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California and the West

Theories on Tijuana Killings Abound

Crime: Some U.S. officials think a drug gang from out of state has launched a major incursion. Others see housecleaning by the city's own cartel.

March 24, 2000|KEN ELLINGWOOD and ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — A string of jarring murders and arrests in Tijuana, including the assassination last month of the municipal police chief, has draped fresh intrigue over a city steeped in the mysterious workings of a criminal underworld.

In a place where divining meaning from acts of violence is a morbid coffee-shop pastime, the assassination and ensuing developments have inspired a dizzying array of possible explanations--and divergent opinions within U.S. law enforcement circles over whether Baja California is in the midst of a war between big-time drug gangs.

Although some U.S. officials see months of spectacular killings as an early indication of a broad conflict between rival groups, others attribute much of the violence to housecleaning within the Arellano Felix gang, which dominates drug trafficking in Baja California.

U.S. law enforcement officials say a gang based in Sinaloa, a coastal state whose best-known city is Mazatlan, appears to have stepped up its presence in Baja California as cocaine smuggling through the zone has grown. But they express skepticism about an assertion by Mexican authorities that the Sinaloa group, implicated in the murder of Tijuana Police Chief Alfredo de la Torre Marquez, is also responsible for the slayings of 14 other people in the border city in recent months.

"Quite honestly, we can't see the motivation behind some of the killings," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We can't see the connection."

There are even differences within U.S. law enforcement over the alleged drug involvement of De la Torre, who was slain in a brazen daylight highway ambush Feb. 27. One federal official said there is "pretty solid information" going back several years that De la Torre, who held various law enforcement posts over a nearly 30-year career before becoming chief in 1998, had been paid to assist the Arellano smuggling operations. But others within the U.S. government characterize reports about De la Torre as contradictory and inconclusive.

Tijuana Mayor Francisco Vega de Lamadrid and other city officials also discounted news reports about U.S. suspicions of De la Torre's alleged Arellano ties. The only valid conclusions about the chief's murder, Vega said, would come from Mexican authorities with jurisdiction over the case. The mayor advised against speculation that would harm the city's image.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are seeking to understand subsequent developments in Mexico, including the March 11 arrest of a Tijuana businessman reputed to be a financial whiz for the Arellano gang and, a few days later, the apparent torture and killing of the suspect's lawyer.

"This thing is rapidly escalating down there," said one U.S. official. "We're waiting to see where it's headed."

The answer, U.S. officials say, may reveal itself only through the most macabre measurement: who turns up dead in coming weeks, and where.

Finger Pointed at Sinaloa Trafficker

The police chief's killing was the most shocking of a series of gangland-style slayings since last summer that has stood out even amid the city's spiraling homicide rate. A week and a half after the assassination came another bombshell: State authorities declared that they had cracked 15 homicide cases, several of them involving people reputedly tied to the Arellano gang, which is led by three brothers who remain largely out of view.

The culprits, according to Baja California Atty. Gen. Juan Manuel Salazar Pimentel, included seven confessed hit men working for a son of reputed Sinaloa drug trafficker Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, who allegedly hoped to shoulder into the lucrative border narcotics market by creating havoc in the region.

The statement was remarkable, not only for its attempt to explain a series of high-profile killings in one fell swoop, but also for suggesting that a rival drug gang had for months plowed a bloody path through the backyard of the Arellano Felix cartel, probably Mexico's most feared and violent mob. It was the first official mention of the presence in Baja California of the Zambada group, which is thought to have links to a major cartel based in Ciudad Juarez.

An incursion of the magnitude indicated by Salazar would suggest a full-scale gang war and a blow to the hegemony of the area's dominant crime organization. But that scenario was greeted with skepticism by some officials in the United States. They say the Tijuana gang remains too strong to permit such an extended and violent thrust by outsiders.

Some of the killings are viewed instead as efforts by Arellano bosses to purge rogue associates and punish debtors. "What we're getting from the Mexican authorities is that this is a housecleaning," said one U.S. official.

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