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A crackdown on Baja bribes

As coastal luxury resorts go up south of Tijuana, officials are seeking to end police corruption that can discourage tourism.

July 26, 2007|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Tijuana Police Chief Zatarain said he has transferred a notorious motorcycle squad and its supervisor from the coast to other areas. Two police officers who harassed tourists last month were thrown in jail for 36 hours as punishment, he said. This month, the Police Department began subjecting officers suspected of corruption to lie-detector tests on a new polygraph machine that officials say is 98% accurate.

Conversely, officers who show Americans hospitality are treated like heroes. After Julio Caesar Garcia, a 33-year-old police supervisor, gave driving directions to a saleswoman for the Trump development, he was given an award by Torres' real estate association.

"She was impressed that I didn't ask for a bribe, but I was just doing my job," said Garcia, who was a bit bewildered by the praise. "I never got an award for being shot at."

The latest anti-corruption measures, say border experts, reflect Baja California's growing commitment to professional law enforcement. Police salaries in Tijuana were recently doubled -- to about $1,500 monthly -- making the force the highest paid in Mexico, say officials who hope the increases also will make their officers the least likely to seek bribes.

Serious problems remain, including a lack of professional training, minimum educational requirements and an entrenched culture of corruption that in some departments starts at the top.

There's also the temptation of all the new money in the area.

The former Rosarito Beach police officer said many cops viewed the building boom as a bribe-taking bonanza on par with the filming of "Titanic" in Baja in the mid-1990s, when he and other police regularly stopped studio workers and visiting Hollywood executives.

"They were easy targets because of the language difference and because they were always in hurry," the former patrol officer said. "Those were great days."

Real estate professionals don't see it that way.

Their goal is to re-create the Southern California oceanfront experience in Mexico at a fraction of the price, without the problem of corrupt officers' outstretched hands.

"They kill our business," said Torres, the Realtor association president. "We want tourists and investors to feel like we love them here."

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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