’s start with the reaction of the Mexican people.

CALDERON: I think in general they are – they were so fed up with the levels of crime that they are approving all those mayors. Sometimes approving them too much because there’s a lot of human rights abuses happening since they brought the military to help them on the war against drugs and to put them to do police matters. But the reaction in general, it’s positive for the efforts that they are doing. And the PAN has been in power for the last 20 years and they haven’t changed much from the PRI. They became the PRI, new and reloaded, quote, unquote, so they are also responsible – they – We always said in Tijuana that the PRI opened the door for the drug lords but these guys never shut it down. They just became complicit with them.

PENNER: Just a final question before we get to the break. What cooperation, Ricky, do you see between the San Diego and the – and Tijuana, let’s say the two mayors’ offices, the two governments when it comes to the drug wars?

YOUNG: You know, I think that they’re pretty cooperative by and large but there’s not that much San Diego can do about it. It’s more of a federal issue and the feds are taking more of an interest and trying to get elements of the cartel, at least when they come up here, and there’s been an increase in that.

PENNER: Okay. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We’ll be back in a moment.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner, and I’m at the roundtable today with Vicente Calderon, who’s visiting us from And John Warren, glad to have him back, of course. And Ricky Young, always glad to see Ricky. And you. We’re talking about the change in Tijuana, the change of violence now directed not between drug cartels but from a drug cartel to the police chief and other members of the police department. And we’re going to just stick with the subject a little bit longer because we have some people who want to speak to us about it. We’ll start with Lawrence in Mission Hills. Lawrence, you’re on with the editors.

LAWRENCE (Caller, Mission Hills): Good morning. You asked if it’s changed us who live on the American side.

PENNER: I did.

LAWRENCE: We haven’t been to Tijuana now in more than two years. We actually had started going down to their arts and cultural center there which is very nice, we saw a couple of museum exhibits, we saw a music performance, we drove a couple of times and we actually took the trolley and walked across, but we wouldn’t go back there now. You see the headlines in the paper, the only thing you really ever read about Tijuana now are bodies dumped here, bodies there, so I personally think it’s had a horrible effect on binational ties.

PENNER: Let me ask Vicente the question. Is the situation in Tijuana safer now than it was last year?

CALDERON: I think generally yes, at a certain level, even when we see – the last month we see an increase again but if we compare last – again, last year we have 843 homicides. To – I checked statistics yesterday and we are at four hundred – excuse me, 530. I mean, the thing is no tourist has been targeted. We know a reason for – as part of this violence. And we have to agree – understand that we – this is having a lot of effects on this side due to coverage. You don’t see much coverage on the media in this side of the border. All they’re doing, the killings in general.

PENNER: But Lawrence is concerned. He won’t go. Is he right?

CALDERON: I don’t think he’s right. I think he’ll be more concerned of the time he’ll have to spend waiting to come across or now waiting to get into Tijuana. But there’s – I mean, that is the sad part of this situation. I mean, there’s a lot of people still going but for example, he used to go to the cultural offerings of Tijuana. You’ll be surprised that they have been increasing that and there’s a lot of museum opportunities or – They’ve been – are talking about a new cultural trips to Tijuana, as amazing as that will sound for many people. But in general, you don’t see that the Americans in general are affected.

PENNER: Lawrence – or, Vicente’s other point, Ricky, about not much coverage on this side about what’s going on over there.

YOUNG: Yeah, we get that criticism occasionally…

PENNER: At the Union-Tribune.

YOUNG: At the Union-Tribune. Of course we have to cover the violence that goes on down there. I think it would be just flat out wrong to ignore it. But we have a lot of cultural coverage. We, you know, the caller may have read about some of the new cultural offerings down there in our paper because we certainly write about them. We had a story the other day about a new LEED certified environmental office building there, the first in the state. And, you know, so we try – we’re very cognizant that we don’t want to be just writing about violence down there and we purposely write about other things.

PENNER: Okay, so final word from you, Vicente. I want to ask you what do you think the next step in this story is that you’re going to be covering?

CALDERON: We are seeing that the chief of police is considered a hero for many people and I think that needs to be taken into consideration and check how good is the job that he is doing. But and then also we are seeing that there’s a lot of complaints against abuses and even torture and the American Commission of Human Rights, here a group of relatives from these officers who were fired have said they coerce the statements from them and they – that they are – they used torture for them, so we’re going to focus on these allegations of torture and how the rest of the community is perceiving that as – to see how serious is this new effort to clean the force and to bring the safety level in a better situation.

PENNER: Thank you, Vicente. We’ll have more on this tonight on KPBS Television at eight o’clock when we cover this and show some video. Vicente will be with us on San Diego Week. I hope you’ll tune in.

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