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Mexican officer slain in his home

Authoritites are looking into a possible link to the discovery of marijuana and a tunnel from Tecate under the border with California.

December 05, 2007|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TECATE, MEXICO — The deputy police chief of this Mexican border town was gunned down in his home Tuesday morning, one day after the discovery of a cross-border tunnel that authorities suspect was used for drug smuggling.

Jose Juan Soriano Pereira, 35, who was appointed second in command of the Tecate police force Saturday, was sleeping next to his wife when several gunmen stormed the house, Mexican authorities said.

Police found 45 shell casings in the bedroom. Tecate Police Director Eric Lara Cabrera said the assailants were lucky that they caught Soriano by surprise. "If he had time to get his gun, he would have killed them all," Lara said.

Soriano's wife jumped out of bed and hid, escaping injury, Lara said. Soriano's three daughters also were in the home but were not injured. The assailants are believed to have fled along the highway toward Tijuana, 40 miles to the west.

The motive for the attack was unclear. Authorities were investigating whether it was linked to the discovery of the tunnel, a well-constructed passage with lights, wood supports and ventilation that stretches about 1,500 feet north of the border.

A U.S. Border Patrol canine unit discovered the passage Monday morning, along with about 7 tons of marijuana inside a shipping container. A man armed with a semiautomatic weapon jumped into the hole as the agent entered.

Uncovering the tunnel

That afternoon, after being notified of the tunnel by their U.S. counterparts, Mexican authorities found the opening in Tecate in a two-story warehouse building about 100 yards south of the border.

Soriano was present at the tunnel discovery in an area of well-kept homes and warehouses, as were many other state, local and federal authorities, Lara said. Hours later, about 2 a.m. Tuesday, the gunmen stormed Soriano's home.

The days after a tunnel discovery can be extremely dangerous for anyone with knowledge of an underground passage as drug cartel members work to erase all traces of their involvement, said Frank Marwood, head of the San Diego-based U.S. Tunnel Task Force.

Such tunnels can cost millions of dollars and are difficult to construct without the protection of law enforcement, especially given the fact that thousands of pounds of dirt must be removed without raising suspicions, U.S. authorities say.

Soriano was considered an honest lawman, several U.S. and Mexican law enforcement sources said. Some speculate that he was killed by smugglers as a message to officials who had recently taken over the force after a change in mayoral administrations.

Mexican investigators said they also were not ruling out the possibility that other police officers marked him for death.

Hard-nosed cop

An ambitious, hard-nosed cop who fought to clean up the notoriously corrupt department, Soriano had made enemies over the years.

He bolstered his resume by taking law enforcement courses in the U.S., including classes with the FBI and California Highway Patrol, in an effort to professionalize the police force, said some fellow officers.

"He was a very responsible, a very knowledgeable cop," one officer said. "He was very well respected."

Lara, the director, who also was appointed to his post Saturday, said Soriano was selected as deputy because of his commitment to rooting out corruption. The department had been under investigation by federal authorities in the past for alleged links to human smuggling and drug trafficking.

The Tecate police force patrols the rugged backcountry east of Tijuana, a key smuggling corridor into California.

On Tuesday, several heavily armed state police officers guarded the entrance of the dilapidated police department as officials planned Soriano's funeral today.

Officers boxed up Soriano's belongings, including a ram's head and stacks of diplomas and plaques, and gave them to relatives.

The family members, identified as brothers, declined to comment, saying they were too distraught.

The tunnel found Monday appears to be one of the longest discovered in recent years. The opening in Mexico was cut out of the tile floor of a small office in a warehouse that housed wrought iron.

Anyone with knowledge of the tunnel operation is encouraged by U.S. federal authorities to call 1-877-9-Tunnel (1-877-988-6635).

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