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Theories on Tijuana Killings Abound

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A string of jarring murders and arrests in Tijuana, including the assassination last month of the municipal police chief, has draped fresh intrigue over a city steeped in the mysterious workings of a criminal underworld.

In a place where divining meaning from acts of violence is a morbid coffee-shop pastime, the assassination and ensuing developments have inspired a dizzying array of possible explanations--and divergent opinions within U.S. law enforcement circles over whether Baja California is in the midst of a war between big-time drug gangs.

Although some U.S. officials see months of spectacular killings as an early indication of a broad conflict between rival groups, others attribute much of the violence to housecleaning within the Arellano Felix gang, which dominates drug trafficking in Baja California.

U.S. law enforcement officials say a gang based in Sinaloa, a coastal state whose best-known city is Mazatlan, appears to have stepped up its presence in Baja California as cocaine smuggling through the zone has grown. But they express skepticism about an assertion by Mexican authorities that the Sinaloa group, implicated in the murder of Tijuana Police Chief Alfredo de la Torre Marquez, is also responsible for the slayings of 14 other people in the border city in recent months.

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“Quite honestly, we can’t see the motivation behind some of the killings,” said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We can’t see the connection.”

There are even differences within U.S. law enforcement over the alleged drug involvement of De la Torre, who was slain in a brazen daylight highway ambush Feb. 27. One federal official said there is “pretty solid information” going back several years that De la Torre, who held various law enforcement posts over a nearly 30-year career before becoming chief in 1998, had been paid to assist the Arellano smuggling operations. But others within the U.S. government characterize reports about De la Torre as contradictory and inconclusive.

Tijuana Mayor Francisco Vega de Lamadrid and other city officials also discounted news reports about U.S. suspicions of De la Torre’s alleged Arellano ties. The only valid conclusions about the chief’s murder, Vega said, would come from Mexican authorities with jurisdiction over the case. The mayor advised against speculation that would harm the city’s image.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are seeking to understand subsequent developments in Mexico, including the March 11 arrest of a Tijuana businessman reputed to be a financial whiz for the Arellano gang and, a few days later, the apparent torture and killing of the suspect’s lawyer.

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“This thing is rapidly escalating down there,” said one U.S. official. “We’re waiting to see where it’s headed.”

The answer, U.S. officials say, may reveal itself only through the most macabre measurement: who turns up dead in coming weeks, and where.

Finger Pointed at Sinaloa Trafficker

The police chief’s killing was the most shocking of a series of gangland-style slayings since last summer that has stood out even amid the city’s spiraling homicide rate. A week and a half after the assassination came another bombshell: State authorities declared that they had cracked 15 homicide cases, several of them involving people reputedly tied to the Arellano gang, which is led by three brothers who remain largely out of view.

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The culprits, according to Baja California Atty. Gen. Juan Manuel Salazar Pimentel, included seven confessed hit men working for a son of reputed Sinaloa drug trafficker Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who allegedly hoped to shoulder into the lucrative border narcotics market by creating havoc in the region.

The statement was remarkable, not only for its attempt to explain a series of high-profile killings in one fell swoop, but also for suggesting that a rival drug gang had for months plowed a bloody path through the backyard of the Arellano Felix cartel, probably Mexico’s most feared and violent mob. It was the first official mention of the presence in Baja California of the Zambada group, which is thought to have links to a major cartel based in Ciudad Juarez.

An incursion of the magnitude indicated by Salazar would suggest a full-scale gang war and a blow to the hegemony of the area’s dominant crime organization. But that scenario was greeted with skepticism by some officials in the United States. They say the Tijuana gang remains too strong to permit such an extended and violent thrust by outsiders.

Some of the killings are viewed instead as efforts by Arellano bosses to purge rogue associates and punish debtors. “What we’re getting from the Mexican authorities is that this is a housecleaning,” said one U.S. official.

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On the other hand, another American official said some of the Tijuana murders appear to be the work of the Zambada gang. But this official sees the killings as directed at low-level members of the Arellano Felix organization rather than part of an all-out effort to capture the group’s turf.

“All the intelligence is saying that they are going after factions, offshoots of the Arellano Felix brothers,” the official said. “So it’s not like they’re going after the brothers themselves.”

The official said a recent spate of killings in Culiacan, the Sinaloa capital, attributed to people linked to the Arellano group, exemplifies the Tijuana gang’s ability to strike back at foes even as it has lowered its profile in recent years.

“It’s probably a bunch of eye-for-an-eye murders,” the official said.

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According to Salazar, the seven captured gunmen said they were acting on orders from Vicente Zambada, son of Ismael. Their purpose, the men allegedly confessed, was “destabilizing public tranquillity to create a climate of confusion” that would help the elder Zambada expand his trafficking activities in the border region. Baja authorities have been tight-lipped about what evidence led to the arrests. Some U.S. officials are skeptical about whether the confessions are legitimate.

The defendants--including two former Tijuana police officers, one of whom was originally identified as a current member of the force--were quietly hustled to a high-security prison in Mexico City while awaiting trial in the De la Torre murder and the other killings. Two current Tijuana police officers also suspected in the shooting are still being sought by Mexican authorities, who have asked the FBI to help with the search north of the border.

Ironhanded Control of Drug Flow

Gregory A. Vega, U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties, said the scenario of a Sinaloa band stirring violent chaos is alarming, if it proves true. “Time will tell,” Vega said, “whether that is the situation.”

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U.S. authorities say the Arellano Felix group relies on an iron hand to control the flow of marijuana, cocaine and heroin across the border into California. One of the brothers, Ramon, has been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List since 1997 and is the subject of a $2-million reward offered by the U.S. government. Despite occasional reports in Mexico that Ramon Arellano has been seen in Los Angeles, San Diego and other Western cities, U.S. authorities believe he remains in northern Baja California.

The idea of bloody skirmishing between the Tijuana cartel and rivals is hardly novel. The Arellano gang in years past has clashed with competitors from Sinaloa and Ciudad Juarez, at times killing bystanders in the process. An attempt by Arellano gunmen to ambush a rival drug boss claimed the life of Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, who authorities said was inadvertently caught in the shootout at a Guadalajara airport in 1993.

The recent intrigue in Tijuana thickened further with the sudden arrest by Mexican soldiers of Jesus Labra Aviles, a reputed godfather of the Arellano cartel.

Although U.S. government officials publicly applaud the Labra arrest as a sign of Mexico’s efforts to combat drug gangs, some privately express bafflement at the timing. The Mexican attorney general’s office painted the arrest as the product of a routine weapons sweep by the military. Labra, arrested on a weapons charge and held because he was already being sought for questioning on drug matters, was transferred to Mexico City and assigned to house arrest while prosecutors prepare a case.

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Then, late last week, a Tijuana lawyer working for Labra’s release turned up dead in Mexico City. Authorities said the attorney, Gustavo Galvez Reyes, had been severely beaten, a plastic bag wrapped around his head, his hands and feet bound.

Some U.S. officials see the tangle of events as setbacks, if not hobbling blows, for the Arellano group. “There’s turmoil within the organization,” said one official.

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Ellingwood reported from San Diego and Schrader from Washington.

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