A 'Black Hole' on a Porous Border

Times Staff Writers

Perched on a ridge a few hundred yards from the international line, an A-frame house with a wraparound balcony gives smugglers a 180-degree view of U.S. border defenses.

Spotters track the movement of Border Patrol agents with binoculars and use two-way radios to steer drug runners and human traffickers through unguarded areas.

As agents closed in on suspected smugglers last summer, lookouts on the Mexican side bombarded them with rocks and retreated to the A-frame.

"They have the high ground on us," said Sonia Spaulding, the supervising Border Patrol agent during the attack. "They can see our every move."

Jacume is a "black hole," an enclave largely beyond the control of authorities on either side of the border because of its remote location, complicit residents and corrupt Mexican police.

Jacume has flourished as a launch pad for smuggling of drugs and people since U.S. authorities stiffened border defenses near San Diego a decade ago. Traffickers simply moved their operations east, into the forbidding valleys and mountain passes surrounding the village.

As President Bush prepares to use National Guard troops to help seal the border, Jacume and places like it represent a formidable challenge and illustrate why the U.S., as Bush noted, "has not been in complete control of its borders" — and may never be.

Mile-for-mile, more drugs are seized in this area than almost anywhere else along the California line. In the last fiscal year, federal agents captured an average of 400 pounds of marijuana and 660 migrants each month. In the first eight months of this fiscal year, drug seizures are nearly triple last year's total.

Jacume residents have become beholden to smugglers whose activities pump cash into the community. Mexican federal agents have been taken hostage here. Police won't enter the town without heavily armed backup, so entrenched are the traffickers and their supporters.

"They own the place," said Armando Vale Saldate, civilian director of the Tecate Police Department, which oversees Jacume.

Little is known publicly about the inner workings of Jacume's smuggling economy. But confidential law enforcement documents, as well as interviews with residents, smugglers and U.S. and Mexican officials, reveal layers of corruption extending from the traffickers to top police officials and the ruthless Arellano-Felix drug cartel.

The A-frame with the strategic vantage point is used by a convicted drug felon who is "the leader of an immigrant trafficking organization," according to a report by the Mexican attorney general's office and other sources.

Complaints filed secretly by officers of the Tecate Police Department and reviewed by The Times say a top commander and other supervisors collected thousands of dollars a week in protection money from smugglers moving drugs and migrants across the frontier.

Smuggling Is a Mainstay Tucked into an isolated high desert valley 70 miles east of Tijuana, Jacume sits at the end of a rutted dirt road. Swirls of dust and headlights announce approaching vehicles long before they pass an old chicken farm and the rusted shells of abandoned cars en route to the village's small plaza.

Founded 80 years ago as communal farm, the town has a few hundred residents, many of them related to one another. In the small grid of dirt roads and cinder-block homes, there are two restaurants, a few mom-and-pop markets and a small church with whitewashed walls.

Smuggling is an economic mainstay. Residents pocket up to $50 a day — about 10 times the minimum day's wage in Mexico — for each northbound migrant they harbor in their homes or farms. Storing drugs can earn them hundreds of dollars more. Merchants cater to the migrants' needs.

"It's good business for everybody around here," said Mario Ramirez, who operates Jacume's main restaurant. "People need to eat and need water."

Government authority has long been tenuous here.

In 1998, residents took two Mexican federal agents hostage for extorting money from smugglers, according to Mexican authorities. The captives were freed after an agreement was reached: The agents would return the money, and the smugglers would not file complaints against them.

A few years later, unarmed Mexican immigration agents who chased a suspected smuggler's car into Jacume were greeted by bat-wielding residents. The agents retreated without making an arrest and now rarely enter the town, said immigration officer Felipe Flores.

The alleged smuggler said to use the A-frame is Israel Martinez, 37, according to confidential law enforcement records and sources.

He came to the attention of U.S. investigators in 1995, when officers stopped two pickup trucks on the U.S. side of the fence across from Jacume and found 450 pounds of marijuana inside, according to San Diego Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Walter. Martinez and another man were arrested.

Martinez pleaded guilty to transporting marijuana and was sentenced to two years in California state prison. He was later deported.

U.S. authorities, working with Mexican agents, have launched a new investigation of Martinez and his suspected smuggling network.

Martinez's organization employs guides on foot, drivers and lookouts to shepherd drugs and people across the frontier, according to law enforcement records and sources.

Mexican and U.S. sources who have interviewed traffickers in custody, including alleged members of Martinez's group, say his organization is suspected of moving large quantities of marijuana across the border for the Arellano-Felix cartel, a Tijuana-based syndicate that controls drug trafficking across Baja California.

Efforts to reach Martinez for comment were unsuccessful.

A relative claimed to have no knowledge of Martinez's involvement in trafficking and said he went into hiding after 20 armed men stormed his home in Jacume in September.

The men, some with bandannas covering their faces, were looking for money and for Martinez, according to the relative, who asked not to be identified.

Investigators say his organization remains active. Martinez is not the first suspected of exploiting the views afforded by Jacume's hills.

A smuggler named Jaime Ochoa, alias "El Cachetes," or Cheeks, allegedly directed runs from tree platforms on his property.

In one of the few successful raids ever conducted in Jacume, a federal SWAT team from Mexico City posing as telephone repairmen stormed Ochoa's home three years ago. U.S. investigators pressed for action after learning that Ochoa might be operating a smuggling tunnel.

The Mexican agents found binoculars, two-way radios, an Uzi submachine gun, a map of smuggling routes and what appeared to be a partially dug passageway, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities.

Ochoa was caught fleeing in a pickup truck and later found guilty of weapons violations, Mexican authorities said.

The raid's success was unusual for Jacume because residents often tip off smugglers, said a U.S. agent who participated in the operation.

"We usually come back empty-handed," he said.

'I Like Police Raids' The sun-baked hills and valleys between Tecate and Jacume, where the Arellano-Felix cartel stores and moves marijuana, is territory that has been overseen by Daniel Mora, until recently police commander for the area.

For Mora and other officers, who earn as little as $600 a month, patrolling this terrain involves a stark choice: Take a stand against the traffickers, or join them.

As Mora tells it, he's the kind who takes a stand.

Squat, with a thin mustache, he started as an officer in Tijuana. His left eyebrow and scalp bear scars from a head-on car crash with assault suspects. He has been involved in three shootouts and numerous operations against drug and car-theft rings — some in the Jacume area.

"I like police raids," the 33-year-old Mora says.

After three years in Tecate, he was promoted to commander. But last year he was suspended, demoted and banned from patrolling Jacume and other trafficking hot spots because of suspicions that he was in league with smugglers.

The Mexican attorney general's office is investigating the allegations.

Among information turned over to investigators are a dozen unsigned complaints e-mailed to the Tecate city internal affairs office. The authors, who identified themselves as police officers, said Mora and five supervisors, including one now overseeing Jacume, were running a protection racket.

One complaint, written in January, said Mora is tied to 10 human smugglers and drug traffickers and receives $5,000 a week in payoffs.

"We are asking with all our heart that these personnel … stop interfering with public safety," said another complaint, received in February.

Contacted by The Times, the authors of the complaints said in e-mails that they feared for their lives and declined to reveal their names or answer questions.

Smugglers detained by Mexican officials have said they paid Mora a "quota" or had "an arrangement" with him to operate in the Tecate area, according to interview records.

Mora said the allegations are groundless and originate with disgruntled colleagues.

"It's political," Mora said in an interview at a San Diego-area restaurant. He predicted that he would be cleared, adding: "I'm not going to run, because I have absolutely nothing to hide."

Bold and Brazen Lawlessness spills across the border from Jacume and into the United States month after month. An episode last summer, described in federal court records and interviews, underscores the smugglers' brazenness and sense of impunity.

One night in August, a white Chevrolet Suburban made its way through the village. It stopped at a ranch and an abandoned home, picking up half a dozen migrants who had paid up to $2,000 each to get to the U.S.

They squeezed into the SUV, alongside suitcases stuffed with 700 pounds of marijuana, a load worth more than half a million dollars. The vehicle's front bumper was reinforced with steel, and its tires were filled with silicon to withstand the spike strips used by U.S. border agents.

After snaking through town, the SUV rolled up to the international divide, where a pickup truck waited. Its driver yanked open a section of rusty fence that had been pre-cut by smugglers.

A hand-painted sign on the Jacume side of the border fence bade the migrants farewell: To the north is work and prosperity, but don't forget where you came from.

The SUV driver shot through the gap toward Interstate 8, a couple of miles away.

A short while later, a Border Patrol anti-smuggling team saw the SUV driving slowly and a California Highway Patrol officer pulled the vehicle over. As the officer stepped out of his car, the SUV driver made a daring move. He switched off the lights and raced up an offramp heading west toward San Diego in eastbound lanes.

CHP officers chased the vehicle. Up ahead, more patrol units weaved across lanes with their lights flashing, trying to hold back traffic and prevent a head-on crash.

Spike strips were thrown on the road. But the Suburban sailed over the devices. The migrants inside later told investigators the SUV had hit speeds as high as 90 mph. One remembered praying as sirens blared and lights flashed around them. "Get down and don't move!" the driver yelled in Spanish.

Seconds later, he smashed into a patrol car. The SUV veered to a halt and the driver bolted into heavy brush, escaping toward the border.

Five migrants were rounded up. They identified the driver as 26-year-old Jovanni Mendoza, according to court records.

Border Patrol agents had a thick folder on Mendoza, court records show.

In 2002, he was arrested by Border Patrol agents after a foot chase north of Jacume, suspected of driving a van crammed with 31 illegal immigrants. He was released after the migrants refused to identify the driver.

Last spring, Border Patrol agents fired at a blue Suburban registered to Mendoza as it allegedly tried to run them down at a U.S. checkpoint northwest of Jacume. The SUV took off on the wrong side of Interstate 8. Agents could not identify the driver.

A week after the wrong-way crash, Border Patrol received reports of a Suburban on a suspected smuggling run near the same stretch of Interstate 8. A vehicle matching that description was stopped at a checkpoint.

Mendoza was behind the wheel. He now faces 12 counts of smuggling humans and drugs and has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in San Diego. His arrest has done little to slow the pace of cross-border crime in Jacume.

Earlier this month, residents alerted Border Patrol agents when they saw a vehicle using metal ramps to drive over a low section of the fence near Jacume. When the vehicle fled, agents threw spike strips on the road, shredding its tires. The vehicle lost control and flipped. One thousand pounds of marijuana was found inside.

Within days, two more loads of marijuana — 700 pounds each — were intercepted coming out of Jacume.

"There's no bottom to their well," said a Border Patrol agent, standing guard one evening near the bullet-riddled fence below the A-frame house. "It just keeps coming."

Times researcher Vicki Gallay contributed to this report.

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