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Horror and Outrage Grow in Tijuana After Murder of Doctor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even by the Gothic standards for murder in this city, the death of the doctor prompted horror and outrage.

The horror centered on why anyone would want to kill 47-year-old Simon Ramirez Aranda, by all accounts a respected civic activist and family man. The outrage was directed at the brazenness of the point-blank shooting--just outside Ramirez’s medical office in the city’s snazzy business district--and at what many view as a new level of impunity in a city familiar with violent bloodletting.

The Feb. 10 slaying, which moved 200 of the physician’s friends and colleagues to take to the streets in protest, added to widespread concern about a crime toll that includes nearly 60 homicides since Jan. 1. The murders are picking up where they left off last year, when there were well over 300 killings.

There is nothing new in the graphic gallery of mayhem displayed daily in the so-called “red pages” devoted to crime in local newspapers. A thriving drug trade led by the Arellano Felix cartel has claimed the lives of numerous police agents and prosecutors over the years, and the daily tussle among small-time street pushers has killed scores, if not hundreds, of lesser-known operators and junkies. Three out of four murders in the city, whose population is estimated by officials at 1.3 million, are believed linked to drugs.

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But the doctor’s murder and the execution-style slayings of several others, including three women, who don’t fit the usual victim profile for such murders have added fresh public outcry to fatigue over the climbing body count. All those cases remain unsolved.

A protest by about 2,000 university students garnered wide attention in November after two students were shot at close range on the campus of the Autonomous University of Baja California. Local Catholic Church officials will highlight concerns about violence in a pre-Easter march next month.

“It’s out of control,” said Estela Behr, president of a Tijuana physicians group, during the march that followed the Ramirez killing. “It gets worse and worse and worse.”

Measuring any year-to-year trends is difficult because crime statistics are spotty. Kidnappings, for example, may make the local newspapers but go uncounted by the government because they are not reported to authorities. The newsweekly Zeta reported that 50 kidnappings in Baja California went unreported last year.

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Local Police Try to Stem the Tide

Against this backdrop, a drumbeat of recent news coverage, cartoons and opinion polls has depicted a runaway crime wave. And a Houston security firm put Tijuana on a new list of the world’s riskiest places for business travel because of the possibility of kidnapping and robbery.

The firm, Air Security International, advises executives to keep “even the seemingly mundane details of one’s daily activities in Tijuana, especially when and how one travels, on a need-to-know basis.”

Authorities in Tijuana bristle at such dire characterizations, saying the city’s crime problem is no more severe than in other large and fast-growing metropolises. (The 361 homicides tallied last year compared with 428 in far larger Los Angeles, which has a population of 3.6 million.)

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Officials say they are doing their best to patrol a sprawling city, swelled daily by a “floating population” of migrants arriving from Mexico’s interior who have increased the population to as high as 2 million by some estimates. The city’s new police chief, Alfredo de la Torre, said Tijuana officials are asking the Mexican federal government to fund an additional 200 to 300 officers to augment his force of 1,200.

In the meantime, the city has sought to show that it is attacking petty crime in hard-to-reach neighborhoods by installing the first two of a series of mobile police stations. And city police recently began random road checks for guns and stolen cars, a practice that will involve 60 officers in different sections of the city. “We’re trying,” the police chief insisted during an interview.

The city’s new mayor, Francisco Vega de la Madrid, has urged residents to join the fight. He is seeking inspiration from elsewhere, studying approaches such as Neighborhood Watch in San Diego and “zero tolerance” instituted by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to attack petty crime.

De la Torre said no police measures can prevent unpredictable killings such as that of Ramirez--or of two high-ranking police officers slain since December.

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“I can’t say I’m going to stop it,” he said. “I’m not God and I’m not Superman.”

His power to sway public opinion also is limited. Unlike in the United States, it is not the job of the city police to solve crimes. That, in most cases, lies with state authorities. Crimes involving narcotics and large-caliber weapons are referred to federal agents. Although state police claim to solve most murders, the killings most likely to catch public notice tend to go unsolved. That tendency, coupled with long-standing police corruption in Mexico, has left a public with little faith and growing impatience, observers say.

“I’m not sure it’s a crime wave that’s gotten worse. I think people have gotten more aware,” said San Diego police Sgt. Manuel Rodriguez, who heads a cross-border police liaison team. “Many times there won’t be a suspect. Many times there won’t be anyone charged with the crime. . . . You don’t have resolution to it. That adds to the sense that there’s a crime wave.”

He added: “We know that they’re trying, but most people don’t understand that. There’s very little trust in the system.”

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Doctor’s Slaying Remains a Mystery

The state police have sought to clean up their image, firing 20 agents who tested positive for drug use during the past year. Another half-dozen agents were turned over to federal authorities after being found in possession of stolen vehicles, said Lauro Ortiz, spokesman for the Baja state authorities in Tijuana.

Where many residents want more progress is in solving murders--or, better yet, stopping them. Some also call for stepped-up actions, such as roadblocks, to find guns that flow across the border from the United States.

The unease is especially apparent among professionals, who make the most fruitful targets for kidnappers and thieves. Physician friends of Ramirez said the use of security guards and bodyguards is up.

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“We’re always thinking leaving the office. Who’s there? Who’s coming?” said Guillermo Lopez, a surgeon who works in an office downtown.

Tijuana’s jaded side comes out when talk on the street turns to killings. Speaking in general, one resident, voice lowered, said, “When somebody dies of something, they were involved in something.”

Police said the investigation into the doctor’s killing is focusing on his patients, business debts, friends and family life. The gunman fired four shots from a .38-caliber pistol, striking Ramirez in the upper body, and then fled in a car without stealing anything. The slaying, which occurred as Ramirez was closing shop for the day, took place a block from the federal attorney general’s office.

“We don’t know what the motive was,” said Ortiz, of the state prosecutor’s office. “We have no indication it had anything to do with drugs.”

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Friends and neighbors of Ramirez, who founded a Tijuana chapter of Toastmasters International and was active in medical charity work, are stumped to explain his violent death.

The week after the slaying, while a wreath and red roses wilted in front of Ramirez’s former office in the stylish Rio Zone, a longtime acquaintance expressed bafflement.

“I’ve asked myself, ‘Why?’ ” said Maria Elena Cardenas, tending the counter in the pharmacy next door. “I don’t know.”

Cardenas said the incident showed that no corner of the city is immune to crime. And reminders keep coming. A day after the crime protest, she said, an office worker was mugged on the spot where the marchers had assembled.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Urban Homicide

The following are recent figures for homicides in Tijuana and comparably sized cities in the United States and elsewhere.

*--*

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1996 POPULATION City (in millions) 1998 1999 Tijuana* 1.3 361 58 Houston 1.7 254 N/A Philadelphia 1.5 340 58 Phoenix 1.1 202 15 San Diego 1.2 42 7 Dallas 1.1 249 27 Perth, Australia 1.1 29 3 Detroit 1.0 448 NA

*--*

* Some estimates place Tijuana’s population as high as 2 million.

** Through Feb. 25, except for Phoenix, which is through January.

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Source: Police departments of cities listed. Population figures are estimates from The World Almanac.

Researched by TRACY THOMAS / Los Angeles Times


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