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Walking a Tightrope at the Border : Law enforcement: Grupo Beta has been widely praised for fighting corruption and protecting human rights along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. But some observers worry that the special unit's future is in danger.

September 15, 1993|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Grupo Beta began in 1990 as a quixotic experiment: a reform-minded psychologist and a handful of undercover Tijuana cops trying to impose order on a lawless combat zone between nations.

It evolved into an internationally acclaimed border force that cut violence by criminals and authorities alike, improved relations with U.S. agencies and largely resisted the corruption that dogs Mexican law enforcement, according to government officials and migrant advocates in both nations.

But recent developments have some observers concerned about the future of the groundbreaking special force.

"Beta represents a model of what it is possible to achieve," wrote Gabriel Szekely, a professor at the College of Mexico, in a recent article in the Mexico City magazine Nexos. "It's not easy to establish a group of police officers who work with enthusiasm and are incorruptible."

Szekely lauded former Beta commander Javier Valenzuela, a shrewd, energetic newcomer to the often authoritarian world of Mexican police work. Valenzuela's unorthodox philosophies--open dialogue among officers, unprecedented access to human rights watchdogs--helped forge a success story, observers say.

"The custom of police in Mexico was, the first thing after you arrested someone, to slap him around," said a veteran Beta officer. "What I learned in Beta was respect for human rights, whether migrants or criminals. Beta was based on respect for the law. It was a policeman's dream."

But after administrative changes in the Mexican Interior Ministry, which oversees Beta as part of the federal immigration service, Valenzuela transferred to the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles this summer. He heads a consular department that aids immigrants.

Valenzuela's departure has some observers worried about the future of Grupo Beta at a time of intensified crime in Tijuana and tension at the border, which is in the spotlight because of the political focus on immigration and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Infighting at the Interior Ministry constricted Beta's independence beginning in February, said sources close to the unit--including Jose Luis Perez Canchola, the state human rights ombudsman for Baja California. Perez alleges that immigrant smugglers have bought increasing collusion from Mexican federal officials this year.

U.S. Border Patrol statistics indicate that the lucrative business of smuggling foreigners through Mexico is thriving. After several years of decline, arrests of non-Mexican illegal crossers--chiefly Central Americans and Chinese--have risen to 4,659 so far this year compared to 2,866 during the same period in 1992.

Recent incidents in which gunmen, including Mexican police officers, have abused and extorted migrants along the international border suggest the resurgence of a phenomenon that Beta had suppressed, said Perez, a respected police monitor.

"The control that had been established is being lost," he said. "When there isn't coordination, the problem of smugglers and robbers increases."

Grupo Beta (Spanish for Group B) had previously shared computerized data on border issues and cooperated with inquiries of misconduct allegations--on one occasion this year, commanders conducted an impromptu lineup of the unit's officers when two youths complained of being roughed up.

But Perez said a new hard-line policy dictated by Mexico City has made Grupo Beta increasingly secretive.

Some U.S. authorities also fear a chilling of relations. Beta's new leadership suspended monthly joint training sessions with the Border Crime Intervention Unit, a San Diego police tactical squad that developed a close rapport with its Tijuana counterpart. Where BCIU and Beta once met frequently, communications have been reduced to field officers talking through the border fence, officials said.

Training of Grupo Beta officers by the FBI has also been suspended, according to Mexican officials.

"There is a lot of concern," said a San Diego police official. "It's a safety issue. It creates an atmosphere for an incident that could lead to serious consequences."

On the other hand, Border Patrol spokesman Steve Kean said his agency does not perceive a change for the worse.

"We've had no hitches with them at all," he said.

The new commander of Grupo Beta claims that he has had to shake up a passive, inadequately supervised force. Mario Arturo Coutino, who took over in July, said he has conducted aggressive roundups of criminals, including polleros, as smugglers are known in Tijuana.

"I found that Beta was in a position of passivity and contemplation," said Coutino, 40, who previously worked in agrarian reform and indigenous affairs in the southern border state of Chiapas. "Beta was not denouncing what was going on. They tolerated the smugglers. . . . It's not that there has been a resurgence of the phenomenon. It had never disappeared."

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