San Diego Licenciado Héctor Huerta Suárez, the State Judicial Police station commander, looks up at the familiar gray portrait on the wall beside his new desk. "I love that man," he says. "Emiliano Zapata is my hero."
Zapata led the Mexican Revolution nearly 90 years ago. He fought for agrarian reform and the restoration of land to the Indians. He was known for his incorruptibility.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Tijuana's State Judicial Police. They're currently most famous for a recent gun battle they allegedly fought against federal forces -- in defense of drug cartel members. A 1993 investigation accused state police of torturing prisoners, selling their own police credentials to the highest bidders, and charging U.S. insurance companies up to $2000 to reclaim stolen American-owned cars. It became common to see state police agents using stolen U.S. cars as their patrol vehicles.
But Héctor Huerta says he is part of a new wave that's going to change all that. The new police chief of this new police station in the Otay Mesa section of Tijuana isn't a policeman at all. He's a lawyer. He says that on January 7, 1998, the state attorney general, Marco Antonio de la Fuente Villareal, asked him to join "about ten" other lawyers to take positions in the state police's various stations around the city. The idea was to help bring law and order and some respect back to the nearly 2000-strong police force.
For most of the year, Huerta was in charge of homicide in the Rosarito Beach area. Two months ago, Licensiado de la Fuente asked him to take the job as chief of this just-built Otay Mesa station, covering a 25-mile stretch of borderline from San Ysidro to Rodriguez airport and on to Tecate.
But the man who wrote the 1993 investigation report says the idea of someone like Huerta bucking the system is worrisome. "I don't know if Héctor wants to become a hero in society," says Licenciado Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights. "It is so difficult because he can be killed. There are certain limits you cannot exceed. If you take the next step, dar el siguente paso, you're signing your death sentence."
Huerta felt the chill earlier this year, when the old guard made it clear they didn't like non-cops like Huerta telling them what to do. "Oh yes. They used to fight, not because they didn't like us, but because they didn't feel it was okay for an attorney, and not a police officer, to be chief of police," says the wiry 34-year-old Huerta. "They say that we are too young to understand or too young to try to change anything. But that is my personal reason to join, to change an institution that had the worst reputation in the Mexican police."
Today the station's cells were supposed to open for business, but the rubberized blue paint on the floor hasn't dried yet. In bare new offices next door, plainclothes detectives with large handlebar mustaches and big black guns stuck into their jeans check a pinned map of the area. Bloody faces of murder victims stare out from pictures on cork boards.
Some cops wear blue jackets with white letters across the backs. MPFC. Ministerio Público del Fuero Común(Common Jurisdiction of the District Attorney). They're the nearest thing to a uniform here. State police fit between municipal and federal forces. They're the plainclothes detectives who deal with all felonies except for drug trafficking and firearms violations. They leave those offenses to the federales and misdemeanors to the municipal cops.
"I'm just putting in the grass over there," Huerta says, speaking as if he's a proud new homeowner, as we walk outside. "And I have to put my trees on my land." He points to rows of young, spindly ficus lining the compound. "They gave me the building with no grass, no trees. So I called the city government, and they gave me all these."
He has also been given 25 officers, 5 secretaries, 3 deputy district attorneys, and 7 assistant police. "Forty people. Even though it's brand new, they can't all [fit]. Only the police who are working," he says.
You can tell which cars in the yard are recovered stolen vehicles -- they're the dirty ones. "It used to be that police officers here in Tijuana used a stolen car from the United States for work. Part of the reason was that the government couldn't buy them their own patrol cars. But here, that is a thing of the past. I put a sign on the wall, that they are not to use stolen cars. Not even cars that are not stolen that have an American plate on. If it is not Mexican, already imported, it's not [to be] used."
But everything in this border world, he acknowledges, conspires to tempt cops to bend the rules. Especially here near the Otay Mesa crossing, where huge amounts of cargo and containers move both ways across the line.
"The average salary on my staff is around $110, maybe $130 a week, under $500 a month," says Huerta, who gets $1300 a month as chief. "If you have a police officer working for so little money, and a drug lord offers them five, ten times that amount just to let them pass through our jurisdiction, of course there is a very big temptation. So cops have to be people who not only don't like money as the first thing in their life, but have strong family stability, strong values.
"It's not easy. I cannot put my hand in the fire and say that none of my officers have a problem like that. But what I can assure you is that if there is a police officer who is selling protection to that kind of people, of course he will appear before me. Not like before, when they were doing nothing and working with the drug lords. Now they know that if I catch them, the least I'll do is remove them from my jurisdiction."