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A `Black Hole' on a Porous Border

Corrupt police and complicit citizens make Jacume a forbidding redoubt where smugglers of drugs and immigrants operate with a sense of impunity. `They own the place,' says a Mexican official.

May 21, 2006|Robert J. Lopez, Richard Marosi and Rich Connell | Times Staff Writers

Jacume, Mexico — Perched on a ridge a few hundred yards from the international line, an A-frame house with a wraparound balcony gives smugglers a 180-degree view of U.S. border defenses.

Spotters track the movement of Border Patrol agents with binoculars and use two-way radios to steer drug runners and human traffickers through unguarded areas.

As agents closed in on suspected smugglers last summer, lookouts on the Mexican side bombarded them with rocks and retreated to the A-frame.

"They have the high ground on us," said Sonia Spaulding, the supervising Border Patrol agent during the attack. "They can see our every move."

Jacume is a "black hole," an enclave largely beyond the control of authorities on either side of the border because of its remote location, complicit residents and corrupt Mexican police.

Jacume has flourished as a launch pad for smuggling of drugs and people since U.S. authorities stiffened border defenses near San Diego a decade ago. Traffickers simply moved their operations east, into the forbidding valleys and mountain passes surrounding the village.

As President Bush prepares to use National Guard troops to help seal the border, Jacume and places like it represent a formidable challenge and illustrate why the U.S., as Bush noted, "has not been in complete control of its borders" -- and may never be.

Mile-for-mile, more drugs are seized in this area than almost anywhere else along the California line. In the last fiscal year, federal agents captured an average of 400 pounds of marijuana and 660 migrants each month. In the first eight months of this fiscal year, drug seizures are nearly triple last year's total.

Jacume residents have become beholden to smugglers whose activities pump cash into the community. Mexican federal agents have been taken hostage here. Police won't enter the town without heavily armed backup, so entrenched are the traffickers and their supporters.

"They own the place," said Armando Vale Saldate, civilian director of the Tecate Police Department, which oversees Jacume.

Little is known publicly about the inner workings of Jacume's smuggling economy. But confidential law enforcement documents, as well as interviews with residents, smugglers and U.S. and Mexican officials, reveal layers of corruption extending from the traffickers to top police officials and the ruthless Arellano-Felix drug cartel.

The A-frame with the strategic vantage point is used by a convicted drug felon who is "the leader of an immigrant trafficking organization," according to a report by the Mexican attorney general's office and other sources.

Complaints filed secretly by officers of the Tecate Police Department and reviewed by The Times say a top commander and other supervisors collected thousands of dollars a week in protection money from smugglers moving drugs and migrants across the frontier.

Smuggling Is a Mainstay

Tucked into an isolated high desert valley 70 miles east of Tijuana, Jacume sits at the end of a rutted dirt road. Swirls of dust and headlights announce approaching vehicles long before they pass an old chicken farm and the rusted shells of abandoned cars en route to the village's small plaza.

Founded 80 years ago as communal farm, the town has a few hundred residents, many of them related to one another. In the small grid of dirt roads and cinder-block homes, there are two restaurants, a few mom-and-pop markets and a small church with whitewashed walls.

Smuggling is an economic mainstay. Residents pocket up to $50 a day -- about 10 times the minimum day's wage in Mexico -- for each northbound migrant they harbor in their homes or farms. Storing drugs can earn them hundreds of dollars more. Merchants cater to the migrants' needs.

"It's good business for everybody around here," said Mario Ramirez, who operates Jacume's main restaurant. "People need to eat and need water."

Government authority has long been tenuous here.

In 1998, residents took two Mexican federal agents hostage for extorting money from smugglers, according to Mexican authorities. The captives were freed after an agreement was reached: The agents would return the money, and the smugglers would not file complaints against them.

A few years later, unarmed Mexican immigration agents who chased a suspected smuggler's car into Jacume were greeted by bat-wielding residents. The agents retreated without making an arrest and now rarely enter the town, said immigration officer Felipe Flores.

The alleged smuggler said to use the A-frame is Israel Martinez, 37, according to confidential law enforcement records and sources.

He came to the attention of U.S. investigators in 1995, when officers stopped two pickup trucks on the U.S. side of the fence across from Jacume and found 450 pounds of marijuana inside, according to San Diego Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Walter. Martinez and another man were arrested.

Martinez pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana and was sentenced to two years in California state prison. He was later deported.

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