YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Tijuana Shootout a Clash of Drug Agents, Police


TIJUANA — A bloody shootout that killed a Mexican federal police commander and two state police officers erupted when federal police confronted state judicial police who were protecting drug traffickers, Mexican authorities confirmed Saturday.

The gun battle Thursday night pitted officers of the Baja California State Judicial Police against agents of a special federal squad from Mexico City investigating the powerful Arellano cartel of Tijuana, whose three leaders are wanted in the death of the cardinal of Guadalajara, U.S. and Mexican sources said. The FBI and the DEA joined forces with the Mexican Federal Judicial Police Saturday in a wide-ranging, fast-moving investigation on both sides of the border.

"There is speculation that the Arellanos were in the area--at least one of the Arellanos," William Esposito, the special agent in charge of the FBI in San Diego, said after a meeting with the deputy attorney general of Mexico in Tijuana on Saturday. "There is information that they have been going back and forth between Baja California Norte, other parts of Mexico and possibly the southwestern U.S."

Investigators suspect that one of the three wanted kingpins, Ramon Arellano, may have been riding in a red Chevrolet Suburban that was stopped by two Suburbans carrying the federal officers Thursday night, setting off a desperate, close-quarters gunfight with heavy weapons at a busy intersection, according to a high-ranking U.S. source close to the investigation.

U.S. agents are looking into the possibility that Arellano fled north across the border after the shootout, sources said. Arellano and his two brothers have been on the run since the May 24 shooting that killed Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo and six others at the Guadalajara airport.

"The DEA and FBI are putting together a special team to gather intelligence on the U.S. side," Esposito said. "We are working on the border trying to do a follow-up investigation on the Arellanos."

Although hard evidence of the Arellanos' involvement did not emerge Saturday, Mexican federal officials provided new details of the investigation that is focusing on suspected high-level corruption in Baja California law enforcement. They confirmed that the federal officers were attacked by state judicial police officers in league with drug traffickers.

"The red Suburban was carrying the attacking group, including state judicial police officers," said Hugo Morales, a spokesman for the Mexican attorney general's office. "The federal agents were attacked. That is one of the conclusions."

Reinforcements consisting of more than 100 federal officers and top prosecutors from Mexico City arrived in Tijuana late Friday and early Saturday, underscoring the gravity of the case. They were led by Mexican Atty. Gen. Diego Valades, who met with Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, and returned to the capital after announcing that the results of the shooting investigation would be made public Sunday.

Privately, Mexican officials said Saturday the federal unit had been investigating the Arellanos, who they said appear to be connected to the incident.

"There is a fundamental question: Who was being protected?" a Mexican official said. "It had to be a very important personage."

Federal officials Saturday identified the four men who died: Cmdr. Alejandro Castaneda Andrade, chief of the special federal squad; Alfredo Mendizibil Rodriguez and Salvador Miramontes Torres, both state police officers suspected of involvement with drug traffickers; and Juan Manuel Chavez, also believed to have been allied with the state officers.

Two federal police officers and two other unidentified participants remain hospitalized with multiple gunshot wounds. Authorities revealed that four more suspects arrested at the scene include at least one additional state police officer, Gustavo Aguilar Villasenor.

The gunfight took place about 8:45 p.m. Thursday. The federal agents riding in two Suburbans tried to arrest the occupants of the red Suburban on Felix Gomez Street, a narrow side street near Boulevard Diaz Ordaz, a crowded commercial thoroughfare, according to a U.S. source.

"The commander's vehicle was parallel to the red van," the U.S. source said. "They tried to stop them."

The occupants of the red van opened fire, shooting out the windows of their own vehicle, officials said. The federal officers returned fire and wounded several suspects. As the federal officers tried to take their assailants into custody, officials said, another vehicle came by carrying allies of the traffickers and state police officers; the gunmen jumped out and shot at the federal officers with AK-47s and other weapons.

"Guns blazing, they start shooting at the (federal police), who have got the guys on the ground," the U.S. official said.

Los Angeles Times Articles