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Tijuana Chief’s Slaying Remains Mystery

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Investigators said Monday they had identified no immediate motive or suspects in the deadly highway ambush of the city’s popular police chief, the latest crime victim in this violence-stained border community.

An air of mourning enveloped downtown police headquarters, where black ribbons hung above doorways and officers’ badges bore black bands in memory of slain Chief Alfredo de la Torre Marquez.

After a wake Monday evening, a Mass and police memorial were scheduled for today.

“He was an esteemed officer in this agency,” said Perla Ibarra Leyva, the city’s public safety director and de la Torre’s boss. “Everyone is indignant and very sad.”

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State officials had few clues beyond vague witness descriptions of two or three vehicles used in the Sunday attack and their occupants.

Ballistics experts were studying three spent cartridges found in a Jeep Cherokee seized after the shooting to see if they matched any of the 99 casings strewn on the expressway where assassins sprayed gunfire at the GMC Suburban that de la Torre was driving alone to his downtown office. Officials said the gunmen, who apparently used their moving vehicles to box in de la Torre before shooting, fired at least one AK-47-style assault rifle and a 9-millimeter semiautomatic weapon during the ambush.

De la Torre, 49, whose force of about 1,800 officers is in charge of policing traffic and patrolling neighborhoods, had not been expected to leave home and had given his bodyguards the day off, authorities said.

A spokeswoman for the Baja California attorney general’s office, which is leading the investigation, said detectives had interviewed about 70 people but so far had found no solid leads. An explanation for the killing, which bore the hallmarks of organized crime hits in this drug-trafficking hub, was equally elusive.

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De la Torre’s police force had been cracking down in recent months on neighborhood drug dens and immigrant smugglers in the seedy Zona Norte, a center for prostitution and drugs. But officials said they knew of no threats against the chief or anything else to suggest a motive.

In a fenced lot outside the prosecutor’s office, technicians gauged the path of bullets by stretching lengths of pink string between dozens of holes in the riddled vehicle driven by de la Torre. Impounded next to the slain chief’s vehicle was the silver Jeep Cherokee, which had been reported stolen from Chula Vista earlier this month.

The slaying came amid a city crime wave that has included more than 70 killings so far this year and has claimed the lives of dozens of police agents, judges, prosecutors and others in the past five years.

The killings, most of which are attributed to narcotics trade in the hometown of the Arellano Felix drug gang, have so overwhelmed state authorities that federal officials have vowed to help. Mexican Atty. Gen. Jorge Madrazo and other top federal officials already had planned to visit Baja California this week to discuss improving coordination with local authorities.

Baja’s attorney general, Juan Manuel Salazar Pimentel, said Monday that the border region faces a drug trade that is fed in large part by U.S. demand and that will require binational remedies. “Tijuana is a victim of activity that nobody here wants, that distracts from productive work,” Salazar said. “The most important thing is, how are we going to overcome it?”

Fed-up residents called a popular Tijuana radio show to vent frustrations. And observers across the border labeled the murder a new setback in growing efforts by authorities in the United States and Mexico to combat crime jointly.

“The message of this murder is a chilling one for U.S. law enforcement: There are only a few people you trust enough to work with there, and when you find one, chances are he’ll be transferred or killed,” said Charles La Bella, former U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties.

Among police in San Diego, de la Torre was remembered as an experienced law enforcement official eager to upgrade the training of his forces and to cooperate with U.S. agencies.

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Under de la Torre, Tijuana police teamed up with their San Diego counterparts to reduce the number of underage Americans flowing into the border city to drink excessively.

San Diego Chief David Bejarano, the city’s first Latino chief, quickly formed a friendship with his Tijuana counterpart. The two chiefs had been set to meet Monday in Tijuana to discuss border problems.

Ibarra, the Tijuana safety chief, said the killing underlined the dangers that police face everywhere. “All police officers in any agency know that there’s risk in their work,” she said. “This is the gravest risk.”


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