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Growing Outrage at Tijuana Violence : Amid Wave of Killings Believed Tied to Drug Cartel, One Victim’s Father Demands Answers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If anyone symbolizes the provincial Tijuana of yesteryear, it is Armando Gutierrez, who rose from painting braves on El Indio gas tanks to become a respected journalist. His son Hodin became a high-profile state prosecutor in the brash style of the new Tijuana.

When assassins shot Hodin in January--mutilating his bullet-riddled body with their van--he personified fears about the city Tijuana has become. As Armando Gutierrez collected his son’s remains on his hands and knees, he swore he would not allow Hodin’s death to become just another gangland killing, unsolved and forgotten.

So like a growing number of people here, Gutierrez, 67, is demanding answers from authorities who have been unable to halt or make sense of the bloody barrage of killings that are widely believed to be linked to the Tijuana drug cartel.

Gutierrez wants Baja California Atty. Gen. Jose Luis Anaya Bautista to explain why he did not question or arrest the man who Anaya admits warned him that assassins were plotting to kill Hodin. And why, Gutierrez wants to know, did judicial authorities remove Hodin’s bodyguards months before his slaying--in spite of the death threats? Who gave the order?

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“No one will admit to it. They say the memos disappeared,” he said. “They cleared the way for the assassins. They helped the animals tear him to pieces.”

Gutierrez’s lament reflects the growing impatience, mistrust and outrage in calls for a halt to the violence. Hodin Gutierrez was the eighth senior Baja law enforcement officer to die in a year. There have been scores of less prominent victims: lawyers, police, young men no one seems to know.

Traffickers’ ties to wealthy and powerful circles are universally suspected. Just before Memorial Day weekend, federal agents staged an anti-drug sweep at the genteel Tijuana Country Club. Unamused golfers complained of having to lay down their clubs to identify themselves on the green.

Public confidence is not bolstered by lurid descriptions in San Diego federal court records of a cartel phantom world behind the mayhem. Statements there, filed in a prominent extradition case, link high-level officials to the cartel: the Baja attorney general, a Tijuana state police homicide chief, a presidential guardsman, one of the slain prosecutors.

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U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin in San Diego compares Tijuana to Chicago in the Prohibition days of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and Al Capone. Other U.S. officials wonder if the bloodshed heralds the “Colombianization” of Mexico. And U.S. anti-drug agents bleakly speculate on whether slain Mexican officers were martyrs or willing pawns in a bloody chess game between the Tijuana drug cartel and a powerful rival based elsewhere.

Tijuanans have long suspected dirty deals behind the scenes. By now, even upscale families have been alarmed by gunfights amid the burbling fountains and villas of haute Tijuana.

Jorge Barboza formed a grass-roots group in his posh neighborhood of Lomas de Agua Caliente after four young men sprayed each other with bullets five weeks ago at supper time. Two of the youths died.

Neighbors were startled but not unprepared: 12 young men had been killed nearby in as many months. On Thursday, Barboza asked Tijuana officials to station checkpoints on all roads into the district.

“This is the fault of weak authorities. They have to admit that there is a problem and do something about it,” said Barboza, 46, a former Tijuana police chief and Mexico City prison director. “These young men feel untouchable. Police drive by them and do absolutely nothing.”

The slayings seem to follow sinister patterns. Lately, there has been a dark star over those who have cooperated with anti-narcotics investigators.

Drug traffickers employ sophisticated surveillance technology to ferret out snitches, according to warnings by U.S. agents. They believe that some informants may have been fingered by Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, the Mexico drug czar jailed for alleged ties to a rival of the Tijuana cartel.

In March, gunmen shot the father and wife of Jesus Alberto Bayardo Robles in Tijuana. U.S. authorities said they were apparently victims of a breach in the “law of the Mafia” protecting families from score-settling.

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Bayardo, now in federal prison, had implicated the alleged leaders of the Tijuana cartel, the Arellano Felix brothers, in the May 1993 murder of the Guadalajara archbishop. Some U.S. agents believe the killers wanted to silence him permanently or exact revenge.

Some recent Tijuana victims were close to an ongoing extradition case against two alleged cartel gunmen, Alfredo Hodoyan and Emilio Valdez Mainero, to be heard in San Diego courts June 19. The case against these favored sons of elite families--known as “juniors” in local parlance--has opened a Pandora’s box in Tijuana high society and shed the most light yet into the city’s deadly drug wars.

On March 26, police found the tortured body of Felipe de Jesus Equihua, a prominent ruling party militant. Equihua was close to a witness in the juniors case, and one U.S. intelligence officer believes his torturers “wanted to know what [the witness] was telling the gringos.” Said another: “It was a warning.”

In a statement filed in San Diego federal courts, the witness, a confessed cartel henchman, said Baja Atty. Gen. Anaya and Tijuana state police homicide Chief Baldomero Juvera “offer protection to (the) Arellano Felix brothers and their gunmen.”

Both have publicly denied the allegations, and neither is charged with wrongdoing. Anaya’s office sent out a press release May 20 after similar reports surfaced in the Mexican press. “Let them investigate me,” he said in the release. “He who accuses has an obligation to prove what he says.”

“I think the Arellanos are making a big impression on would-be cooperators,” a U.S. law enforcement officer said.

The oddest intrigue involved the brother of one of the two accused gunmen.

According to the statement by the brother, Alejandro Hodoyan, filed in U.S. courts, he was picked up by military intelligence agents in September and tortured by captors who demanded information on the Tijuana cartel. His military interrogators once suggested that a Mexico City anti-drug commander assisted gunmen who killed the Baja federal police commander Sept. 14, his statement said.

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He said he even met with now-disgraced Gen. Gutierrez Rebollo himself. Alejandro Hodoyan said he was handed over to U.S. anti-drug agents in February and released to his family after he agreed to cooperate with a U.S. prosecutor handling the juniors case.

In March, he returned to Tijuana, where armed men confronted him and his mother and kidnapped him, said his mother, Cristina Palacios. She said one of the gunmen was an ally of Gutierrez Rebollo. The Hodoyan family says it never saw Alejandro again.

Armando Gutierrez’s son Hodin was also helping U.S. law enforcement with the juniors case, according to U.S. prosecutors.

Though only 29, Hodin had tremendous expertise in Tijuana organized crime and had been privy to details of the March 1994 assassination of Mexico’s presidential heir-apparent Luis Donaldo Colosio. He had been special prosecutor in the killing, a month later, of a Tijuana police chief who had refused a narcotics bribe.

Hodin issued arrest warrants for two fugitive federal police commanders in that case. One was in Tijuana when Hodin was slain, though he denied involvement.

Given Hodin’s well-known stable of enemies, his family was concerned when he told them last July that judicial authorities had removed his two bodyguards, his father said. Armando Gutierrez said Hodin appealed to have the guards reinstated. After the killing, one official told the press that Hodin himself requested his bodyguards’ dismissal--a contention his father flatly rejects.

In press conferences and interviews that followed the slaying, Anaya said he had been warned before the killing that Hodin was a target. When pressed on who tipped him off, he said the man had been a stranger.

Calls for Anaya’s resignation ensued. Jose Luis Perez Canchola, then vice president of the Mexican Human Rights Academy, sought an investigation of Anaya.

“Everyone knows that judges, police and prosecutors are protecting narcotics traffickers,” Perez Canchola said. “Their money is making its way into electoral politics.”

If Hodin Gutierrez’s aggressive style was emblematic of his generation, his father’s courtly manner harks back to the Tijuana of the 1940s.

A radio interviewer, he still wears a fresh suit to his favorite cafe every afternoon, and quotes poetry to underline his convictions. But his soft-spoken diplomacy is running out as his son’s case drags on.

Two months ago, he said, Anaya told him he was close to arresting several suspects. Nowadays, officials don’t bother to return his calls, Gutierrez said.

As July congressional elections near, columnists note that ending corruption and thuggery were goals of the National Action Party when Baja in 1989 elected its candidate as the first opposition governor in modern Mexico.

“This administration promised a government with a human face,” Gutierrez said. “That humane image has been been replaced by one of criminals. . . . All we are asking for is justice. Is that so much?”


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