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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BUFORD PUSSER holds a sensitive position with Baja California’s judiciary and acts as liaison to the Mexican army. Before that, he held a high post in Tijuana’s beleaguered police department. He needs two hands to count the number of his friends who have been assassinated, and he stoically recounts two attempts on his own life. In 2007, I asked him why the AFO had killed those Rosarito cops so gruesomely—and if Montijo-Pompa had something to hide (as another police source indicated). Pusser told me he thought the former chief was clean but peripherally responsible for the death of Adrian Masforroll—who, he said, had to be one of the unluckiest men in North America.
According to Pusser, in the months leading up to the killings, Montijo-Pompa took up a private collection to clandestinely buy weapons for Rosarito’s police department. The former rancher collected between $10,000 and $20,000 and sent two officers to a Phoenix gun show to buy AR-15s (semiautomatic M-16s). As non-U.S. citizens, the Rosarito cops couldn’t buy weapons in Arizona, so they found Masforroll—who worked construction and had crossed into the States years before, eventually achieving legal status—and convinced him to help. The Mexican immigrant went to the show and bought a half-dozen rifles.
The Rosarito cops went back to Masforroll’s house, dismantled the weapons, hid the parts in a vehicle and drove home—their mission a success. Weapons in hand, and satisfied with the operation, the chief sent his men back to the United States a month later for more. They recontacted Masforroll and returned to the gun show—where they suspected they were being tailed. After procuring the weapons, the trio returned to Masforroll’s house. There, a task force of ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) agents, FBI and local cops pounced on them.
The Rosarito officers were lucky—they were merely sent home. Masforroll was charged with a class-four felony. During the booking process, Phoenix cops realized his paperwork wasn’t in order; he wasn’t a citizen at all. With the felony charge still standing, Masforroll was deported to Mexico. It had been years since he’d lived in his native country, and he didn’t know where to turn. Rosarito officers rented him an apartment, with a promise to get him back across the border.
He began spending afternoons with Montijo-Pompa’s best cop, an officer named Ismael Torres Arellano (no connection to the cartel). Torres was on disability leave, and on the afternoon of June 20, 2006, he left his wife at home—with a baby two weeks from birth—and took Masforroll to police headquarters, where the two men found themselves in the tragically wrong place at the wrong time.
Until Police Chief Bowser-Miret’s murder, the town’s first high-level assassination, Rosarito was viewed as an insignificant satellite of the mafia-ridden Tijuana, not worth the AFO’s attention. To calm nerves, Mayor Macias-Garay turned to longtime cop Montijo-Pompa, his old friend. After being appointed, the new chief realized Rosarito’s police department had no automatic rifles —an oddity for a municipality that just 10 years before had been part of Tijuana, one of the country’s most violent plazas.
The Mexican army, which controls all firearms in the country, is fiercely guarded about automatic weapons, Montijo-Pompa says. It’s been less than 100 years, after all, since Mexico’s last bloody revolution. In 2005, the wait time for an AR-15 order was two to three years, and the former rancher knew he would likely be out of office before his weapons order arrived at headquarters.
“Do you understand that policemen in Mexico have to get down on their knees and beg for a single bullet?” he asks. “While it is nothing for the narcos to go practice with 3,000 rounds for their AK-47s.”
Current chief Montero says there’s a deeper explanation for the dearth of weapons: Mayor Macias-Garay was up to his ears in the AFO and didn’t want to arm his own officers, who might then war with the men lining his pockets. The word on Rosarito streets is that the former mayor had, and continues to have, tight ties with the Arellanos—and that he became a millionaire during his three years in office. Records show he owns several properties in Southern California, as well as a development company. His salary as mayor was $30,000 a year. (Though I interviewed him in late 2006, he’s ignored numerous attempts to contact him for this article.)
Local lore says the city attorney under Macias-Garay, a man named Juan Esquivel-Fiero (who is the head of a five-brother political dynasty in Rosarito), was also complicit with the AFO. In 2004, I went to see his brother, Alberto, who was then a subcommander in Rosarito’s police department and a friend of an American who went by the alias Big Brother (a former human smuggler who was one of my primary sources). Big Brother said the mafia ran Rosarito and that the city’s government was thoroughly mixed up with it (a claim that seemed dubious at the time, as the pueblo still carried the tenor of an idyllic beach town).
When Big Brother disappeared in 2004, I went to see Alberto—a corpulent, lightskinned man of 34, with a thick, black mustache. He said he had gone to high school in the United States, and his English was decent. After a couple of meetings, he told me Macias-Garay wanted to promote him. Then he asked me to help him find a security guard job in the United States. The incongruity—a bright career outlook in Rosarito versus his desire to flee north—became more muddled when he told me he feared for his life and his family.
“I now have a heart condition,” he said. “The stress is making my heart bad. If I don’t leave here soon, I will die.”
“How many people live in Rosarito?” I asked.
“And how many murders were there here last year?”
“Sixteen,” he said.