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All the Dead Heroes: The Border Trilogy, Part II

Rosarito’s day of death in 2006 — ending with the slayings of three cops in the small town south of Tijuana — hammered home the personal costs of the increasingly violent drug wars raging across Mexico


(page 3 of 4)

THE MORNING OF JUNE 20, 2006, was much like any other for Negrita. Ismael took Hayndel to kindergarten and returned with tamales. Later in the day, he went to see a new associate, Rodolfo Masforroll-Aguilar. Originally from Veracruz, Mosforroll-Aguilar had immigrated to Phoenix, years before. He’d been deported back to Mexico after taking a felony rap for buying guns at the behest of Rosarito cops.

Those cops — who were responsible for his undoing in the United States — rented Mosforroll-Aguilar a small apartment. Their plan was to slip him back into the States over the busy Fourth of July weekend, at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. In the meantime, he spent afternoons with Ismael. At about 5 in the afternoon, the two men drove to headquarters to talk with Montijo-Pompa.

“Ismael was the best cop I had in my whole career,” Montijo-Pompa says. “Whenever there was a call — I don’t care whether it was a robbery, an assault, whatever — Ismael was going to be the first one there, always. The first one through the door, the first to get shot at.”

Ismael was itching to return to work, ahead of doctor’s orders. But he’d already returned once, prematurely, and re-injured his knee. Convincing the chief was unlikely, but he gave it a shot.

“No way,” Montijo-Pompa told him. “Don’t even try me.”

Montijo-Pompa, Ismael and Mosforroll-Aguilar constituted half the group at headquarters on that slow and simmering afternoon. Jesus Ballesteros-Hernandez, the subcommander of the commercial police division, joined them unexpectedly. A portly and good-natured cop with a quiet and honest disposition, he was one of Montijo-Pompa’s trusted confidants (the chief figured up to 80 percent of his officers were corrupt).

A city administrator stopped by and suggested a cold drink to combat the heat. Montijo-Pompa dispatched his personal bodyguard, Benjamin Fabian-Ventura, to pick up a sixpack of Sol beer. The loyal and stone-quiet army vet ran to the corner store. Shortly after he returned, the phone rang. It was the daughter of one of Montijo-Pompa’s friends.

The friend was an old rancher and landowner, or ejidario, who’d become a millionaire in the past two decades, as land prices in coastal Rosarito had gone through the roof — making the ejidarios prime kidnapping targets. The girl, through sobs and tears, told Montijo-Pompa that a group of armed men was waiting outside her family’s ranch to grab her father. It was just after 6 p.m.

The chief sent a subcommander named Cazares to reconnoiter. At the moment, there were 15 cops on duty, and the department had almost a dozen automatic weapons. Montijo-Pompa figured he could stand up to a band of up to 12 men — anything more and he’d have to wait for a state police backup.

As he waited for Cazares, he pulled several AR-15 rifles from the department’s ordnance room. With sweat beading on his brow, he began feeding ammunition into empty magazines and gave his first pivotal command of the day. He sent his bodyguard to his house to retrieve a stash of rifles. Ismael — realizing what was happening — grabbed the hesitant Ballesteros-Hernandez and Mosforroll-Aguilar and shoved them into his car.

“I tried to stop him,” Montijo-Pompa says in recollection. “Everything happened so quickly then. And when I think about it, he was in such a hurry — in a hurry to get killed. He left like crazy and went to my house like crazy, and they hopped in the patrol and left.”

Lupita, Montijo-Pompa’s cleaning lady, remembers that Ismael’s car came to a screeching halt in front of the house, right behind Fabian-Ventura. Ismael jumped out and told Fabian-Ventura to help transfer the automatic weapons from the chief’s patrol unit. The pursy Ballesteros-Hernandez, meanwhile, shuffled about nervously. Mosforroll-Aguilar sat in the back without saying anything.

“Then they took off again, in the two cars, peeling wheels,” Lupita says. “They were in such a hurry, and I knew then that death was chasing after them.”

By that time, Cazares, on his way to the ejidario’s ranch, had run headlong into a hornet’s nest — a band of 30 heavily armed brigands. And that was only one band among many. Reports from neighbors put the total number of roving gunmen at 80 to 150. The men were federal agents, Cazares reported back, and they didn’t want the local cops interfering.

“They’re all in AFI [Agencia Federal de Investigaciones] uniforms,” he squawked over the radio, “and they told me to get the f--- out of here.”

Montijo-Pompa was nervous. It was no secret the feds didn’t forewarn local authorities when coming to Baja California, but it augured ill so many would appear without notice.

“What exactly did they tell you?” he asked Cazares.

“They told me ‘Vete la verga de aqui,’ ” he said.

“Oh, shit,” Motijo-Pompa muttered.

His worst nightmare had come to pass. La verga, Spanish slang for penis, is as versatile and widely used in Mexican vernacular as the f-word in English. It’s particularly heavily used in Sinaloa, the coastal Pacific state legendary for criminals and criminal networks. Montijo-Pompa knew feds from Mexico City wouldn’t have used the expression Cazares was reporting. These were Sinaloa-born mafiosos.

And if they were from Sinaloa, it meant they were among the crème de la crème of hired guns. Whoever they were out to get (or were protecting) was a big fish. Whatever the case, the verga transmission marked the last contact with Cazares. The subcommander fell into radio silence, a hellish and frustrating development for Montijo-Pompa.

The chief cursed his absent subaltern and demanded an update, but Cazares didn’t turn up for more than an hour, miles away from the action. It was a window of time he couldn’t explain, and it cost him two years in jail (Zeta, the newspaper, later claimed an officer had been paid $10,000 to vanish, by those faux federal agents). Ismael and Fabian-Ventura, meanwhile, headed for the ejidario’s ranch — disobeying Montijo-Pompa’s directions to return to headquarters. They were unaware of the report of armed gunmen.

With 20 minutes gone by, Montijo-Pompa, at his wits’ end, sent another officer to find Cazares. On the dusty, unpaved road that led to the subcommander’s last known location, the officer made a chilling discovery. Ismael’s car sat on the side of the road, running, with its doors open.

Twenty yards behind it was Fabian-Ventura’s patrol truck. It, too, was running, and it had a bullet hole in the roof. A pool of blood was puddled on the floorboard, and fleshy debris covered the back window.

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