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Helping Hands Bolster Long Arm of Law in 2 Border Cities

November 22, 1997|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The bodies began piling up in August.

Gunmen killed four people in a drug-related execution at a restaurant next to Ciudad Juarez's famed bullring. A week later at another bullring cafe, assassins murdered two patrons in a second drug hit.

A lawyer for one of the drug cartels was fatally shot in a street ambush. And four doctors who had treated drug dealers were strangled to death, their bodies dumped near the Rio Grande.

The local police, headed by Jose Luis Reygadas, a grocer and accountant by trade who was thrust into the job two years ago, were clearly outmatched. But Reygadas did know this: When things go bad, real bad, he should run for help.

So Reygadas reached out to the United States.

In an unusual cross-border program, coming at a time when the United States and Mexico are growing increasingly skeptical of the other's commitment to fighting drugs, the police chiefs of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso are running a bilateral operation designed to cut through the political rhetoric.

Forsaking the posturing in Mexico City and Washington, the two chiefs have stopped pointing fingers and have joined hands in the war against international drug crimes.

It may not be a perfect match. Ciudad Juarez is overrun by drug crimes and a murder rate that is growing as fast as the city, now Mexico's fourth largest. El Paso, the first stop in the drug couriers' journey north, could see its crime rate explode if drug offenses are not curtailed south of the border.

And while Reygadas is not a trained police professional, Russ Leach, his counterpart in El Paso, understands that cooperation, not hostility, is key to keeping his own city safe. A 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, where he rose to the rank of captain, Leach left for El Paso in 1995, around the same time Reygadas was taking the helm in Ciudad Juarez.

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Today, Leach has become a model for the Clinton administration's latest approach to combating drugs. The White House drug czar, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, applauds Leach's efforts to share his department's personnel and technical expertise with the Mexicans.

Although Leach is wary of past examples of police corruption in Mexico, including instances when Mexican officers have been found in the pocket of the drug cartels, he nevertheless considers cooperation essential.

"Maybe I'm being naive," he said in a recent interview. "But if we get Mexico City or Washington involved, nothing gets done. Out here, we deal with real pragmatic issues. We need to work with each other."

"It's mutual," Reygadas echoed. "They help us. We help them."

McCaffrey recently brought Leach to a Senate hearing on the twin issues of narcotics and the U.S.-Mexico border. "He is proving on a day-to-day basis that cooperation works," McCaffrey told the lawmakers. "We can all learn from his example."

The contrast with the political rhetoric in the two nations' capitals is stark.

In Washington, many members of Congress insist that unless Mexico cleans up its own corruption, the United States will no longer credit its neighbor as a trade partner. In Mexico City, government leaders hold the United States responsible for the drug traffic because of the great demand for drugs north of the border.

To be sure, most of the support has flowed from north to south.

Since 1995, the El Paso Police Department has provided a variety of law enforcement expertise and technical assistance to their colleagues across the border.

When the bodies of 18 women were found in Ciudad Juarez in 1995, El Paso police helped Mexican authorities examine crime scenes. They even sent a forensic anthropologist from Dallas to help identify the victims.

"We gave them training on searching for buried bodies, vegetation growth, the disturbance of soil," said El Paso Det. Jesus C. Terrones. "We showed them how to excavate buried bodies, and how not to lose a lot of evidence, such as hair and fibers."

When it was later learned that the serial killer had left bite marks on his victims, El Paso police showed how to run dental records. When an Egyptian man was eventually arrested, El Paso turned over internal records tracing his movements in the United States.

When open drug warfare erupted with the bullring restaurant shootings, El Paso again was willing to help.

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Terrones said he and his fellow detectives helped trace a Dodge van with a Texas license plate that was believed to have been used in the shootings, as well as a black Jaguar also spotted in the slayings. "The buyer of the van fit a profile of a guy who was involved in drugs in Mexico," he said.

El Paso police also checked the four international bridges that span the Rio Grande here, asking motorists for any information on the two vehicles.

When the doctors were found dead here, El Paso helped process the station wagon that Ciudad Juarez police believe had transported the bodies. Terrones said El Paso detectives checked the vehicle for fingerprints, hair samples, fibers and bloodstains.

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