Tijuana’s new chief knows the cartels’ killers are after him

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Times Staff Writer

The bullet holes pockmarking the walls of his home were just three days old when Alberto Capella Ibarra took over the police force of this violence-plagued city.

Twenty gunmen dressed in black had swarmed his yard in the middle of the night, and he’d fought them off, firing an automatic rifle.

Taking office Dec. 1 as the city’s secretary for public security, Capella, a longtime activist, declared war on organized crime and challenged citizens to join him in the battle.


Even he had no idea it would get so bloody.

Seventeen people were killed last week as organized crime struck back. Last Monday night and Tuesday morning, heavily armed men killed three of Capella’s senior police officers, shooting one at his home along with his wife and two daughters. Two days later, schoolchildren ran for their lives as police and soldiers battled with drug cartel members in a normally quiet neighborhood. Police found six executed kidnap victims inside the suspects’ house. A federal agent and a gunman died in the shootout.

Capella, a chubby, soft-spoken 36-year-old with no police training, is at the center of the storm. He moves around the city in a six-car convoy with 20 bodyguards. He can’t even stop at a taco stand without scaring off customers who fear gunmen will drive up and blast away.

Originally a corporate lawyer, Capella gained prominence as an outspoken advocate for crime victims. He has long assumed that killers would one day come for him.

Still, in his role as the head of both the police and fire departments, he keeps the pressure on organized crime and corrupt cops while reassuring citizens during what he calls some of the saddest days ever seen in the city.

On Thursday he told mourners at an honor guard ceremony for the three slain officers that Tijuana’s criminals had crossed a historic threshold by adding children to their target lists. “If they’ve ever had a traditional code, they’ve broken it,” Capella said. “But we are ready to give our last breath to honor our responsibility to society.”

After the gunfight at his home in November, Mexican newspapers published cartoon images of Capella as a superhero and dubbed him the Tijuana Rambo.


He could have sat back, enjoying the adulation.

But in his first public appearance after the shooting, Capella rejected it, telling hundreds in a hotel ballroom that society was at fault for meekly tolerating the growth of drug cartels in Tijuana.

He scolded citizens for not holding political leaders accountable and for cynicism. “It’s as if criminals have corrupted us all,” said Capella, his voice cracking. “Nobody lifts a finger.”

“He’s been the only public figure who has taken the problem so seriously, that we should take these crimes as a grave insult that speaks badly of us as a state and society in Tijuana,” said professor Guillermo Alonso Meneses at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

Expectations for police chiefs are low here. At least two of Capella’s predecessors have been killed and others indicted.

Meneses likened Capella to Jimmy Stewart’s character in the classic western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a lawyer determined against all odds to inspire citizens and impose order in a lawless town.

What Capella needs, Meneses joked, is a partner like John Wayne to battle the bad guys.

Capella has 2,300 cops on his force, but finding trusted gunslingers hasn’t been easy. The police are a dispirited, dysfunctional bunch. Many take bribes, deal drugs and carry out kidnappings. Capella said his first day at headquarters was like entering Ali Baba’s cavern. Still, he needs the police.


Mayor Jorge Ramos appointed him to the post after promising to reduce crime in one of Mexico’s most violent cities.

To do so, Capella has to take on a deeply entrenched world of drug kingpins and rival armies who roam around the city in convoys of SUVs with tinted windows. Weakened by arrests and killings, the networks are more desperate and violent than ever.

Capella’s crackdown started downtown. He created a “safety zone” around Avenida Revolucion, the heart of the tourist district, flooding the area with cops whose sweeps yielded more than 100 arrests.

Last week began with the biggest victory to date. Police swarmed a group of armed men trying to hijack an armored vehicle as it made the round of downtown banks. Police pursued the assailants across the city, trading gunfire in a wild chase that ended with the death of one suspect and the arrests of four others.

The slayings of the three police officers just hours later clearly were revenge. Two of them had taken part in the chase. The neighborhood gun battle Thursday occurred as people were gathered for the officers’ memorial.

The violence last week has brought fear but also a rare display of civic unity.

Dozens of religious, business and political leaders took out an unprecedented full-page ad in a leading newspaper, exhibiting the kind of social responsibility that Capella had asked of citizens.


“Tijuana society repudiates these recent cowardly acts by organized crime,” the civic leaders wrote in the ad.

“We will continue supporting governmental authorities in their fight against crime . . . because it’s the only way our children can one day enjoy a life of peace and liberty.”

Capella used to lead a comfortable, quiet sort of life. He ran a thriving law practice high in Tijuana’s tallest office tower and vacationed regularly in the U.S. and Europe with his wife and three children.

Then four years ago, a terrible crime wave hit the city.

Violence spread outside the worlds of drug traffickers and corrupt cops. Businessmen, doctors and other professionals were being snatched off streets in broad daylight by well-organized kidnapping rings.

Capella agreed to become president of the Baja California citizens’ advisory on public security. He quickly turned the state post into a bully pulpit, making headlines with blunt attacks on organized crime and the politicians and police who were too corrupt or inept to do anything about it.

As his public profile grew, so did the threats. He sent his wife and children to live elsewhere.


That’s why he was home alone Nov. 27 when barking dogs awoke him at 2 a.m.

He looked out his window, saw the gunmen and figured they would probably abduct him, then cut him into pieces. Silencing a leading voice in such a gruesome way, he thought, would send a demoralizing message to the citizenry.

Capella decided to fight, firing through different windows to make it appear he had backup. The return fire deafened and disoriented him, he said, and time seemed to slow during the 15 minutes in which bullets whizzed past his head.

He could hear the gunmen trying to break in through the front door, but he had fortified it as he always did by sliding a couch in front of it. He kept running and firing, sending bullets into doors and walls in his terror.

Finally, the gunmen retreated. Capella walked around his property, now littered with more than 200 shell casings. Bullets had cracked mirrors, punctured furniture and shredded every dress shirt in his closet, he said. The book on his nightstand -- “Transnational Crime and Public Security” -- was riddled with bullet holes.

The attack had occurred just after Capella had surfaced as a candidate for the police job. It could have been a preemptive strike by corrupt police or crime bosses warning him against taking the job.

Death threats continue. Menacing voices over police radio frequencies promise harm to him and his family.


Last Saturday, gunfire again erupted outside his house. Criminals have called in bomb scares at police headquarters, where Capella has his office.

Capella said he has no regrets. When he emerged from the gunfight alive, he said, he felt reborn. God gave him another chance and he plans to make the most of it.

“I think it would be stupid and cowardly to say ‘Adios. May God bless you. Nothing can be done.’ ” Capella said. “I would be left living with a very tragic and lamentable weight on my conscience.”