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Baja Police Chief Slain After Vowing Shake-Up

Crime: Anti-corruption leader is sixth official with links to prosecutor's office to be murdered this year.

September 15, 1996|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR and MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — An outspoken Baja California police commander who had vowed to purge his ranks of agents corrupted by Tijuana narcotics kingpins was gunned down early Saturday along with three others after less than a month on the job, the attorney general's office said.

Cmdr. Ernesto Ibarra Santes, the Baja director of the Federal Judicial Police, was the sixth senior law enforcement official linked to the Baja California federal attorney general's office to be killed in a gangland-style murder this year.

Ibarra, 50, had flown to Mexico City and was headed to the attorney general's headquarters just after midnight when assassins pulled up in a car and sprayed his taxi with automatic weapons fire, according to a Mexico City statement and officials in Tijuana.

Killed with him were two bodyguards, federal Agents Israel Moreno Flores and Aaron Rosas Gallegos, and the driver of the airport cab, Juan Arturo Hernandez Lizardi, according to the statement.

Ibarra, an 11-year law enforcement veteran, had shocked many in Tijuana with his fiery critiques of narcotics influence in the police forces. He was named to his post Aug. 16 during a nationwide police shake-up in which more than 700 allegedly corrupt federal judicial police agents were dismissed. Half of the 120-member Baja force eventually had to be fired, he said.

"Police had become so corrupted that they weren't just friends of the traffickers, they were their servants," Ibarra said in one of two lengthy interviews with The Times in Tijuana days before his death. "This is a revolution. It is serious. There is political will to crush the narcotics structure."

The slaying came on the heels of a citywide sweep overseen by Ibarra in Tijuana on Thursday in which federal anti-drug agents backed by army troops seized four houses belonging to the reputed leaders of the so-called Tijuana cartel, the Arellano Felix brothers. Seventy-six kilos of cocaine and five kilos of marijuana were confiscated, officials said.

"The attorney general's office will not rest and will redouble its efforts to capture the Arellano Felix brothers," said the Mexico City statement announcing Ibarra's death.

Ibarra said many of the dismissed Baja federal judicial police agents were believed to have tipped off traffickers to a surprise raid in March aimed at the capture of Javier Arellano, one of three fugitive brothers wanted for narcotics trafficking and the 1993 slaying of the cardinal of Guadalajara.

When police stormed their safe houses, they were long gone, Ibarra said in the interviews.

"The Arellanos were warned we were coming and they fled," Ibarra said. "Who told them? The men we fired. That's why we got rid of them."

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Ibarra replaced Horacio Brunt, who had been celebrated for the capture of accused cocaine kingpin Juan Garcia Abrego last year but who had been criticized in Tijuana for failing to move more aggressively against the Arellano clan.

Twenty-nine Baja federal judicial police were initially fired as part of the national sweep, but after Ibarra took over an additional 32 agents were sacked. One of the Baja federal agents dismissed in the shake-up, Ricardo Narciso, was caught Sept. 7 driving a stolen car packed with 56 kilos of marijuana, Ibarra said.

"He thought we were just playing around," Ibarra said. "We will arrest any agent we catch breaking the law."

Ibarra said police corruption was one of the greatest obstacles to apprehending the Arellano Felix brothers.

The most provocative allegation he made was that Javier Arellano was actually detained by federal agents in March 1994, but freed by corrupt state judicial police.

"Corruption is a phenomenon of supply and demand," he said. "It has no limits, color or creed."

Before the police dismissals, Ibarra said, even information passed along by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wasn't safe. "The traffickers immediately got it. They were laughing at us," he said.

Ibarra's open accusations of police malfeasance--as well as a penchant for surprise anti-drug raids criticized by some as heavy-handed--raised more than a few eyebrows in a city unaccustomed to seeing its dirty laundry aired so publicly by a man of his rank.

"I know my revelations have surprised some people," Ibarra said. "I'm saying this because this society wants to know the truth."

Ibarra said Javier Arellano, nicknamed El Tigrillo, or "Little Tiger," appeared to be based in the outlying beach community of Playas de Tijuana, where drug-related violence has become common this year. On Sept. 4, Ibarra said, he received a credible report that Arellano was seen driving through Playas in a white Mercedes-Benz with tinted windows.

With his new agents, and more aggressive tactics, Ibarra said, he hoped to put an end to their era of impunity.

"Not everyone is corrupt," Ibarra said. "You can't do the job of Hercules overnight, but now it's going to be different. It's up to us to add our little grain of sand."

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