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THE WORLD

9 slain in series of Tijuana attacks

Outbreak of violence begins after a hijacking is foiled. The victims include three senior police officers.

January 16, 2008|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — Heavily armed men killed three senior police officers and six other people here hours after a foiled armored car robbery, the latest attacks apparently triggered by a crackdown on police corruption and organized crime.

Since Dec. 1, when Mayor Jorge Ramos took office promising to battle drug cartels, five officers, including three deputy chiefs, have been fatally shot gangland-style.

Early Tuesday, gunmen stormed the home of Deputy Chief Margarito Saldana Rivera, 43, and killed him, his wife, and two daughters, ages 12 and 20. Late Monday, a substation chief and his deputy were fatally shot as they sat in a 1988 Ford Escort. The same gunmen are believed to have killed a young couple and their 3-year-old son in a suspected case of mistaken identity.

Mexican authorities suspect that the police officers were slain in retaliation for a foiled hijacking of an armored car in downtown Tijuana. Baja California Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan said at a news conference that law enforcement and organized crime are in a state of war, and predicted more bloodshed.

In December, the new deputy police chief of the border town of Tecate was fatally shot in his bed in front of his wife and child. In late December, the new police chief of Rosarito Beach survived an attack at police headquarters.

The surge of lawlessness is related to the change of governments late last year, experts say, as new police chiefs, generally regarded as honest, began cracking down on corrupt cops and organized crime. Criminals are now lashing back.

With Tijuana's main drug cartel decimated by arrests and killings, some believe the disorder is fueled by a more dangerous class of criminal.

"Now there's a struggle to survive among these leftover criminal elements . . . who are resorting to wanton acts of violence," said David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

The latest round began Monday afternoon when police converged on gunmen attempting to steal an armored car off Avenida Revolucion, the heart of Tijuana's tourist district, which has been flooded with police officers to improve security.

The robbers fled in a car, triggering a wild chase and shootout across the city that ended on a busy highway, with police killing one suspect and arresting four, two of whom were injured.

A few hours later, Jose de Jesus Arias Rico, the chief of the district where the suspect was killed, and his deputy, Elbert Escobedo Marquez, were fatally shot.

Authorities don't know why Saldana Rivera was targeted.

At downtown police headquarters, doorways were decorated with black ribbons in honor of the fallen officers. They will be buried with full honors.

The three slain officers lived modestly, police said. Saldana lived in a tiny duplex in a poor area of the city. The other two were killed while sitting in the dilapidated Escort owned by the deputy chief.

With such quick and gruesome revenge attacks, criminals obviously are aiming to pressure the police to back off, said a high-ranking police official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

"It's a message from the bad guys," he said. "They're trying to terrorize us."

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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