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Walking a Tightrope at the Border : Law enforcement: Grupo Beta has been widely praised for fighting corruption and protecting human rights along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. But some observers worry that the special unit’s future is in danger.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grupo Beta began in 1990 as a quixotic experiment: a reform-minded psychologist and a handful of undercover Tijuana cops trying to impose order on a lawless combat zone between nations.

It evolved into an internationally acclaimed border force that cut violence by criminals and authorities alike, improved relations with U.S. agencies and largely resisted the corruption that dogs Mexican law enforcement, according to government officials and migrant advocates in both nations.

But recent developments have some observers concerned about the future of the groundbreaking special force.

“Beta represents a model of what it is possible to achieve,” wrote Gabriel Szekely, a professor at the College of Mexico, in a recent article in the Mexico City magazine Nexos. “It’s not easy to establish a group of police officers who work with enthusiasm and are incorruptible.”

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Szekely lauded former Beta commander Javier Valenzuela, a shrewd, energetic newcomer to the often authoritarian world of Mexican police work. Valenzuela’s unorthodox philosophies--open dialogue among officers, unprecedented access to human rights watchdogs--helped forge a success story, observers say.

“The custom of police in Mexico was, the first thing after you arrested someone, to slap him around,” said a veteran Beta officer. “What I learned in Beta was respect for human rights, whether migrants or criminals. Beta was based on respect for the law. It was a policeman’s dream.”

But after administrative changes in the Mexican Interior Ministry, which oversees Beta as part of the federal immigration service, Valenzuela transferred to the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles this summer. He heads a consular department that aids immigrants.

Valenzuela’s departure has some observers worried about the future of Grupo Beta at a time of intensified crime in Tijuana and tension at the border, which is in the spotlight because of the political focus on immigration and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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Infighting at the Interior Ministry constricted Beta’s independence beginning in February, said sources close to the unit--including Jose Luis Perez Canchola, the state human rights ombudsman for Baja California. Perez alleges that immigrant smugglers have bought increasing collusion from Mexican federal officials this year.

U.S. Border Patrol statistics indicate that the lucrative business of smuggling foreigners through Mexico is thriving. After several years of decline, arrests of non-Mexican illegal crossers--chiefly Central Americans and Chinese--have risen to 4,659 so far this year compared to 2,866 during the same period in 1992.

Recent incidents in which gunmen, including Mexican police officers, have abused and extorted migrants along the international border suggest the resurgence of a phenomenon that Beta had suppressed, said Perez, a respected police monitor.

“The control that had been established is being lost,” he said. “When there isn’t coordination, the problem of smugglers and robbers increases.”

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Grupo Beta (Spanish for Group B) had previously shared computerized data on border issues and cooperated with inquiries of misconduct allegations--on one occasion this year, commanders conducted an impromptu lineup of the unit’s officers when two youths complained of being roughed up.

But Perez said a new hard-line policy dictated by Mexico City has made Grupo Beta increasingly secretive.

Some U.S. authorities also fear a chilling of relations. Beta’s new leadership suspended monthly joint training sessions with the Border Crime Intervention Unit, a San Diego police tactical squad that developed a close rapport with its Tijuana counterpart. Where BCIU and Beta once met frequently, communications have been reduced to field officers talking through the border fence, officials said.

Training of Grupo Beta officers by the FBI has also been suspended, according to Mexican officials.

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“There is a lot of concern,” said a San Diego police official. “It’s a safety issue. It creates an atmosphere for an incident that could lead to serious consequences.”

On the other hand, Border Patrol spokesman Steve Kean said his agency does not perceive a change for the worse.

“We’ve had no hitches with them at all,” he said.

The new commander of Grupo Beta claims that he has had to shake up a passive, inadequately supervised force. Mario Arturo Coutino, who took over in July, said he has conducted aggressive roundups of criminals, including polleros, as smugglers are known in Tijuana.

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“I found that Beta was in a position of passivity and contemplation,” said Coutino, 40, who previously worked in agrarian reform and indigenous affairs in the southern border state of Chiapas. “Beta was not denouncing what was going on. They tolerated the smugglers. . . . It’s not that there has been a resurgence of the phenomenon. It had never disappeared.”

Reduced access to outsiders is a temporary product of transition, Coutino said. He said he is fighting incursions into his territory by other Mexican agencies bent on illicit gain. As recently as last week, he said, Beta officers confronted Mexican federal judicial police at gunpoint and ordered them away from the border.

The new commander said he is also re-examining the relationship with U.S. agencies.

“It was a relationship that diluted the differences,” he said. “It must be clear that Beta is a Mexican force. It had reached a point where we were a complement of the agencies of our neighbors. . . . We should develop a concrete agenda, demarcating clearly our functions.”

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The debate about the unit’s direction grows partly out of personality conflicts. Valenzuela had cultivated strong loyalties and his successor has demoted or dismissed several of the group’s founding members.

“I am angry,” said a Beta veteran, who asked not to be named. “They are bringing in people who are insufficiently trained. . . . They are putting at risk all the achievements. This strong card that the Mexican government had in its relations with the United States is being thrown in the garbage.”

But prominent activist Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Bi-National Center of Human Rights, said he remains favorably impressed.

“These are the kind of changes that always happen in politics: A new leader brings in his own people,” he said.

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Valenzuela, the recently departed commander, declined any comment on the recent changes.

In interviews during his last days in Tijuana, however, Valenzuela said he looked forward to working with the huge Mexican community of Los Angeles, where he said the consulate’s daunting workload is exacerbated by the emergence of hard-line sentiment against immigrants.

Valenzuela said he will miss the border. He recalled arriving with a background of academics and political activism and considerable trepidation.

“My main experience with police officers was keeping my distance from them,” he joked. “I felt terrible arresting people at first. It went against my training as a psychologist that people are not to blame for their social conditions. . . . My attitude changed when I had contact with the victims who were the most vulnerable of all, the migrants.”

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After peaking three years ago, crime along the border fell steadily. Murders declined from as many as 10 a year to none during the last two years, police said. Rapes and robberies dropped sharply. Cross-border suspicions abated, as Beta gained enough trust to share radio frequencies and intelligence information with San Diego-based police agencies.

Referring to the current community policing vogue in the United States, a San Diego police official said of Valenzuela: “He brought that approach with him without anyone having taught him. He was ahead of his time down there.”

Beta, which has grown to 42 officers, instituted programs to aid migrant street children and compile regional crime statistics. It has also walked a tightrope. Arrests of Mexican officers preying on migrants sparked conflicts with fellow agencies, and Beta’s eyewitness reports alleging excessive force by the Border Patrol angered U.S. immigration officials.

Valenzuela said the unit, whose personnel are carefully selected from federal, state and local police and paid higher-than-average salaries, has withstood adversity.

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“I hope that we have demonstrated the possibility of a new kind of police officer in Mexico,” he said. “And the humanity of Mexican police when given incentives, recognition and respect to the figure of the police officer at a key moment in this country. . . . Beta works in a glass house. At the moment we regress, that we give in to the possibility of bribes or misconduct, we lose moral authority. That would be lamentable.”


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