Redeemed by Their Blood: The Border Trilogy, Part 3
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A Rosarito cop enters the municipal palace--City Hall--and approaches the office of the secretary of security, Jorge Montero. Unholstering his sidearm, he evacuates the weapon of its magazine. He clears the chamber and hands the pistol to a dark-skinned, crew-cut guard. No words are exchanged--only stolid tension.
The guard is a former soldier in the Mexican Army, and he is one of three young men dressed in black paramilitary gear. He totes an AR-15 rifle--which is locked and loaded, with an extra magazine taped into place for easy retrieval--and stares stonily into the building's central courtyard. He tucks the officer's firearm into the back of his belt and dismisses the man with a tilt of his head.
It repeats interminably in this small beach town, where officers interface awkwardly with the prefect's rigid security detail. Former servicemen compose that detail, and they know that the interim separating their boss from the last attempt on his life is measured in mere months. They also know the hit team that came for him was manned by the department's own cops.
Montero believes the cartel wanted to make a statement more than a kill. Maybe those gunmen wouldn't have assassinated him. Maybe the event was only to be a high-stakes kidnapping--a daring action to cast aspersion on the sovereignty of the city, the state and the Mexican Army.
He slides a DVD into a laptop, and a shot of the parking lot behind police headquarters flickers onto the screen. A procession of vehicles appears, Montero's armored truck in the middle. The secretary's entourage has just returned to the office. The security footage reads 12:49 p.m. It is the afternoon of December 18, 2007, three weeks after Montero assumed command. At 12:52, a plainclothes bodyguard in the rear parking lot wheels around and sprints for the back door. Twenty yards away, his partner, Guillermo Castro-Corona, stands at the side of Montero's vehicle.
A convoy of five black SUVs appears. A point car in front and a chase car behind break off and pass from sight. A commando team with evident tactical training alights, and Castro-Corona--his egress blocked by the armored truck--is shot down immediately. A hooded dragoon in a flak jacket moves to his position and ensures the kill. The picture cuts to the front of the station, where another team of commandos, moving in a three-man unit, enters the building.
"Holy shit, sir, they're feds," says a wide-eyed public relations officer.
His name is Fernando, and he is 23 years old. This is the first time he's seen the footage. He's young enough to be shocked by the violence and so green he's ignorant of the fact the cartel always comes in federal police uniforms.
Outfitted in a farrago of camouflage and Kevlar with AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigaciones) insignia, the synchronized commandos cover each other's backs and guard their lanes of fire. Heads pivot, and fingers tease triggers on automatic weapons. At the sole hallway leading to the secretary's office, they turn the corner as a unit, with their target trapped and outgunned.
"It's my own movie," Montero says with a broad smile, swinging around in his swivel chair.
This is the third time I've interviewed the secretary, and his character deepens with every encounter. He is a reserved man with good manners, and he seems mildly amused--by the security footage or the attention it's generated, or both. The feel in the air is otherwise surreal, given the Hollywood nature of the video and the fact its star is seated on the other side of a large desk. A slight man with looks that are given more to European genes than the indigenous strains in his mestizo Mexican blood, Montero is soft-spoken and bespectacled.
The smart appearance--one more befitting of a high school math teacher or an accountant--is at variance with his plucky personality. It's not the likeness you might imagine behind the vigorous security detail he carries. Until the summer of 2008, the secretary was guarded by a Special Forces detachment from the Mexican Army.
"I think they had certain objectives," Montero says of the cartel that came for him. "With the presidential administration of Calderon, people began talking of militarizing police departments. In Mexico, the most trusted institution is the military, maybe even more than the church. So I think the mafia had the idea that 'If the government puts a military man in office and we manage to kill him, it will be a message--a message that whomever you appoint, we'll kill. Or ... you can cooperate with us.'
"They didn't manage to kill me, but they said, 'Okay, he'll step down. And another will come, and we'll kill him--or at least try to kill him--and he'll go, too.' But I'm still here. So what's been created? A lot of frustration. And for that, I know they'll try to kill me again. But I have to continue serving my country."
Montero is a Special Forces vet and the son of a Mexican general. He was in the army for 24 years and retired in 2007 because of a back injury. He was recommended for the Rosarito position by Aponte Polito, a firebrand general in charge of the army's second sector. Polito, in just over a year in Baja California, developed a reputation for results in the fight against organized crime. He also managed to ruffle the feathers of a list of local bureaucrats. One source surmises that in taking the lead in the fight against organized crime, Polito stole the thunder of underperforming Baja California functionaries.
A political firestorm erupted in the summer of 2008 between the nearly retired Polito and state authorities. The general was recalled to Mexico City, ending the providential security arrangement that protected Montero (whose elite guard has since been replaced by the department's soldiers-turned-cops). Undaunted by the loss of his formidable backer, the secretary has vowed to push on in the struggle against organized crime, a fight many call suicidal and which is ultimately the result of his own refractory sense of honesty. As a municipal police chief, he doesn't have the power to investigate or challenge the area's reigning cartel, the AFO--Arellano-Felix Organization--but in refusing to cooperate with it, he's initiated a war ipso facto.