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Mexico Cracks Down on Tijuana Drug Violence

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Mexico Cracks Down on Tijuana Drug Violence

World

Mexico Cracks Down on Tijuana Drug Violence

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Luke Burbank.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Drug violence in the Mexican border city of Tijuana is hardly news, but it has been especially brutal lately - hundreds of residents kidnapped, dozens of police officers killed, and suspected drug traffickers dump the severed heads of three officers in a field. Amy Isackson covers the border region for member station KPBS, San Diego. Here's her report.

(Soundbite of traffic sounds)

AMY ISACKSON: Dozens of soldiers dressed in full camouflage with machine guns slung across their chest pull over cars at a checkpoint they've set up on one of Tijuana's main roads. The soldiers focus on late model pick-up trucks and SUV's with dark-tinted windows - drug traffickers and kidnappers' vehicles of choice. Soldiers dig around under the seats and in glove compartments. One even peers inside a fast food bag searching for drugs, guns or some sign of illicit activity. Though the checkpoint causes traffic to back up for miles, most everyone who's pulled over says they welcome the federal forces arrival - like Tijuana resident, Carlos Valdez.

Mr. CARLOS VALDEZ (Tijuana Resident): I think it's a great thing that they're here in Tijuana, because it's - right now, it's really bad here.

ISACKSON: Do you feel less safe in Tijuana these days?

Mr. VALDEZ: Yeah, because all the bad guys are the policeman, all them kind of guys. And when the military is here - it's something better.

ISACKSON: Most people in Tijuana suspect the local police force is riddled with corruption. It's widely rumored that drug cartels have softened the force with enormous bribes, and even put some officers on the cartel payroll for carrying out kidnappings and killings. Tijuana's top police chief acknowledges there's corruption within his ranks. Javier Algorri says he's been pleading with federal officials for months to launch a full-bore investigation.

Mr. JAVIER ALGORRI (Chief of Police, Tijuana): (Through interpreter) Whoever they have to investigate will participate actively and collaborate so they can do what they need to do and detain whoever they need to.

ISACKSON: But when federal officials stripped Algorri's entire force of their guns just hours after he spoke, it was a bit more than he expected. Federal officials are running ballistic tests on the local officer's weapons to see if they're tied to any drug cartel crimes. The move prompted Tijuana's mayor to suspend local patrols for two days. He said he couldn't send his soldiers to the war unarmed. Over the weekend, one of the city's newspapers ran a photo of the disarmed officers killing time by playing soccer. This week, local police with empty holsters resumed patrols alongside federal forces that have guns.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

ISACKSON: They day the Tijuana police had their weapons taken away, a local business held a ceremony honoring officers who performed heroic feats. The company president handed out plaques and cordless telephones to a few dozen police. The gesture seemed like a plea for officers not to stray to the dark side.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

ISACKSON: Victor Clark, who founded a center for human rights in Tijuana, has spent twenty years studying drug trafficking in the city. He doubts such desperate measures - or even drastic ones, like sending in 3,000 federal troops - will help control the violence. He says federal forces marched into the city five times during past Mexican president Vicente Fox's administration.

Mr. VICTOR CLARK (Human Rights Activist, Tijuana): (Through translator) People called for them to come and they came, but there weren't results. The city is out of control. More than 500 Tijuana residents have fled to the U.S. Twenty-three policemen were murdered last year. Is or isn't that out of control?

ISACKSON: The violence is not contained to Tijuana. The country's newly-elected president, Felipe Calderon, ran on a campaign of law and order. In the first 10 days of his administration, he sent 7,000 troops charging into the central state of Michoacan to crack down on drug violence there. Though the operation has not yielded many high-profile arrests, analyst Clark says it hasn't dampened people's expectations.

Mr. CLARK: (Through translator) As we say in Mexico, hope is the last thing to go. And it hasn't gone yet.

ISACKSON: Clark says other drug-plagued states are lined up, asking the president to help them. For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

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