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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

U.S. authorities, working with Mexican agents, have launched a new investigation of Martinez and his suspected smuggling network.

Martinez's organization employs guides on foot, drivers and lookouts to shepherd drugs and people across the frontier, according to law enforcement records and sources.

Mexican and U.S. sources who have interviewed traffickers in custody, including alleged members of Martinez's group, say his organization is suspected of moving large quantities of marijuana across the border for the Arellano-Felix cartel, a Tijuana-based syndicate that controls drug trafficking across Baja California.

Efforts to reach Martinez for comment were unsuccessful.

A relative claimed to have no knowledge of Martinez's involvement in trafficking and said he went into hiding after 20 armed men stormed his home in Jacume in September.

The men, some with bandannas covering their faces, were looking for money and for Martinez, according to the relative, who asked not to be identified.

Investigators say his organization remains active. Martinez is not the first suspected of exploiting the views afforded by Jacume's hills.

A smuggler named Jaime Ochoa, alias "El Cachetes," or Cheeks, allegedly directed runs from tree platforms on his property.

In one of the few successful raids ever conducted in Jacume, a federal SWAT team from Mexico City posing as telephone repairmen stormed Ochoa's home three years ago. U.S. investigators pressed for action after learning that Ochoa might be operating a smuggling tunnel.

The Mexican agents found binoculars, two-way radios, an Uzi submachine gun, a map of smuggling routes and what appeared to be a partially dug passageway, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities.

Ochoa was caught fleeing in a pickup truck and later found guilty of weapons violations, Mexican authorities said.

The raid's success was unusual for Jacume because residents often tip off smugglers, said a U.S. agent who participated in the operation.

"We usually come back empty-handed," he said.

'I Like Police Raids'

The sun-baked hills and valleys between Tecate and Jacume, where the Arellano-Felix cartel stores and moves marijuana, is territory that has been overseen by Daniel Mora, until recently police commander for the area.

For Mora and other officers, who earn as little as $600 a month, patrolling this terrain involves a stark choice: Take a stand against the traffickers, or join them.

As Mora tells it, he's the kind who takes a stand.

Squat, with a thin mustache, he started as an officer in Tijuana. His left eyebrow and scalp bear scars from a head-on car crash with assault suspects. He has been involved in three shootouts and numerous operations against drug and car-theft rings -- some in the Jacume area.

"I like police raids," the 33-year-old Mora says.

After three years in Tecate, he was promoted to commander. But last year he was suspended, demoted and banned from patrolling Jacume and other trafficking hot spots because of suspicions that he was in league with smugglers.

The Mexican attorney general's office is investigating the allegations.

Among information turned over to investigators are a dozen unsigned complaints e-mailed to the Tecate city internal affairs office. The authors, who identified themselves as police officers, said Mora and five supervisors, including one now overseeing Jacume, were running a protection racket.

One complaint, written in January, said Mora is tied to 10 human smugglers and drug traffickers and receives $5,000 a week in payoffs.

"We are asking with all our heart that these personnel ... stop interfering with public safety," said another complaint, received in February.

Contacted by The Times, the authors of the complaints said in e-mails that they feared for their lives and declined to reveal their names or answer questions.

Smugglers detained by Mexican officials have said they paid Mora a "quota" or had "an arrangement" with him to operate in the Tecate area, according to interview records.

Mora said the allegations are groundless and originate with disgruntled colleagues.

"It's political," Mora said in an interview at a San Diego-area restaurant. He predicted that he would be cleared, adding: "I'm not going to run, because I have absolutely nothing to hide."

Bold and Brazen

Lawlessness spills across the border from Jacume and into the United States month after month. An episode last summer, described in federal court records and interviews, underscores the smugglers' brazenness and sense of impunity.

One night in August, a white Chevrolet Suburban made its way through the village. It stopped at a ranch and an abandoned home, picking up half a dozen migrants who had paid up to $2,000 each to get to the U.S.

They squeezed into the SUV, alongside suitcases stuffed with 700 pounds of marijuana, a load worth more than half a million dollars. The vehicle's front bumper was reinforced with steel, and its tires were filled with silicon to withstand the spike strips used by U.S. border agents.

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