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Drug Gangs Spawn Tijuana Violence

March 1, 2000

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) _ There would seem to be little mystery in who was behind the killing of Tijuana’s police chief, mowed down in a hail of 99 bullets in the hometown of one of the world’s largest drug organizations.

But there is. Nearly a decade after the Arellano Felix drug gang burst into headlines with their Al Capone-style shootouts in this booming border city, their methods have spread.

Violence is so pervasive, and so brazen, that almost anyone could be responsible for Sunday’s slaying of Tijuana police Chief Alfredo de la Torre.

``The fact is that in this city, when they kill someone in that way, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s drug smuggling any more,″ said Jesus Blancornelas, publisher of Tijuana’s Zeta magazine, who was badly wounded in a 1997 gangland-style attack. ``Those methods have turned into a culture of crime.″

Tijuana is probably the most violent city in Mexico. With 1.2 million people sprawled along the border with San Diego, it has seen more than 70 murders this year alone _ more than one a day.

Baja California state, which includes Tijuana, had a 1999 crime rate more than double that of any other state in Mexico, according to figures published this week in Zeta.

``Violence has become such a daily occurrence that people aren’t shaken by it any more,″ said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana’s Binational Center of Human Rights.

``People have changed their habits. Many don’t go out at night any more. Many of us put up fences around our homes. Bodyguards and armored cars have become common.″

On Tuesday, top federal, state and local authorities announced a new plan to combat crime in Baja California state that included the equivalent of an extra $32 million, more anti-drug surveillance and pledges to improve cooperation among different law enforcement branches.

Clark Alfaro said most of the violence isn’t driven by the Arellano Felix cartel any more, but by smaller-time smugglers of drugs, immigrants, weapons and vehicles who have imitated the brazen violence the cartel pioneered.

``The big gangs have become globalized, and now resemble multinational corporations,″ he said. ``They’re the last ones to want so much violence, because it puts all the attention on them.″

In the case of de la Torre, a popular police chief who worked his way up from motorcycle patrolman to the city’s top cop, investigators say they have found no evidence so far to link his death to drug gangs.

As for the style of the slaying, state attorney general’s spokesman Enrique Tellaeche said: ``Not all murders are carried out by drug smugglers, even if they appear to be.″

``The techniques of killing people have been copied. If you want to kill someone and don’t want us to figure out it’s you, kill him in a hail of bullets and dump his body on the street.″

De la Torre was killed while driving to his office along a busy highway after Mass on Sunday morning. Three cars pulled up alongside his black Chevy Suburban and opened fire with 9-mm pistols and Kalashnikov rifles.

The Suburban, pocked by bullet holes, swerved off the road and crashed into a palm tree.

Investigators interviewed 70 people, mostly witnesses, but still have no suspects, according to Sofia Buerba, spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office.

Few in Tijuana are optimistic that they will find any soon.

``Along with the culture of crime, there is a culture of silence,″ Blancornelas said. ``If anyone saw them kill de la Torre, they won’t say anything. They don’t want problems.″

But authorities say de la Torre’s prominence will help them to focus attention on the problem. On Tuesday, Mexico’s attorney general and its interior secretary were traveling to Tijuana to discuss crime.

And officers who served under de la Torre vowed to find his killers.

``We’re going to get them. You’ll see,″ Omar Fierro Villanueva, a former personal bodyguard of de la Torre, said at his boss’ wake, pausing several times to hold back his tears.

``We’re going to look under every rock. If the rocks can talk, we’ll make them talk.″

After a memorial Mass for de la Torre on Tuesday, mourners held emotional honor ceremonies in which friends and colleagues delivered speeches and stood at attention alongside his coffin.

``These regrettable events have provoked indignation in all sectors of our society,″ said Tijuana Mayor Francisco Vega de la Madrid during a ceremony held in front of City Hall. ``The situation has reached intolerable levels. Tijuana’s citizens demand an end to this climate of horror.″

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