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Crusade to Avenge Friend Perished With Baja Official

September 16, 1996|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Ernesto Ibarra Santes began investigating the leaders of the so-called Tijuana drug cartel three years ago as a professional investigator's duty, his colleagues say.

Then, when a close friend was gunned down in 1994 trying to arrest one of the notorious Arellano Felix brothers, he began to describe his work as an intensely personal mission, several who knew him said.

In the scant 28 days between taking over the job as Baja California federal police commander and being shot to death in Mexico City, nothing he did raised eyebrows, interest and ire like Ibarra's contention that reputed drug kingpin Javier Arellano had already been captured once, but freed by state judicial police in an infamous March 3, 1994, shootout that was one of Baja California law enforcement's worst scandals. Six died, including Ibarra's buddy, federal anti-narcotics commander Alejandro Castaneda Andrade.

Two and a half years later, it was Ibarra who was gunned down early Saturday along with two bodyguards and a cab driver, sprayed by automatic weapons fire from a car in the next lane.

Just a few days earlier, Ibarra had declared that the aborted 1994 arrest illustrated the once and future challenge of apprehending a crime family with enough cash flow to corrupt a small army of police--a practice he vowed to end.

During his 28 days in Tijuana, Ibarra had become so known for breaking the code of silence on alleged corrupt activities within his forces that journalists joked they had to interview him before he got fired--or worse.

The 1994 incident "is an open secret in police circles. But why he was stirring all this up now?" said Victor Clark, a Tijuana human rights leader who had known Ibarra for several years. "When I asked him, he told me 'Remember, they killed my best friend and compadre.' He was angry. For him, this was like a personal vendetta."

Ibarra, 50, a native of the state of Veracruz and a medical doctor, was the sixth senior law enforcement official linked to the Baja California district attorney general's office to be killed in a gangland-style murder this year. None has yet been solved.

A cartoon in Sunday's Cambio newspaper showed Ibarra, his suit dripping blood, and the words, "A victim of narcotics traffic. Rest in peace."

"Surely, once again, impunity [for the killers] will be the response," said a critical column in Sunday's El Mexicano, a Tijuana daily. "This bloody act has caused great consternation and uncertainty. His strong words . . . were a very clear message to the Arellano Felix brothers."

Ibarra's account of the bloody 1994 confrontation appeared to confirm suspicions that have haunted Tijuana since then, but it embarrassed many public officials and infuriated some of those he implicated. Sergio Ortiz Lara, a former deputy prosecutor who was briefly charged with obstructing justice and abusing authority in the matter and later cleared, called on Ibarra to "stop the defamation."

One government official even hinted darkly to Clark that Ibarra had ties to a narcotics rival of the Arellanos. "The campaign against him came from high social circles," Clark said. "They began to oppose him practically from the day he arrived."

The 1994 shootout allegedly broke out when federal anti-narcotics agents who stopped the reputed traffickers' Jeep were attacked by allegedly corrupt state judicial police agents moonlighting as bodyguards for the drug lords. In the frenzied gun battle that followed, the alleged drug traffickers sped away.

"There is an old saying: God helps the bad when they outnumber the good," Ibarra said, in an interview with The Times two days before he was killed. "There were 100 of them and seven of us. They shot [Andrade] in the back with an AK-47. They didn't even have the decency to shoot him face to face."

Ibarra told The Times that federal intelligence agents possess a videotape of the incident in which Javier Arellano--known as El Tigrillo, or "the little tiger"--is plainly visible. "We had him handcuffed, face down on the pavement, with a gunshot wound in his leg," Ibarra said.

Eduardo Valle, then a former senior official at the Mexico City attorney general's office, which oversaw the anti-drug operation, corroborated Ibarra's version of the aborted Arellano capture. But he criticized Ibarra as something of a grandstander. "It was obvious he was going to be killed," Valle said. "He talked a lot."

At Ibarra's Tijuana offices, three candles were lighted in his memory Sunday. A secretary wept at her desk. Guards watched a pickup truck outside filled with suitcases of Ibarra's belongings.

"It was a shock. He was a good man, a brave man," said federal investigator Arturo Gutierrez, one of the dozen or so men sent immediately from the Mexico City attorney general's office to clean out Ibarra's office.

Jesus Velasco, spokesman of the Tijuana federal attorney general's delegation, which oversees the Baja federal agents, said he did not understand why Ibarra took an ordinary cab in Mexico City instead of asking for an official bulletproof Jeep.

"Maybe he was accustomed to going about on his own," Velasco said. "Things like this only happen to people once."

During Ibarra's 11 years of police experience, including seven with the attorney general's office in Mexico City, narcotics had become his specialty.

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