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It got him killed

MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

In some countries, police officer Juan Jose Soriano's daring action would be worthy of a raise, even a medal. But in Mexico's violent drug underground, it got him killed.

September 07, 2008|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TECATE, MEXICO — A drug-sniffing dog pulled the U.S. Border Patrol agent to a rusty cargo container in the storage yard just north of the Mexican border. Peeking inside, he saw stacks of bundled marijuana and a man with a gun tucked in his waistband.

The officer and the man locked eyes for a moment before the smuggler scrambled down a hole and disappeared. By the time backup agents cast their flashlights into the opening, he was long gone, through a winding tunnel to Mexico.

U.S. authorities called a trusted friend on the other side, Juan Jose Soriano.

The deputy commander of the Tecate Police Department gathered the entire shift of 30 officers at the decrepit police headquarters on Avenida Benito Juarez. Soriano knew any of them might leak information to the tunnel's gangster operators. So he took their cellphones and sent them away on a ruse about a car chase near the border.

The veteran officer told only a few trusted aides about the tunnel. Later that day, the officers went into the U.S. and traversed the length of the passageway to an empty building, where they found computers, ledgers and other key evidence.

For U.S. authorities, it was an encouraging example of cross-border cooperation in the drug war. For Mexico's crime bosses, it was a police victory that could not go unpunished.

That night last December, while Soriano slept with his wife and baby daughter, two heavily armed men broke into his house and shot him 45 times. The 35-year-old father of three young daughters died in his bedroom. He had lasted two days as the second-in-command of the department.

The death of a police officer is generally greeted in Mexico with a knowing smirk. All too often, it is assumed the cop in question was playing for both sides in the raging drug war that has claimed at least 2,000 lives in Mexico this year.

But all indications, from U.S. and Mexican sources, suggest that Soriano was among the good ones, poorly paid but somehow immune to the lure of big money and the threat of deadly firepower from Mexico's violent drug gangs.

Cooperation with U.S. law enforcement ranges from secretive intelligence sharing to high-profile raids and arrests. It is aggressive police work that runs the risk of death for honest cops.

An intense, soft-spoken man, Soriano struggled for years to clean up the troubled department. But his corruption-busting ways earned him only contempt from many cops. At the small shrine to fallen officers in the courtyard at police headquarters, Soriano's image is conspicuously absent.

"It's a shame," said Donald McDermott, a former Border Patrol assistant chief who worked with Soriano. "He was one of the good guys. . . . His untimely demise was a blow to border enforcement on both sides of the border."

A city of 120,000 tucked in the rugged mountains 40 miles east of Tijuana, Tecate is best known for its tree-lined plaza and beer brewery. But its tranquil veneer masks its reputation as a hub of organized crime groups that use the surrounding area of boulder-strewn peaks and remote valleys as a launching pad for smuggling drugs and humans.

The 200-member police department has long been suspected of functioning as an arm of the drug cartels, providing protection and ensuring that smuggling routes remain open along the 75 miles of border for which the department is responsible.

Soriano stood apart: an aggressive, disciplined lawman who aspired to become police chief, according to law enforcement sources on both sides of the border. Unlike most Mexican cops, he had a degree in police science. And he spent three years working for Grupo Beta, a federal immigrant-safety force with whom he once saved 65 immigrants in a snowstorm.

In 2003, Soriano took charge of Tecate's SWAT-like special response team. In a break from past practices, he reached out to U.S. agencies for training opportunities and cross-border crime fighting.

Soriano's officers arrested border bandits, disrupted smuggling operations and went where cops hadn't gone in years, say U.S. and Mexican sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.

Soriano was a go-to source for the U.S. Border Patrol and other agencies and was a regular at binational meetings, where he shared information with his U.S. counterparts. "He wanted to do things the right way," said one Mexican law enforcement source. "But that was a problem for many people."

Police brass reassigned Soriano to a desk job in 2005. "They took away his wings. They weren't ready for where he was going," said one U.S. law enforcement source.

Late last year, Tecate's new mayor salvaged Soriano's career, asking him to take the No. 2 job at the department. Law enforcement contacts across the border applauded the move and didn't wait long to restore ties.

This time, though, the stakes were higher.

A well-concealed tunnel can generate tens of millions of dollars in drug profits for traffickers, who pay huge amounts of protection money to keep them open and threaten anyone who talks about their location.

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