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Officials silent in Tijuana

THE WORLD

A culture of secrecy prevails after a drug shootout that killed 15.

April 28, 2008|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — On Sunday, following one of the bloodiest days in Tijuana's history, authorities held no news conferences. The death toll in the gangland-style shootings early Saturday between rival drug traffickers increased to 15 from 13, after two men died of their injuries. But not even the names of the dead were released.

Instead, speculation, rumor and scattered news leaks filled the information vacuum after yet another battle in Mexico's drug wars.

And there were only tentative answers to the larger questions that worry many here: Is this violence between drug dealers a sign that the Mexican government is winning the wars? Or is it just another symptom of a country slipping deeper into an abyss of lawlessness?

Official silence is common in Mexico, where thousands have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006. But many analysts believe that Calderon's decision to send thousands of army troops to Baja California, Veracruz, Michoacan and other states to crack down on the drug trade is reaping a type of dividend.

The government's efforts have disrupted agreements between trafficking organizations and corrupt officials, setting off turf wars among weakened organizations, analysts and government officials say.

"We wouldn't see so much bloodshed if the Mexican government were more complicit with these [criminal] organizations and just letting them have their way," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

At the same time, the Tijuana shootout was just one of several seen in border communities in recent years. And unless officials decide to reveal more about who was involved and what happened, the true meaning of the bloodshed is likely to remain a mystery.

On Sunday morning Tijuana residents awoke to a rogue's gallery of criminal names in their newspapers.

"According to reliable sources," El Sol de Tijuana reported, the shootout was between rivals within the Arellano Felix gang.

Or maybe not. The national daily El Universal reported that the so-called Sinaloa cartel was to blame.

Several newspapers reported that among the dead was "Crutches," a.k.a. Luis Alfonso Velarde, a reputed local drug lord with a handful of YouTube video tributes to his name.

Another, even bigger "cartel" operative nicknamed "Mr. Three Letters" might be dead too, along with "La Perra," reported El Sol de Tijuana. And they may all have been ambushed by another cartel leader known as "El Cholo."

But no one was willing to confirm any of that on the record.

Official silence, many here argue, helps feed the culture of corruption. It is a widely recognized truth that drug traffickers operate in Baja California and elsewhere with the protection of some public officials.

On Tuesday, Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito, the commander of troops in the Baja region, took the extraordinary step of writing an open letter to a local newspaper that identified several law enforcement officials he alleged were linked to organized crime.

The letter's implicit argument was that officials who protect organized crime are likely to escape prosecution thanks to the culture of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement here.

"Isn't this corruption?" the general asked. "What a disgrace for the society of Baja California!"

Calderon's government has worked hard to clean up law enforcement. His top police official, Genaro Garcia Luna, has purged the Federal Investigative Agency of corrupt cops. Soldiers have temporarily disarmed police in Tijuana and other cities, and several reputed drug bosses have been extradited to the United States.

Yet the widespread violence shows few signs of abating. An estimated 2,500 people were killed in drug-related violence last year, officials say. So far this year, more than 850 people have been killed, according to tallies by news agencies.

The objective measures by which U.S. officials determine the strength of the drug trafficking business also offer a mixed bag.

The supply of cocaine declined in several U.S. cities during the first half of 2007, according to the U.S. National Drug Threat Assessment, a multi-agency report on the problem.

The drop in availability was probably a combined result of several large seizures of cocaine shipments en route to the United States, Mexico's anti-drug efforts, and warfare among rival Mexican traffickers, the report says.

By late 2007, supply "appeared to be returning to normal" in some U.S. markets, the report says. At the same time, the amount of cash smuggled in bulk from the United States to Mexico continued to increase, a sign that traffickers' revenues are still healthy.

"Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are the dominant distributors of wholesale quantities of cocaine in the United States, and no other group is positioned to challenge them in the near term," the assessment says.

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