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To Reduce Crime, Tijuana Disarms Police

By Ruben Navarrette

TIJUANA, Mexico -- They say law enforcement in a Mexican border town isn't child's play.

You could have fooled me. Cops in this city are now using slingshots to ward off drug dealers, kidnappers, thieves, murderers and other bad hombres. Some of the officers rely on marbles for ammo; others may have to use rocks. And this is considered high-tech. According to the Mexican media, some members of the 2,300-officer Tijuana police department have recently apprehended suspects using nothing more than baseball bats.

This will be good for a few chuckles from those Americans who like to feel superior to their little brother to the south. I've never understood the need. So you're threatened by competition, globalization, stagnant wages and job losses. At least you can take comfort in the fact that you're better off than people in a Third World country with a second-rate economy. Big deal.

This is a city is where Americans go to suspend the rules. For the 16-year-old who can't wait to set foot into a bar, or the 60-year-old who wants affordable drugs without having to go to a doctor for a prescription, Tijuana -- or as the Americans say, "Tia-wana'' -- aims to please. Service with a smile. No questions asked. Is it any wonder that the trend caught on and that the residents of this teeming metropolis find themselves living without rules -- just as surely as their police officers are without guns?

That's right. The local cops patrolling the streets don't have guns, and they can't get guns because in this city the cops are the bad guys. In what would amount to a constitutional crisis north of the border, federal authorities swooped in a few weeks ago and disarmed the local police. It's all part of Operation Tijuana, in which President Felipe Calderon sent more than 3,000 federal officers and soldiers to help break up the drug trafficking industry in Baja California.

The initiative wins enthusiastic praise from Baja Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther, who has for 40 years been a member of the National Action Party (PAN) that produced Calderon.

"This was something that we knew had to be done,'' Gov. Elorduy said of the effort to disarm local police.

Yet, no government official I spoke to seemed to know if and when the local cops would get their guns back. But everyone seems to agree on this much: There's no hurry. Everywhere you go, people say that, ironically, they've never felt safer. Murders are down. Kidnappings are down. Overall incidents of crime in Tijuana are down 14 percent since the cops were disarmed, said Gov. Elorduy.

Smart guy that Calderon. The Harvard-educated lawyer and economist got it right away. The cops are supposed to protect people from scoundrels. But, in Tijuana, the cops are the scoundrels. And so it falls to the president and federales to protect the people from them.

In Mexico, as in the United States, initiatives that succeed have a thousand fathers. It's only the failures that are orphans. And so Gov. Elorduy made a point of saying that disarming the local police was something that was discussed as early as October by a consortium of mayors and government officials -- himself included.

"This was not something new that came out of the blue from one day to another,'' he insisted.

Perhaps. But what would you expect him to say? The governor and the mayors have run things for years and, during their reign, cops learned to augment their income by preying on the Mexican middle class -- and crime soared. Now, there's a new sheriff in Mexico City and, all of a sudden, the cops are disarmed and crime is going down.

Who do you suppose deserves the credit? It's not rocket science. At least not to Jose Hernandez, a parking lot attendant of sorts who collects $3 per car from travelers who wish to park just a few hundred yards from the border. Hernandez says the city is calmer and middle-class Mexicans walk around with less fear of being nabbed by crooked cops who would hold them until they paid up.

"It's better now that the police aren't arresting so many people," he said. "Calderon is doing a good job."

I can see that. Extortionists are basically bullies. And it's hard to be convincing in that role when all you have at your disposal are a slingshot and a handful of marbles.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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