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Not a whiff of drug trade found in Tijuana stops

Mexico's crackdown appears to have brought to a standstill the flow of illicit narcotics from the city to the U.S.

January 07, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — Coco, the cocaine-sniffing army dog, was certainly game, bounding in and out of cars Saturday at one of five military checkpoints set up on the main highways connecting this border city with the rest of Mexico.

But for all his enthusiasm, the German shepherd mix found not a speck of illegal powder among the hundreds of vehicles pulled over for inspection. The pooch wasn't alone.

So far, none of the 3,300 army, navy and federal police officers brought here to crack down on drug-gang violence have turned up any kind of dope among the thousands of vehicles searched at random during the first five days of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's "Operation Tijuana."

Calderon dispatched his federal forces to stem the violence that killed more than 300 people here last year. On Thursday, local police were stripped of their weapons until federal authorities could weed out any officers on the payroll of warring drug cartels.

Federal officials said they were still completing their intelligence work and arranging logistics before swooping down on the drug dealers, assassins, kidnappers and gunrunners who have terrorized the city for years.

The first step, they said, has been to take control of the roads that are part of the lucrative smuggling routes to the United States.

If a ride-along with federal forces Saturday to four of the five military checkpoints on the city's outskirts was any indication, it appears that goal has been reached. No one has been foolish enough to try driving a carload or truckload of drugs on these roads for the last few days, military personnel working at the 24-hour checkpoints said.

That is no surprise, they said, given the broad publicity that accompanied Operation Tijuana. Calderon's stated goal is not the elimination of the illegal drug trade but the restoration of civic peace.

That alone would be a miracle, residents say. Some of those stopped by soldiers Saturday thanked them for their work.

"Bye, friends," said one woman to members of the army's 68th Battalion as she prepared to drive away.

Soldiers staffed two stations on the coastal highway linking the city with Rosarito Beach, as well as checkpoints on roads leading to Tecate, Otay Mesa and Mexicali.

Soldiers flagged down as many as six vehicles at a time. They evicted passengers and then poked through glove compartments and under seats, checked trunks and roof liners. Most people appeared resigned to the searches. Besides drugs, authorities also are looking for illegal weapons and stolen cars.

The military presence is small and hard to spot in this sprawling city of more than 1 million people. They have supplanted the local police, who are working under the direct supervision of their federal counterparts.

The troops are still adjusting to their new jobs.

When a white Chevy pickup filled with masked and heavily armed federal police speeded past a fender-bender that blocked one side of a busy street, the two drivers involved in the crash yelled across the median for help.

The truck's occupants kept going without much of a glance, past the backed-up line of cars that stretched for more than a mile.

sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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