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Federal Authorities Disarm Tijuana Police, Send in 3,000 Soldiers to Control City

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(Photo: Tijuana Municipal Police killing time after federal authorities took their guns away. Omar Martinez, Frontera ).

Drug violence in Tijuana has become so brutal recently the federal government is sending in 3,000 soldiers to crack down. In the battle to control the key drug smuggling territory last year, hundreds of residents were kidnapped. Twenty-three policemen were killed. And in a chilling move, suspected drug traffickers dumped the severed heads of three police officers in a field. Federal authorities suspect local police may be in cahoots with cartels, and in their first move have disarmed the city’s force. KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson has the story.

Dozens of soldiers dressed in full camouflage, with machine guns slung across their chests, pull over cars at a checkpoint they’ve set up on one of Tijuana’s main roads. The soldiers focus on late model pick-up trucks and SUV’s with dark tinted windows drug traffickers’ and kidnappers’ vehicles of choice.

Soldiers dig around under the seats and in glove compartments. One even peers inside a fast food bag searching for drugs, guns or some sign of illicit activity.

Though, the checkpoint causes traffic to back up for miles, most everyone who’s pulled over says they welcome the federal forces’ arrival, like Tijuana resident Carlos Valdez.

Valdez: I think it’s a great thing that they are here in Tijuana because right now it is really bad here.

Isackson: Do you feel less safe in Tijuana these days?

Valdez: Yeah, because the bad guys are the policemen, all that kind of guys. So, the military is here, it’s something better.

Most people in Tijuana suspect the local police force is riddled with corruption. It’s widely rumored that drug cartel leaders have softened the force with enormous bribes, and even put some officers on the cartel payroll for carrying out kidnappings and killings.

Tijuana’s top police chief acknowledges there’s corruption within his ranks. Javier Algorri says he’s been pleading with federal authorities for months to launch a full bore investigation.

Algorri: Whoever they have to investigate, we’ll participate actively and collaborate so they can do what they need to do and detain whoever they need to.

But when federal forces stripped Algorri’s entire force of their guns --just hours after he spoke -- it was a bit more than he expected. Federal officials are running ballistics tests on the local officers’ weapons to see if they’re tied to any drug cartel crimes. The move prompted Tijuana’s Mayor to suspend local patrols for two days. He said he couldn’t send his soldiers to the war unarmed.

Over the weekend, one of the city’s newspapers ran a photo of the disarmed officers killing time by playing soccer. This week, local officers with empty holsters resumed patrols alongside federal forces that have guns.

The day the Tijuana police were disarmed, a local business held a ceremony honoring police who performed heroic feats. The company president handed out plaques and cordless telephones to a few dozen officers. The gesture seemed like a plea for officers not to stray to the dark side.

Victor Clark, who founded of a Center for Human Rights in Tijuana, has spent 20 years studying drug trafficking in the city. He doubts such desperate measures, or even drastic ones like sending in 3,000 federal troops, will help control the violence. He says federal forces rushed into the city five times during past Mexican President Vicente Fox’s administration.

Clark: People called for them to come, and they came. But there weren’t results. The city is out of control. More than 500 Tijuana residents have fled to the U.S. Twenty-three policemen were murdered last year. Is or isn’t that out of control?

The violence is not contained to Tijuana. The country’s newly elected President, Felipe Calderon, ran on a campaign of law and order. In the first 10 days of his administration, he sent 7,000 troops charging into the central state of Michoacan to crack down on drug violence there. Though, the operation has not yielded many high profile arrests, analyst Clark says it hasn’t dampened people’s expectations.

Clark: As we say in Mexico, hope is the last thing to go. And it hasn’t gone yet.

Clark says other trouble plagued states are lined up asking the President to help them.

Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

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