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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 4 of 4)

ABOUT THAT SAME TIME, a long convoy of black, window-tinted SUVs sped past a rural tire shop. The vehicles kicked up so much dust the sun disappeared, so the shop owner hosed down the dirt road. That caused mud puddles, which were splashed by the trucks. A mafia lieutenant in one of them saw the puddles and stopped. He knew dusty vehicles in Baja were ubiquitous, but wet ones weren’t — the mud was making his crew an obvious mark. He pulled his gun and told the shop owner to call it a day if he wanted to live to see the next.

By that time, Montijo-Pompa had contacted Rosarito mayor Antonio Macias-Garay, who put in a distraught call to state authorities: Bring in the cavalry. Montijo-Pompa wanted desperately to launch a rescue effort, but it was clear he was facing a far superior force. He personally talked to Julian Leyzaola — who is currently chief of Tijuana’s traumatized police department but was then head of Baja California’s state police — and told him to bring his men down the new highway connecting the east of Tijuana to Rosarito. That would block the probable escape route of the kidnappers.

State officers didn’t show up for almost three hours. An incensed Montijo-Pompa wonders at their inexcusable delay. Whatever their reason, he says, they didn’t follow his advice. They arrived on the main road coming into town (on the side opposite the ejidario’s ranch) and failed even to enter city limits. They didn’t make it to the ranch until the following morning.

Macario Gonzalez (currently an official with Baja California’s secretary general) was with the deputy governor’s office in 2006 and assigned to Rosarito; he talked to Montijo-Pompa the night of the kidnappings. In a 2008 interview with me, he confirmed the state police sat on the outskirts of town for several crucial hours. He says they were blocking egress from the back roads leading out of town.

Hogwash, Montijo-Pompa counters. “Anybody who knows Rosarito knows where the mafiosos would be leaving, on the other side of town, exactly where I told Leyzaola to be.” It wasn’t till after dark that Montijo-Pompa called the wives of Ismael and Ballesteros-Hernandez (Fabian-Ventura was unmarried). He told the women their husbands had been called to Tijuana for court and would have to spend the night there. Negrita thought the situation odd—it wasn’t at all like Ismael to neglect calling personally — but Montijo-Pompa was like part of the family, and she trusted him implicitly.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, Montijo-Pompa received a call: Four bodies had been discovered, encobijido (wrapped in blankets), near a grade school. Officials had to wait for forensics experts from Tijuana before unwrapping them. At that point they made a gruesome discovery: The bodies had no heads. A call an hour later told authorities where to find them — near state police headquarters in Tijuana.

Montijo-Pompa was crushed, but there was still work to do. He needed to alert two wives and Fabian-Ventura’s family — and Negrita was eight months pregnant. He arrived at her house with several other officers and an ambulance and told her Ismael had died in an auto accident. Hayndel was listening in another room. When Negrita approached him, he wouldn’t look her in the face, and he couldn’t talk. He was mute for months.

The slain officers, whom Montijo-Pompa refers to as “my right hand, my left hand and my eyes,” had been beaten and tortured. An autopsy showed that Ballesteros-Hernandez had a heart attack — it’s not clear whether the thrombosis was caused directly by torture or by the sight of the horrors unfolding in front of him. It turns out those putative federal cops were actually a mafioso security force protecting a large cartel party on a ranch close to the home of the ejidario. After Cazares mysteriously left the mafioso security detail in peace, other officers showed up, and an incensed Javier Arellano-Felix, the head of the AFO at the time, ordered their killings. Court records later attributed the kill order — heads are gonna roll — to the AFO capo.

Word on the street in Rosarito is that highranking police officials were in attendance at the party — which might help explain Leyzaola’s baffling negligence. By the time state cops arrived at the ranch, they found six straggling underlings, reportedly inebriated, who had been left to fix a flat on a cartel pickup. The men said a Rosarito cop had been paid off (they later recanted). Cazares was arrested a month later by Mexico City authorities, following a week-long federal investigation. Nothing more came of the inquiry.

The outstanding question still flutters around motive — why such savagery? One theory holds the mafia was sick of being shaken down by local cops. But more likely than that, Javier Arellano-Felix, increasingly desperate — since 2002, Mexican and U.S. authorities have systematically dismantled the AFO hierarchy — was reacting with the new cartel tactic of terror toward the government and civilian population; part of the mafia zeitgeist of the new century: attrition through brutality.

IN 2008, I SAT DOWN with Negrita. She told me she’d recently talked with Hayndel, by phone. The 8-year-old had called her in tears.

“Don’t be mad at me, Mommy,” he said. “But I’m beginning to lose Dad’s voice — I can’t remember what he sounded like. I try so hard, but I can’t remember.”

For Hayndel, the ashes are returning to ashes and the dust is settling, but his legacy — the fulfillment of his father’s last wish — has been stolen. He is ready to be the man of the house, but in Mexico, cops don’t have benefits, a retirement or a widows-and-orphans fund. Ismael’s family is on its own. And Negrita, as a single mother on a secretary’s salary, can’t afford to raise her children (her youngest was born two weeks after Ismael fell). The boys live thousands of miles away in central Mexico, with her parents. It’s as if, she says, her life has ended. When the AFO killed her husband, it killed her as well.

As a walking casualty, Negrita joins a burgeoning population of survivors of the 10,000- plus fatalities — those just since the turn of the century — in Mexico’s internecine civil war, with more than 5,000 killings in 2008 alone. It’s a place where honest cops have short life expectancies, and the rest are involved (to some extent) with organized crime.

When I moved back to Rosarito, early in 2007, I stumbled onto a longtime cop who insisted all the chiefs there are corrupt. “Even Montijo-Pompa?” I asked. We talked about the beheadings, and the cop nervously drove me to the ranch where the deed had occurred. He told me Montijo-Pompa was with holding information.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Do you know whose ranch this is?” he said. “It belongs to Macias-Garay, the mayor.”

Other sources have told me the claim is true. Montijo-Pompa says he’s tried to track down property records, but they’re inconclusive. Macias-Garay, meanwhile, has rebuffed attempts to contact him for comment. And so the owner of the ranch is a mystery.

“What good would it do to know, anyway?” Montijo-Pompa says. “Nothing changes here … nothing.”

Part three of the Border Trilogy, “The Hope,” examines the mandate — and attempted assassination — of Rosarito’s crusading new security chief, Jorge Montero. Not only does he represent the future of this small town, he is a microcosm for a new societal war, the battle lines of which are being laid out in police departments and on street corners across the country. He is also a symbol of the good left in Mexico — of genuine heroes like Ismael Torres-Arellano — and one of the few vestiges of hope for millions of terrorized citizens.

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