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Blood of Their Brothers: The Border Trilogy, Part I

When two factions of the Arellano-Felix cartel went to war in 2008, Tijuana’s murder rate shot through the roof. That violence coincided with a bloody turn in the country’s organized-crime world and followed a 2006 three-cop slaying in the small town of Rosarito, Baja California. The town’s illusion of invulnerability was shattered that day, and a weary populace awoke startled into Mexico’s living nightmare of violence, graft and rampant exploitation of the first human flaw.

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Editor's Note: This is the second installment of San Diego Magazine's The Border Trilogy. For part two, click here. For part three, click here.

EVENING WAS STRETCHING OUT against the sky when Valente Montijo-Pompa—the 60-year-old chief of police of Rosarito—sent his bodyguard for a cold six-pack, one beer for each man at headquarters. The day had been hot, and he was already tired. It was June 20, 2006, and the veteran of four decades of police work was easing into his second year as director de seguridad. None of his experience had prepared him for what was to come.

Four of the men at headquarters disappeared in the hour that followed the dispatch of that beer runner. Their tortured bodies wouldn’t be found until the following day. The men’s severed heads were dumped 20 kilometers north, near state police headquarters in Tijuana.

A former rancher with a quiet and imperious bearing, Montijo-Pompa was gently sliding down the backside of his life’s arc when he found himself, on that ill-fated afternoon, desperately feeding bullets into the magazine of an AR-15 rifle. Not knowing the fate of his men, he threw the weapon into the back of a police car, reached for another and prayed (to a God he hadn’t invoked in years) the situation wasn’t as dire as his gut said it was. Miles away, with a menacing convoy of SUVs speeding by, a tire-shop owner was forced to lower his shingle at gunpoint. In another part of town, on the side of a dirt road, an apparent federal agent approached a local policeman.

Jorge MonteroBefore the cop could react, the agent produced a handgun. Squeezing a worn trigger with a Sinaloa-born finger, he sent a single round through the cop’s lower jaw. The business end of the weapon was likely nuzzling the officer’s chin, Montijo-Pompa says. The shot tore a hole in the patrol’s roof, carrying gray matter and 38 years of Catholic devotion heavenward. A ray of light sliced into the cab in the stillness that followed, giving life to dust particles kicked up by the commotion. On the other side of town, an eight-months-pregnant mother rubbed her bulging belly, watching similar particles dance through the air as she cleaned house and waited for her husband’s return.

Montijo-Pompa had assumed command of Rosarito’s police department in June 2005, as Mexico’s morass of internal strife was blossoming into a civil war. He was one of the few men to put his name into the hat when his predecessor, Chief Carlos Bowser-Miret, was assassinated with an AK-47 assault rifle (the calling card of the Tijuana Cartel, a.k.a. the Arellano-Felix Organization, AFO). Montijo-Pompa, who was voted out of office months after the June 2006 slayings, says he originally took the position as a personal favor to Mayor Antonio Macias-Garay, a young and flashy product of Baja California’s reigning Partido Acción Nacional (PAN).

Under Montijo-Pompa’s mandate, the year following Bowser-Miret’s murder was filled with peace in Rosarito, days of living velvet. The town was again in consonance with itself. Tourism was up, crime down and the chimera of security restored—until that torrid afternoon in June 2006. A pale horse appeared that day, bringing with it a wrathful night for three street cops—and a civilian—caught unawares in the firing lines of a society at war.

“I kept Rosarito clean and peaceful,” Montijo-Pompa says, “because I wasn’t going after these mafia guys. I had a red carpet for them. I’m going to be peaceful to you, and you’re going to be peaceful to me. That was the agreement. I put it in the newspapers, on TV, on the radio, on everything.

“I didn’t want any kind of action in Rosarito—nothing. I didn’t want them throwing bodies here, or the shootings or kidnappings. Nothing like that. You have the boulevard, the Scenic Highway, anywhere you want to transport . . . that’s not my problem. I didn’t have people, guns or investigation sources. I didn’t even know these guys—who they were or why I was fighting them.

“I’m not going to fight with somebody whose circumstances are 1,000 to my one. I’m not going to be a hero—to kill my people. I’m not going to sacrifice others or convert Rosarito into a battleground or put innocents in the middle. My problem was to keep my guys off their back—because easily 80 percent of my cops were crooked themselves.

“We know we’re just a passing point to Tijuana—loads and loads of contraband go through here every day, every hour. So my crooked police stop the trailers, the cars, everything—and they go for money. They’re gonna take $2,000 or $10,000 or even $40,000; whatever. But these mafia guys are gonna be back. And who’s gonna pay?

“They’re gonna start with the mayor and the police chief, and then you’re gonna be in a real fight, because you’re not gonna be able to respond. When they kidnapped my three boys, there were 200 of them, all of them with the best equipment on the market. What can I do when I’ve got 15 guys available? And they have old Beretta handguns?”

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