A crackdown on Baja bribes

Times Staff Writer

Baja California sees a lucrative future in the luxury residential towers sprouting up along its coast, and officials are hoping developments by the likes of Donald Trump will bring Southern California prosperity south of the border.

But there’s a problem: The 5-mile highway from the border to the beaches is notorious for police who pull tourists’ cars over in search of bribes.

Now Tijuana police say they’re cleaning up the route and targeting corruption elsewhere in an effort to make the border area more inviting.


They’re installing cameras to catch extortion attempts, publicizing that people can pay tickets with credit cards and transferring corrupt cops. They’ve deployed a squad of female traffic officers to offer courteous help to tourists. They’ve even declared the stretch of road a “no-ticket” highway.

“I’ve told my officers it is strictly prohibited to stop vehicles with foreign plates, especially from California,” said Victor Manuel Zatarain, Tijuana police chief.

Police say that this time, unlike before, their efforts will make a difference.

Corrupt cops have long slipped around such measures to prey on retired American expatriates, surfers and college kids on weekend getaways.

Still, with stretches of shoreline now attracting heavyweight developers from outside Mexico, the latest crackdown, even with its gimmicky touches, seems to be being taken seriously, say border experts and real estate professionals.

Government officials, they say, can’t readily dismiss the concerns of investors set to pour an estimated $3.5 billion into the local economy.

“I think they’re finally getting the message,” said Gustavo Torres, president of the Rosarito Beach-Ensenada Board of Realtors. “They don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg: the developers.”

Police corruption has emerged as a major issue in the mayoral campaign in Rosarito Beach, a popular weekend destination down the coast from Tijuana, which also is experiencing a real estate boom.

Along the 70-mile stretch of coast from Tijuana through Rosarito Beach to Ensenada, 25 condominium and hotel high-rises are planned or are under construction, some with golf courses and private beaches. The Trump Ocean Resort Baja, set to break ground this year on a 17-acre oceanfront bluff, is pitched as the new standard for Baja California luxury.

Potential buyers, many from Southern California, are treated to sales events with open bars and gourmet food. At one event in Del Mar, Calif., buyers got to meet Trump’s 25-year-old daughter, Ivanka. Sales agents said she bought a unit in one of the three towers.

Dazzled by the five-star treatment at a sales event in San Diego, Don Smith, 61, a retired psychiatric nurse from Oceanside, waited eagerly for a chance to buy a $450,000 one-bedroom unit. The prospect of being stopped by corrupt cops on the way to the gleaming high-rises didn’t concern him.

“I don’t personally feel afraid that something bad might happen,” Smith said.

Many potential buyers visit Mexico frequently and are not fazed by petty corruption. But Realtor association President Torres said developers have lost $3.5 million in sales this year as buyers pulled out of deals after being extorted.

One former police patrol officer in Rosarito Beach, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimates he took more than 3,000 bribes in six years, enough to build his own house near the beach. “It was a good living,” he said.

Many police officers turn to extortion, he said, because their supervisors threaten to transfer them to dangerous neighborhoods if they don’t fork over a daily share of cash from bribes.

Officers usually don’t demand cash from the drivers they stop, he said. Instead, they start asking a lot of questions and reviewing registration records. Most people are quick to offer a bribe to avoid long dealings with officers who seem to have nothing but time on their hands.

“For Americans, $20 is nothing,” said the former officer. “The American has money. The American doesn’t know the law. The American doesn’t want his vacation delayed.”

The best way to avoid paying a bribe, he said, is to insist on being taken to the police station.

“If the American wanted to go to the station, I would follow for a while, and then put on my lights and pretend I had an emergency. I didn’t want to get in trouble with my supervisors,” the former patrol officer said.

The crackdown on highway bribes in Tijuana is the result of pressure from developers, real estate agents and citizens groups.

Now cameras, not police officers, identify speeders on the highway and only traffic officers who carry new credit card machines are allowed to issue tickets. The machines allow Americans to pay citations at a reduced rate, officials said. The officers also will be monitored by cameras.

Near the border crossing, the squad of female officers -- many of whom are bilingual -- directs traffic in an effort to ease congestion. The women wear crisp white shirts and smile a lot to calm harried tourists.

Tijuana Police Chief Zatarain said he has transferred a notorious motorcycle squad and its supervisor from the coast to other areas. Two police officers who harassed tourists last month were thrown in jail for 36 hours as punishment, he said. This month, the Police Department began subjecting officers suspected of corruption to lie-detector tests on a new polygraph machine that officials say is 98% accurate.

Conversely, officers who show Americans hospitality are treated like heroes. After Julio Caesar Garcia, a 33-year-old police supervisor, gave driving directions to a saleswoman for the Trump development, he was given an award by Torres’ real estate association.

“She was impressed that I didn’t ask for a bribe, but I was just doing my job,” said Garcia, who was a bit bewildered by the praise. “I never got an award for being shot at.”

The latest anti-corruption measures, say border experts, reflect Baja California’s growing commitment to professional law enforcement. Police salaries in Tijuana were recently doubled -- to about $1,500 monthly -- making the force the highest paid in Mexico, say officials who hope the increases also will make their officers the least likely to seek bribes.

Serious problems remain, including a lack of professional training, minimum educational requirements and an entrenched culture of corruption that in some departments starts at the top.

There’s also the temptation of all the new money in the area.

The former Rosarito Beach police officer said many cops viewed the building boom as a bribe-taking bonanza on par with the filming of “Titanic” in Baja in the mid-1990s, when he and other police regularly stopped studio workers and visiting Hollywood executives.

“They were easy targets because of the language difference and because they were always in hurry,” the former patrol officer said. “Those were great days.”

Real estate professionals don’t see it that way.

Their goal is to re-create the Southern California oceanfront experience in Mexico at a fraction of the price, without the problem of corrupt officers’ outstretched hands.

“They kill our business,” said Torres, the Realtor association president. “We want tourists and investors to feel like we love them here.”