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Corruption Slows Tijuana Slaying Probe : Mexico: Investigators suspect that killers of the city's police chief have ties to law enforcement agencies as well as to a drug cartel, sources say.

October 28, 1994|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — A few weeks before his murder, the city police chief received a chilling overture from the Tijuana drug cartel: We want to talk to you.

Chief Jose Federico Benitez Lopez, a lanky, bespectacled reformer, met secretly at a restaurant with Ismael (El Mayel) Higuera Guerrero, acting boss of the cartel run by the Arellano brothers, according to Mexican and U.S. government officials familiar with the case.

The presence of the fugitive kingpin and his thugs in a public place set the tone: The Arellanos still owned Tijuana. The gangster told the chief that aggressive raids by his municipal officers were interfering with business. The cartel would pay $100,000, with more to come, for him to stop meddling. Benitez refused, saying he was going to do what he had to do.

"Very well," the gangster replied. "Then we will also do what we have to do."

Six months ago today, Benitez died in a highway ambush: A gunman in a passing Ford Bronco sprayed him with AK-47 fire after another vehicle cut him off. The murder stoked an already growing sense of anarchy in Mexico created by politically charged violence, especially the March 23 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana.

There have been no arrests in the Benitez slaying. According to Mexican and U.S. government sources, state police investigators suspect an explosive scenario: The chief's killers were connected not only to the cartel but to the federal and state police as well. The investigation has reached the brink of confrontation with a convoluted network of corruption; some doubt it will go further.

The case remains an unfinished tale about the clash of good intentions with the reality of Mexico's often-rapacious police culture. Benitez was an outsider who went beyond the call of duty by challenging a drug underworld that threatens the stability of the nation. His combination of courage and inexperience made him a lonely hero. And ultimately, it drove him to his death.

"Here was a truly good official, a man who was doing his job with honesty and enthusiasm," said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, Baja's former human rights prosecutor. "He had a great preoccupation with drugs, the presence of drugs among children. He risked his life. This leaves the government with the moral responsibility of resolving the case: Justice must be done."

Soon after the assassination, Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel said publicly that the crime had "dangerous roots" in police corruption. Ruffo said in July that the investigation was almost complete. And he has said that a state homicide division commander arrested last month in an Arellano safehouse was linked to the killers.

But the governor has said little more. Both he and Mayor Hector Osuna Jaime have surrounded themselves with bodyguards. Osuna declined to be interviewed about the case. The probe has moved slowly because the suspects have powerful protectors and state officials fear retaliation, sources said.

The suspects include "people at the level of federal commander," according to a law enforcement official close to the investigation, who said some have been transferred to other states.

Moreover, the results could embarrass the governor because of the suspected complicity of state officials, according to critics that include Victor Clark Alfaro, a human rights activist who has exposed corruption on his own.

"Almost immediately after the killing, they knew who the material and intellectual authors were," Clark said. "It is irresponsible of the government to make statements that the investigation is advancing, that they know who did it. It is both a political and a police matter. If it were strictly a police matter, they would have resolved it by now."

Mexico has struggled with an antiquated justice system dominated by the machine politics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Ruffo and other officials of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) are neophytes in this gritty milieu, having won power in Baja only within the last five years.

In Mexico, the federal judicial police have prime responsibility for drug enforcement, state judicial police investigate felonies, and city officers are dedicated to crime prevention. Although there are many honest officers, the cartels have gained alarming influence.

The Arellanos have operated with impunity in Baja, even after authorities put a price on their heads last year for the murder of the cardinal of Guadalajara. In March, state police serving as bodyguards for kingpin Ramon Arellano engaged in a deadly firefight with federal agents from Mexico City and allegedly helped Arellano flee. The scandal led to the resignation of Ruffo's attorney general.

A series of federal commanders have also been jailed or dismissed for suspected collusion with drug traffickers.

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