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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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(page 2 of 4)

IN 2003, I MOVED TO ROSARITO on a reporting tip from a convicted human smuggler. The following five years afforded me a bottom-up picture of Mexico’s organized-crime paradigm, by way of a group of wily and dentally challenged expatriate American traffickers (a strange brood that had escaped to the less-restrictive climes of Baja California). The cop beheadings happened midway through my time there, and they didn’t add up. Why did the mafia kill three municipal officers, men who were powerless to investigate its transgressions? And who was the fourth victim, the Mexican-born American citizen who had no apparent reason for being in Rosarito?

The answers to those questions have been hindered by the bad newspaper coverage of organized crime in Baja California. The San Diego Union-Tribune often repeats the official line given by police representatives on each side of the border. Reporters from Tijuana’s dailies are scared to dig much deeper than that; three editors from the muckraking journal Zeta have been assassinated since 1988. And as a law enforcement source I call “Buford Pusser” assures me, editors of Tijuana’s major dailies were on the payroll of the Tijuana Cartel in the past.

In 2007, U.S. federal sentencing statements confirmed that Javier Arellano-Felix—the then-head of the AFO (who was captured in international waters off Baja California)—ordered the decapitations. But authorities still couldn’t explain what a 31-year-old civilian named Rodolfo Masforroll was doing at the Rosarito police station or why the AFO wanted him dead. Rumors and theories were ban died about, but as is often the case in Mexico, the next high-profile crime pulled the story off the media radar and out of the public consciousness.

Baja authorities said that though they had no leads on Masforroll, the explanation for the slayings was simple: Rosarito officers interrupted a cartel party at a local ranch. Zeta (widely viewed as the only outlet in town with an honest perspective) suggested cops went to the party one too many times looking for bribe money. Another theory held that Masforroll was a DEA or even CIA operative, working against (or possibly with) the AFO. In the months following the slayings, violence flared across Mexico, and bodies piled up in Baja. But Rosarito didn’t hit the international wires again for almost two years.

Jorge Montero, a former captain in Mexico’s army (and a Mexican special forces vet), took the reins of the town’s police department at the beginning of December 2007. Weeks later, an 18-man cartel commando came gunning for him. The team stormed police headquarters in broad daylight, killing one of Montero’s bodyguards and wounding another. Only one member of the assault team has been arrested, and he was a Rosarito cop. It’s widely believed the majority of men on that commando raid were Montero’s own officers.

The event made for headline fodder on both sides of the border and was a pointed reminder that cops and corruption have become so closely tied in Mexico it’s hard to separate them. Montijo-Pompa says systematic graft dates to the arrival of the Spaniards, when the indigenous tribes who fought the Europeans were eradicated, and sycophants and the venal flourished. By the 20th century, he says, corruption had become ingrained in the cultural fabric.

Dr. David Shirk, the head of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute, demurs. The TBI studies Mexico’s judicial system and its challenges, and Shirk says corruption there is merely the reflection of a weak judicial system. According to TBI statistics (which closely match the numbers of law specialist Dr. Dante Haro of the University of Guadalajara), little more than 1 percent of crimes in Mexico are successfully prosecuted. Those figures come from an assumed mass of all crimes called the cifra negra. It’s impossible to tally the country’s universe of transgressions, Shirk says, so researchers, needing that theoretical base, construed the “black statistic.”

“Somebody is stealing a quarter out of my ashtray at home right now, and I’ll never know about it,” Shirk says. “Or somebody steals my bike and it only cost me $20 at a yard sale . . . I’m not going to report it to authorities. They’re part of that black universe of crimes we’ll never know about. Murder, on the other hand, has a very high incidence of reporting. All of them together compose the cifra negra.”

Researchers say only 25 percent of crimes are reported in Mexico. That contrasts with 65 percent in the United States. Mexicans clearly don’t trust their police. Of that 25 percent, authorities develop suspects in about one out of five cases—only 4.6 percent of total crimes. About a third of those are then brought to trial: 1.6 percent of the cifra negra.

A high-level source in Mexico’s attorney general’s office, the PGR (Procuraduría General de la República, the nation’s preeminent security agency), tells me Shirk’s numbers are right on—but his conclusion is off. Montijo-Pompa is right, the source says, corruption in Mexico is cultural.

“If you grow up in a system of corruption, one that is based in corruption, how do you know anything but corruption?” she says. “The problem is education. We need to show officials and police there is another way.”

She talks of a contemporary atmosphere of virtual impunity for killers. Beginning in the mid-20th century, she says, and escalating with cocaine in the 1970s, the Mexican government—mainly through the PGR—controlled the country’s organized-crime network. It was the government that officiated in criminal disputes and apportioned plazas—areas of influence and drug-thoroughfare, the rights to which were leased by crime syndicates. It’s not that cartels didn’t kill 30 and 40 years ago, she says; they just did it quietly—with the cooperation and pacifying oversight of the government.

Her story was echoed by claims that several law enforcement officials in Baja California made to me, and it parallels statements made by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a jailed drug baron known as Mexico's Godfather. Gallardo told Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper in February that in the 1980s it was the PGR that doled out plazas in Mexican territory.

A source at Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, tells me President Felipe Calderon has dismantled the old system of government-mafia pacts and severed communication with organized crime. Ironically, the source says, that might be one of the factors driving the bloodshed. To put pressure on the government and force it back to the negotiating table, the mafiosos have begun targeting the civilian population with bloodletting and terror. Nothing demoralizes the public more quickly than killing its police chief or beheading its officers, and nothing affects the immediate policy of a government more than a terrified citizenry.

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