TIJUANA — Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica unzipped the Louis Vuitton bag and pulled out a skull ring coated with diamonds, a coin medallion and a gold-plated Beretta handgun engraved with the grim reaper smile of La Santa Muerte.
The gilded narco-gear was once the property of Angel Jacome Gamboa, a suspected drug cartel lieutenant believed to be behind the killings of at least 12 Rosarito Beach police officers. Duarte's soldiers brought him the war booty after they raided a birthday party and arrested Jacome Gamboa, along with 21 others.
They didn't bring him the real prize. Duarte wants Jacome Gamboa's boss, Teodoro Garcia Simental, nicknamed El Teo.
"This was [Garcia's] most active kidnapping cell. . . . And we caught almost all of them," Duarte said, cracking a proud smile. "We've been keeping the pressure on. . . . He's constantly moving around, changing houses. . . . He's worried."
The raid in March was the latest in a series of operations by the Mexican military that appears to have weakened organized-crime groups and restored a sense of relative calm to this border city, at least for now.
After months of beheadings, ransom kidnappings and daylight shootouts, the number of killings in the Tijuana area fell to about 130 in the first three months of this year. That number is still high, but it's significantly lower than the total for the last three months of 2008, when there were 447 slayings.
The number of ransom kidnappings, which provided gangs with large revenue streams, also has declined sharply, say Mexican authorities and victims rights groups.
Duarte, a soft-spoken career officer who commands about 1,000 soldiers in northern Baja California, has struck hardest against El Teo, one of Mexico's most-wanted men. Believed to be behind a three-year wave of kidnappings and killings, Garcia has narrowly escaped capture at least twice recently.
The general, crisply attired in a tan camouflage uniform in his office at the Morelos army base, says the hunt for Garcia is nothing personal. He considers Garcia a dangerous psychopath, but just another crime boss whose career he is duty-bound to end.
Duarte did, however, seem to sharpen his sights late last year after Garcia's gunmen killed one of his special forces soldiers in a shootout. For the first time, Duarte publicly identified Garcia as a top Tijuana crime boss and started referring to his associates as gente del Teo -- Teo's people.
Since then, the general's soldiers have killed or captured several of Garcia's gunmen and lieutenants, among them Jacome Gamboa, a 29-year-old former soldier believed responsible for a reign of terror in Rosarito Beach, where the violence has all but destroyed the crucial tourism industry.
The military also appears to be targeting symbols of narco culture. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos said the military was behind the destruction late last month of five shrines in Tijuana and Rosarito Beach dedicated to folk saints such as La Santa Muerte (Saint Death), whose followers include drug traffickers.
No one is claiming victory over organized crime in the key drug-trafficking corridors of northern Baja California; the recent tranquillity may merely reflect a temporary truce between Garcia and his rival, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, nicknamed El Ingeniero, the reputed leader of the Arellano Felix drug cartel.
The recent gains have been touted as a much-needed example of progress in Mexico's war with drug cartels. On a visit to Tijuana in early March, President Felipe Calderon hailed the Baja California anti-drug offensive as a model for the country.
Duarte, a 54-year-old Mexico City native, took command in June. A tall, courtly man who has served at military bases across the country, Duarte quickly earned the trust of U.S. law enforcement officials for his aggressive tactics and willingness to act on tips provided by U.S. agencies.
On the city's gritty streets, the general's actions are met with relief and cautious optimism. Motorists at traffic-clogged military checkpoints bemoan the delays, but some honk in appreciation at the sight of his heavily armed soldiers.
Local reporters hang on his every word at rare public appearances, usually pomp-filled events at parade grounds on army bases, where his soldiers haul captured cartel members before the news media.
Even some human rights groups that warned against the militarization of local law enforcement say the effort thus far shows impressive gains without the kind of serious abuse allegations that have plagued other military-led anti-drug operations in the country.
"Tijuana society did not have much experience with the military, but so far the army enjoys a good image," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.