Pubdate: Wed, 16 Sep 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front page, continued on page A16
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Bookmark: (Mexico Under Siege (Series))

Mexico Under Siege


Mexicali Seems an Oasis From Violence, but Some U.S. Officials Suspect
That the Peace Comes at a High Price.

By Richard Marosi, Reporting from Mexicali, Mexico

In Tijuana, schoolchildren get lessons on how to duck during gangland
shootouts. Ciudad Juarez cops patrol with military escorts, and the
morgue there is spilling over with gunshot victims.

But here in Mexicali, people fear the desert sun more than drug hit
men. The city of 700,000 has a homicide rate comparable to that of
Wichita, Kan., and one of the biggest police deployments is Operation
Beat the Heat, in which officers haul blocks of ice to shantytown residents.

There hasn't been a bank robbery in Mexicali in 18 months, or a
reported kidnapping in a year. Mexicali is considered so safe that top
law enforcement officials from Tijuana raise their families here, and
are seen visiting restaurants and movie theaters without the phalanx
of bodyguards that usually follows them everywhere else.

But is Mexicali an oasis of tranquillity, or just a

Across the border in California's Imperial County, U.S. authorities
believe the Baja California state capital has become the major staging
ground for drug trafficking into the U.S. The Calexico port of entry
now leads the nation in cocaine seizures, with a 64% increase in
overall drug seizures for the period from October 2008 through July
2009 compared with the same period a year earlier, according to U.S.
Customs and Border Protection.

U.S. law enforcement agencies have dismantled at least half a dozen
trafficking operations since 2007, each of them a key link in a
pipeline pumping tons of cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs to
cities across the U.S.

Some U.S. authorities suspect that the fire-free zone in Mexicali
comes at a cost: a cozy relationship between Mexican law enforcement
and the country's most powerful organized crime group, the Sinaloa
drug cartel, which is believed to have shifted trafficking through the
city to avoid gang battles in other border areas.

"We should be seeing huge numbers of narcotic arrests and seizures. .
. . I don't see it," said Ernie Limon, a supervisor with the
California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. "They don't have a lot of
law enforcement presence or commitment."

Mexican authorities deny any relationship exists, saying the calm
indicates that major traffickers have been driven out of the city.
Mexicali's director of public security, Alonso Mendez, who oversees
the 1,800-member municipal police force, said authorities arrest
organized crime members from Sinaloa before they get

Indeed, the city of wide, treeless boulevards offers little evidence
of narco-extravagance or violence. Mexicali's conservative population
of civil servants and agricultural laborers has tended to frown on
ostentatious displays of wealth. Outsized mansions are few. And
narco-culture staples such as roadside "death saint" shrines haven't
spread here, as they have in Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo.

"It's not easy for [organized crime groups] to take root here," said
Mendez, a young, burly former narcotics intelligence officer. A
corrupt police department, he added, would create dysfunction and
upheaval, the exact opposite of the current situation. "We'd be seeing
cops dying and fighting and being arrested, and we're not," Mendez

Officials in Mexico and the U.S. have suspected government ties to the
Sinaloa cartel since a videotaped confession of a cartel gunman
surfaced two years ago, alleging that former state Atty. Gen. Antonio
Martinez Luna was taking payoffs. Martinez Luna has vehemently denied
the accusation.

A federal police commander and one of his officers pleaded no contest
this year to drug-related charges after being arrested in a West
Covina home where police seized $630,000 in alleged drug proceeds.

The federal government, which leads anti-drug efforts in Mexico, has
only about 20 agents in Mexicali, which in itself has raised eyebrows
among U.S. law enforcement officials.

But some Mexican authorities say the U.S. is partly to blame for not
improving its border defenses in adjacent Calexico, the third-busiest
U.S.-Mexico port of entry, which handles about 40,000 pedestrian and
car crossings daily. U.S. authorities acknowledge that the 35-year-old
facility doesn't meet modern security standards. One recent undercover
investigation suggests that U.S. inspectors may be stopping as few as
one in 40 shipments through the 10-lane crossing.

Traffickers have boasted publicly about how easy it is to slip drugs
into Imperial County. "I was great at it. I had never lost a car in
the border. [Drug-sniffing] dogs never hit it or nothing," convicted
smuggler Carlos Cuevas Jr., the leader of a large trafficking
organization, testified last year.

The layout of the Calexico port offers an advantage to smugglers. The
facility sits only about 30 yards across the U.S.-Mexico line, giving
canine units limited space, and limited time, to conduct preliminary
checks before vehicles reach the inspection booths. And the cramped
secondary inspection area provides little room to use the mobile gamma
ray machines that can penetrate steel and help detect contraband.
Newer facilities lie farther inside U.S. territory.

"There are lots of infrastructure constraints," said Billy Whitford,
the port director. "The small footprint limits our ability to conduct
our border security mission."

Those obstacles were illustrated in a recent California state
investigation in which an undercover officer penetrated a
Mexicali-based ring. The eight-month probe revealed that traffickers
sent about 40 loads across the border. Inspectors detected only one of
them, according to Limon, the California Bureau of Narcotic
Enforcement supervisor.

Beyond the border crossing, smugglers face relatively few obstacles.
Unlike in San Diego, where they must run a gantlet of local law
enforcement, only a handful of Calexico cops and Imperial County
sheriff's deputies patrol downtown streets, including Imperial Avenue,
the north-south thoroughfare leading to Interstate 8.

Drug enforcement duties have fallen to a task force operating at a
bunker-like compound in nearby Imperial. Several wiretap probes, among
the largest undertaken in recent years by the Drug Enforcement
Administration, have exposed the Sinaloa cartel's vast distribution
network sprouting from the Calexico crossing.

A 2007 case against a Mexicali-based ring resulted in the arrest of
more than 400 people in the U.S. Two years later, more than 700
suspects from Los Angeles to Maine were linked to six distribution
organizations in Mexicali.

The trafficking rings seem to regenerate quickly. So far this year,
the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement has filed indictments
against two more Mexicali-based organizations, and several
investigations are underway.

That's no surprise to Calexico Police Chief James Lee Neujahr, who has
seen his city of about 30,000 turn into a stash-house haven and
recruiting center for smuggling groups needing drivers to move drugs
across the border.

Standing at the palm-lined gateway to the city, the chief pointed to
the "Welcome to Calexico" sign at Friendship Park, where cartel
lookouts report on the progress of drug shipments coming through the
crossing at 1st and Paulin streets.

A steady stream of northbound cars turned onto downtown streets,
including one driven by a middle-aged woman. "She could have 200
pounds of dope," he said. "You can't stop and search every car."

Neujahr believes smuggling groups long ago figured out that Imperial
County lacks resources, a neglected status reaffirmed this year, he
said, when the Justice Department issued $8.7 million in Southwest
border crime grants. Communities as far away as San Mateo County in
the Bay Area got funding, but not Imperial County.

"This is kind of a no-man's land," Neujahr said. "Until [drugs] get
farther up the road, nobody deals with it." 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake