TIJUANA — Many of this border city's police officers have a notorious history of teaming up with drug dealers, accepting bribes and intimidating tourists.
City leaders have tried to combat corruption in the past by firing officers and raising salaries.
In their latest attempt to rein in overzealous and crooked law enforcement, city officials have moved to separate the police and judicial departments.
The initiative by Mayor Jesus Gonzalez Reyes is designed to stop police from meting out justice in the streets and to prevent officers from having undue influence over the outcome of cases.
Gonzalez also has increased the number of courtrooms so cases can be heard more quickly, and has given judges new powers that allow them to mediate neighborhood disputes before they evolve into more serious problems.
Though Tijuana's city judges have been around for a decade, only last year did they become truly independent from police officers, when Gonzalez moved them out of the public safety department and put them under new management.
Human-rights activists say city judges may have helped reduce extortion and bribery somewhat because they question the word of police officers. But most judicial watchdogs say much more needs to be done.
"It's an important effort, but it's not enough," said Victor Clark, a professor and director of Tijuana's private Binational Center for Human Rights. "Corruption is still a major problem. How do you break the vicious circle of corruption of the policemen who are linked to all these activities?"
Clark said he has heard of police officers threatening judges, many of whom are young and do not have much experience with city government.
There are 56 judges working in 16 courtrooms throughout Tijuana. Nine of the courts are open all night. The judges' hours are especially helpful for tourists who cross the border to dance and drink at Tijuana's bars and end up under arrest, police officers said.
Previously, "if the judge was out fishing, we waited," and so did the suspects, said Tijuana Police Officer Ricardo Acosta.
Judge Alejandro Mendoza's courthouse is a one-room office next to the city jail, sparsely decorated with not much more than a desk and a few chairs. Just before midnight on Friday the 13th, a long line of suspects waited to see him. Posted on the wall was a list of their rights, including the rights to make a phone call and to receive necessary medical care.
Mendoza called each suspect, one by one, into his informal courtroom, where Officer Francisco Silva Garcia explained the arrests. Mendoza rattled off a list of questions to three men accused of possession of marijuana paraphernalia: Do you use drugs? Do you drink? Why did you have the paraphernalia? Who sold you the marijuana? Have you been arrested before?
After hearing their cases, the judge released two and ordered one to pay a $42 fine or serve 36 hours behind bars. Mendoza also fined several other men, including one arrested for disorderly conduct.
If judges kept traditional hours, Mendoza said, several hundred people arrested for minor crimes would be waiting through the weekend for court Monday morning. "The people know if they are falsely detained, they will be released as quickly as possible," said Mendoza, who works from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every other night.
Not all officers have adjusted to judges who doubt the legitimacy of their arrests. Officer Acosta said the system can undermine their authority. "You try to do a job, and it can become a little troublesome if the judge releases somebody," he said.
To be a judge, applicants must have law degrees and five years of legal experience and must pass an exam. The judges rule only on minor crimes such as disturbing the peace and urinating in public. They refer felony cases to the state district attorney's office. Judges also mediate neighborhood disputes and resolve traffic ticket appeals.
Judge Alejandro Cachu Ortiz, who is stationed at the courtroom closest to the United States, said crime in Tijuana has increased since the U.S. beefed up its border patrol in recent years. Mexican nationals who continue to arrive in the city from elsewhere now become stuck and often steal or sell drugs to support themselves, Cachu said.
Officer Le Venant Martinez spent Friday the 13th patrolling downtown, cruising past bars such as Tropical and Lucky Lady and watching for fights and drunks.
About 9 p.m., he drove to a canal that divides the U.S. and Mexico. The spot known as "no man's land" is infamous for its heroin addicts and dealers. As Martinez sped up in his patrol car, several men took off running, barely visible against the darkness. The ones left were the migrants, waiting for the right time to try crossing the border.