MEXICO CITY — The Tijuana police chief and about 40 other Baja California state and local police officers were arrested by Mexican army units and special federal police in a surprise operation at a Tecate police academy Wednesday as part of the Mexican government's crackdown on drug-related corruption.
Details of the morning raid remained sketchy, but Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther confirmed the operation at a news conference. The governor's office and the Tijuana mayor's office said Tijuana Police Chief Carlos Otal Namur was among those arrested.
The sweep is part of the intensifying war on narcotics traffickers being waged by President Vicente Fox's administration. Several top drug traffickers have been arrested in recent weeks, including Benjamin Arellano Felix, chief of the so-called Tijuana cartel. His brother Ramon, the cartel's top enforcer, died in a shootout with police in Mazatlan on Feb. 10.
Police corruption in Mexico is high on the list of obstacles to winning the drug war, U.S. and Mexican officials say. All levels of Baja's police forces--federal, state and municipal--are commonly thought of as having been corrupted by drug cartels as well as by local dope dealers.
Many top-ranking U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials were attending an Interpol convention in Mexico City today and were unavailable for comment. But Elorduy Walther said the police were apparently lured to the state police academy in Tecate on a ruse of having their firearms checked and test results delivered.
"We have asked the army and the federal prosecutors that the operation be carried out with respect for human rights but that whoever has a dirty record or proves to be a bad element, that justice be carried out swiftly," he said in a statement.
The police officers arrested were flown to Mexico City. It was not clear late Wednesday how many army units and federal officers participated in the raid.
The bloody history of drug wars in Tijuana during the 1990s includes shootouts between opposing police squads acting on behalf of rival drug lords. One shootout occurred in 1994 when federal police officers tried to arrest Javier Arellano Felix and a top lieutenant and were fired on by a bodyguard composed of Baja state police.
Mass firings of Mexican police officials have been made in recent years, but mass arrests such as Wednesday's in Tecate are thought to be unusual.
The administration of President Ernesto Zedillo fired 700 federal police in one swoop in 1996, including 60 in Baja. In early 1997, all 87 federal police officers assigned to Baja California were replaced after the slaying of state prosecutor Hodin Gutierrez Rico in Tijuana. Authorities had dismissed Gutierrez's police bodyguards a few months before he was slain.
The Tijuana cartel, as well as the so-called Juarez cartel, are known to use Baja police forces as their private armies, say U.S. officials involved in the drug war.
Police corruption is not confined to Baja. U.S. officials now believe that Ramon Arellano Felix was executed by Sinaloa state police acting as proxies for the drug kingpin Ismael Zambada, Ramon's sworn enemy.
The arrests in Tecate occurred near a 1,200-foot tunnel discovered in February that was used by the Arellano Felix cartel to transport drugs illegally across the border to the United States. The tunnel was destroyed last week.
"We reiterate our commitment that the actions we carry out in the state be always against corruption and impunity so that Baja California is a safe and peaceful place. To this we are committed and we have only begun," Elorduy Walther said.