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Border Town Blues: Tijuana Cops Clean Up Their Image

May 29, 1985

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) _ The chief of police is back walking a beat every morning, and bribe-taking gets strict punishment in the revamped Tijuana police department, long maligned as a haven for corrupt cops in a squalid border town.

Since the U.S. Navy declared Tijuana off-limits at night and tourists began staying away from Mexico, hitting the community hard in the pocketbook, the police force has been getting its act in shape.

Police Chief Gerardo Sosa, who took over last November with orders to purge the department of corruption, has quickly made changes in this city across the border from San Diego.

He has fired 140 officers, including 30 accused of taking bribes, and walks a beat himself daily as an example to his officers.

More officers are being taught English to deal with the daily flood of American visitors who support the city’s huge tourist industry.

Sosa plans to increase the wages of his 800 officers from 38,000 pesos a month - about $152 - to 60,000 pesos in an effort to reduce temptation to seek bribes from Americans, a long familiar practice that has been strictly banned.

In addition, the chief or one of his lieutenants must be contacted immediately whenever a tourist is arrested. Sailors in the clutches of Tijuana officers must be transported right away to the border and handed over to the Shore Patrol.

The city also has improved conditions in the Tijuana Jail - subject of a song by the Kingston Trio - bought new uniforms and motorcycles for police and rewarded two cops who refused bribes.

″Not everything is wrong here,″ says Sosa. ″There are a lot of people who are really trying to do their job. They are trying to better the image of the police force.

″We’re not trying to convince by words. We’re trying to convince by acts that this is a different department,″ he says.

A law professor and the son of a former policeman, Sosa became chief when morale had hit bottom because of allegations that officers were harassing and extorting money from tourists and servicemen.

The U.S. Navy banned the 115,000 sailors and Marines stationed in San Diego County from visiting the Mexican border city between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.

That move, and other border tensions, produced a sharp drop in tourism to Baja California Norte, the Mexican state in which Tijuana is located, said Gina Cord, a spokeswoman for the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Businesses have reported drops in sales of as high as 60 percent, although business picked up during the Memorial Day weekend, she said.

San Diego police spokesman Bill Robinson says Sosa and other Tijuana officials need to maintain their vigilance over police activity to restore tourist confidence. But he has praise for the efforts.

″They are making an honest attempt to clean up their act,″ he says.

Billy Kinder, a spokesman for the San Diego Naval base, also supports the cleanup, but says the Navy has no plans yet to lift the curfew.

″We see the police force today as compared to the one before the curfew as more professional with a genuine interest in helping servicemen that may encounter problems while visiting Tijuana,″ he says.

The new-look police department is part of a changed attitude on the part of the Mexican government.

It is no longer taking a passive approach toward bribes, particularly in light of evidence that crooked cops were involved in the kidnap and murder earlier this year of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena Salazar.

″It is very common to bribe a policeman to avoid the paying of a fine and it’s a very extended practice in Mexico,″ says Fernando Rello, a visiting research fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at the University of California-San Diego.

In the 15 months leading to the curfew, the Navy says there were 30 cases in which military personnel were victimized while visiting Tijuana - either by police or street robbers.

Since Sosa took over, only two cases of police abuse have been reported, Kinder says.

Meanwhile, about 1,400 sailors and Marines have been caught in Tijuana in violation of the curfew, he says.

Ms. Cord says some of the problems faced by some military personnel are of their own making.

″The problems occur because they want to go to (Tijuana’s) redlight district and they get into trouble,″ she said. ″But they’d get into trouble in any redlight district in the world.″

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