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Tijuana is glad police are back -- without guns

January 06, 2007|Richard Marosi, Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writers

TIJUANA — Disarmed municipal police officers patrolled alongside armed state police Friday, a sight that brought some comfort to many in this border city where municipal police often are equated with corruption and drug-related violence.

Municipal officers, their holsters empty, directed traffic and made the rounds a day after stopping work in response to being stripped of their weapons by the Mexican military.

The military operation in Tijuana and a similar incursion in the southern state of Michoacan, some political analysts say, have been a political boon to President Felipe Calderon, who took office in December, allowing him to project an image of strength and decisiveness.

Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City analyst who has written extensively on the country's drug wars, said that though Calderon's crackdown in Tijuana had "zero chance of stopping the buying and selling of drugs," it could help limit the number of drug-related killings in the city.

There were more than 300 slayings in Tijuana last year.

"What he's saying is that there are some things that won't be permitted," Chabat said. "You can't be cutting people's heads off. It's a question of image. You can't allow Tijuana to look like a civil war in Africa."

Mexican and U.S. authorities say some Tijuana police officers are members of drug cartels, and several have been arrested over the years.

Some Tijuana kidnapping victims have said that police officers took part in their abductions. The city has one of the highest kidnapping rates in the world.

A sprawling metropolis of about 1.5 million people, Tijuana was bustling as usual Friday, and there were no signs of social unrest or public disorder two days after more than 3,500 soldiers and federal agents started arriving as part of Operation Tijuana.

The military ordered members of the 2,300-strong municipal police force to turn in their weapons for an investigation to see whether any could be linked to homicides or other crimes. More than 2,000 firearms, most of them 9-millimeter handguns but also automatic weapons and shotguns, are being inspected.

Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon said in an interview that he feared putting unarmed police at risk and ordered them off the streets Thursday after receiving assurances from Hector Sanchez Gutierrez, the general in charge of Operation Tijuana, that his troops would maintain order.

There were no major incidents in the 18 hours without municipal police, but there were complaints that authorities had failed to respond to some traffic accidents.

At a holding facility in the city's red light district, Municipal Judge Oscar Gonzalez Valdez said he had freed some detainees -- in custody mostly on alcohol-related offenses -- because there were no police officers to take them to the main jail across town.

The officers may get their weapons back within two weeks, Tijuana officials said, but many residents weren't demanding swift action.

"This is stupendous," said Alfredo Arias, the manager of a restaurant in the tough neighborhood of Colonia Libertad that was riddled by hundreds of bullets last year in a shootout between masked men and federal agents.

Arias, like many other residents and some analysts, say police officers' weapons are not always accounted for and often are lent to criminal rings.

"This will obligate them to take care of their weapons," Arias said.

Alberto Capella, president of Tijuana's citizens advisory council on public safety, said disarming the police had widespread public support.

"In some ways it's a necessary evil ... part of the cleansing we need to improve the department," he said.

Federal and state officials said the operation had led to the arrest of seven people who authorities said were linked to the attempted assassination last year of the former head of public safety in Baja California state.

Tijuana residents have felt the military presence: Traffic backed up at several checkpoints on major streets leading into and out of the city.

But army or no army, thousands of people lined a two-mile route to see the city's annual Three Kings parade Friday night.

Plastered on several floats, including a giant drum banged by a toy soldier, was "Caliente," the name of the racetrack and betting enterprise owned by Hank Rhon. Trucks pulled floats carrying flatbeds decorated with Christmas trees, giant wrapped gifts and a miniature Bethlehem. Two wise men rode camels and the third an elephant. Legions of gladiators led a contingent of shepherd girls.

All the while, police helicopters hovered overhead.

Gregorio Martinez, 55, who has lived in Tijuana for 35 years, said the military operation was a bold move.

"I bet the number of assaults goes down until the police get their guns back. I feel pretty safe right now," he said.

But Martinez, like others, wonders whether the operation will have a long-term effect.

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