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— He swears there is no chance he'll allow his cops to use torture "interrogation" methods such as the beatings, electric shock, and plastic bag asphyxiation techniques human rights activists have alleged in the past.

And he's stopped all use of aspirinas -- ex-cops or wannabe cops working freelance at recovering stolen cars and goods for the police. The aspirinas drew no salary from the state and have had the reputation of making money through extortion or robbery.

"The old officers said they were useful because we can't afford to hire enough legitimate police," Huerta says. "But the truth is we'll never have enough officers. Three cars a day are stolen in this area. We get maybe seven or ten burglaries a day. Burglars from all over the city come to work in this place. But you don't solve one bad thing with another."

* * *

It's 10:00 p.m. Huerta drives his official white Crown Victoria through the dark canyons west of Otay. Yes, he says, there are limits to what he can safely do. "I know that there are many, many drugs involved in my jurisdiction. You must use good judgment, take precautions. I don't try to push too hard because you can have problems [with other police]. All the police get jealous and [say] you are not doing your job at the state level, because you are trying to solve the other [federal-assigned, drug] ones. The only time that we hit on them is when it's open.... But we don't do investigations."

He says it's not just corruption, it's also law enforcement turf wars that make things so tough. He points to an old, beat-up car weaving in the lane to the right of us. "For example, if I catch that guy right now, as the state police, I could call on the radio and find out if a state judge [had] issued a warrant against him. But I could not possibly know if there is a federal warrant for that guy. Why? Because we don't share information right now. That's great for criminals. They're happy we don't share everything. The good criminals -- people who know how to be a criminal, who studied how to be a criminal -- they're free. Ninety percent of the population in penitentiaries are poor people who don't know how to play with the system."

Huerta used to be in private practice. "I was a litigator in penal law here in Tijuana. I took this job for two reasons: one -- I've got to be honest with you -- legal practice in Tijuana or Mexico is not as good pay as the American practice. But, two, I also love public work, I love politics. You've got to start somewhere."

Huerta gets some of his drive to reform from membership in the left-of-center prd (Partido de la Revolución Democrática). "There is the new kind of young people around, 35 years old and younger. We think that we can change things. Why? Because we're the generation after the '60s and '70s, when many more people started going to school. The people who can't read are [fewer]. People have a chance at least [to go to] elementary school, and more people attend university now. That proves the only way to change the masses and countries is through education. And the only way we [in the state police] can prove to Mexican citizens and United States citizens that things are changing is to give all the information that we have and show everything we have and work in front of everybody, so everybody knows for a fact that things are changing, the deputies are changing, and we're trying to make a novel and faithful effort to build a new country. Victor [Clark] can make a surprise visit here any time he wants."

"Héctor Huerta es como una isla en el mar," replies Clark, the human rights activist and social anthropologist. "He is like an island in a big ocean. Probably there are other small islands like him, but the ocean of corruption is very big."

Clark says he doesn't doubt Huerta's sincerity. "It is true that there are important efforts to try to clean up the state police, but it is also true that the levels of corruption are stronger. It is a problem of interest inside the state police, because the low salaries, the possibilities of receiving money through corruption, are very [tempting]."

And if Huerta tries too hard, says Clark ominously, he will become a roadblock others will want to clear. "If Héctor touches interests that bother other groups, his life will be in danger. Drugs are a federal jurisdiction, but it is true that many state police [still] protect drug traffickers [against] federal agents. It's the main problem that they have between them and the federales. It is a confrontation, a fight between them over the groups they protect.

"Héctor is only a minor part of all these things. Corruption in Mexico is institutionalized. It is a problem of national security, and not only drugs. Organized crime is also kidnapping, robbing banks, and trafficking arms southward from the United States."

And, Clark says, for every corrupt cop and official on the Mexican side, there's another on the American side too.

"If you have people who are [taking] large amounts of drugs through Tijuana or through El Paso or through Nogales, it is because they are giving money to Mexican and to American authorities. You cannot enter with a ton of cocaine in Los Angeles and distribute it without paying someone money. When you speak with Mexican authorities off the record, they blame the American authorities, saying that they also are as corrupted as Mexicans, that the difference is that in our country, at least it is recognized by society. At least some of our cartel leaders are in jail. In the United States they don't publicly recognize the levels of corruption. The American media is more interested in the Lewinsky-Clinton case. It gives the impression that the corrupted people are only south [of the border]."

But Clark, who will be a visiting professor next year at SDSU, doesn't underestimate the challenge Huerta is taking on. "I'm not going to advise him to become corrupted," he says, "but it is difficult in these times, at this moment in Mexico's history, to become a hero, because the risk is you'll be killed. So my advice for Héctor is that he [should] know how far he can go. Because you know that if you cross the line, you will not be alive the next day."

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