How much does the world care that 80 people have been murdered in Tijuana in the last two months? Not much, except when one is Tijuana's police chief, says Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights. He can measure international interest by the number of calls he gets from foreign news crews. And since Alfredo de la Torre Márquez was ambushed and killed 11 days ago, Clark has had calls and visits from all over the world, including the leftist French paper L'Humanité, PBS's documentary series Frontline, Reuters, Univision Los Angeles, Univision Miami, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the Union-Tribune, Tijuana media, and Mexico City papers like Proceso.
Joking about "fame" momentarily lightens the mood, but Clark, sitting at his office desk high up in a government-assisted apartment block, soon reverts to the businesslike seriousness that must help him through such disturbing times as these. As someone who exposes human-rights abuses in Tijuana, he also walks a tightrope.
"This is what happens in this city. We have not even recovered from the astonishment of the murder of my friend Rodolfo Gallardo [a judge and lawyer murdered with his wife and son February 10], when suddenly there is another murder. Now we forget about Rodolfo, because Don Alfredo, someone many people knew, is murdered. Everybody turns their attention to this murder and forgets about the last. And I don't know who is going to be the next, and everybody is going to turn their attention to that and forget about Alfredo. And that's the phenomenon in this city."
It may seem odd that the leader of a human-rights office, a man who constantly takes complaints to authorities about police misconduct and corruption, should be close to a police chief. But Clark and Alfredo de la Torre were longtime friends.
"Probably 15 years ago, my father introduced me to Alfredo. He's about my age, 49. He began as a policeman 30 years ago. He wasn't formally well-educated. He probably didn't even make it to junior high. But he was very intelligent. I remember that we were once talking about his career, and he told me that he started as a policia auxiliar, initially in the red-light district, outside bars. He has a lot of experience. He was the first director of the municipal police who was actually a policeman. All others have been politicians. His success had a meaning for other policemen, that they too can fight for that position, because Alfredo made it.
"Often we went to have breakfast together — we used to go to VIP's, two blocks behind the federal police. He'd call me Licenciado [the honorific accorded those with university degrees]; I'd call him 'Don Alfredo.' We had an excellent friendship. We'd embrace on meeting. I'm really shocked."
Clark isn't quick to blame the drug cartels for de la Torre's death. "There is not just a drug cartel. There are pollero [migrant-smuggling] cartels. There are arms cartels. There are car-stealing cartels. And probably there is a cartel dedicated to kidnapping. On the bottom of the pyramid are grupos emergentes -- emerging groups -- small ones who try to copy the methods of the big ones, because the big ones are their heroes. The lower echelons don't have too much to lose. The top-echelon cartels have a lot to lose [by murdering a prominent man like de la Torre], because all eyes [turn on them]. Not good for business. If someone is killed, [authorities] always say it is Los Arellanos who killed them."
So why was de la Torre killed? Was it impossible for him to stay untouched by criminals? Clark understands those pressures. "I remember, once we were talking about how organized crime bribes authorities. He told me, 'Licenciado, [the first time] they send you a briefcase full of money. If you return the briefcase, nothing is going to happen. But the next time, they send you another briefcase, with money and a machine-gun inside.' He said, 'What are you going to do?' Yet I am surprised. After 30 years he must have known how far to go, what doors to open, what doors not to open."
Marco Antonio Macklis Mercado hands over the appeal he penned a few minutes after he heard of Alfredo de la Torre's assassination. It's a cri de coeur to the governor of Baja California, members of state and city governments, and to his fellow citizens.
"The state of Baja California is an integral part of the United Mexican States.... The obligation of the governor of the state of Baja California is to watch over the conservation of order, tranquility, and security of the state and to guarantee to every person...an environment of support for his/her progress, well-being, and better quality of life... [Yet today] all we [citizens] do is...ask: 'WHO'S NEXT? WHEN?' "
Macklis, a well-known criminal-defense attorney in downtown Tijuana, is hardened to the reality of murderers, drug dealers, and smugglers. He has defended them from Tijuana to Toluca to Mexico City. Yet the 80 murders in his hometown, the gunning down of fellow attorney Rodolfo Gallardo and his family, and then police chief Alfredo de la Torre — both friends of his — was too much. He took his appeal down to El Mexicano and El Heraldo newspapers and paid to insert his appeal as a quarter-page ad.
"I am a criminal-defense lawyer. But first, I am a citizen of Mexico. I live here, my family lives here, and I am very concerned about what is happening here in Tijuana right now. There is no city in all the world that has criminals in the streets as we do. They are terrible. If they kill a chief of police like that, what can the rest of us expect?"
It's 5:00 p.m. Macklis is just back from a long day in court. We sit in his third-floor downtown office, surrounded by red-spined law books. Through the wall come occasional rumbles from cars in the parking garage next door. Macklis takes thoughtful drags on a cigarette. His hand blindly searches out one of the large glass ashtrays that dot his desk. His voice has the deep, sharp quality of a midlife smoker.
"I don't like the way the municipal and state authorities always say, 'This is a federal case.' Yes, weapons [violations] come under federal law. But if you commit homicide with a weapon, you'll be charged for the homicide, not for weapons possession. That makes it a state case. Finding Alfredo de la Torre's murderer is the state's job."
Macklis wants action, no expense spared. "The government [of Baja California] has to take strong measures. Reallocate resources! Forget about paving the streets, other problems; put your money toward solving this problem. If you can believe it, right now there is only one district attorney, one ministerio público, prosecutor in all Tijuana. He must resolve all these [homicide] cases. It is impossible for one prosecutor to investigate even these two crimes -- the murders of Gallardo and his family and de la Torre. It is impossible. You cannot do it -- if you want to do a good job. If you don't want to do a good job, that's okay. But the violence in the street is going to continue. Federal authorities are not the problem. The problem here in Baja is that the state has not yet opened its eyes. We need more people. We need more units. We need more agents. We need better intelligence."
Macklis says blaming the drug cartels also makes him mad. "It's like, if it's raining, you blame El Niño. If large weapons were used, machine guns, AK-47s — the word is 'Arellano.' Simple. But only because they have nothing else."
But Macklis does believe it was someone sophisticated who planned de la Torre's death. "In my experience in criminal cases, guys who do this kind of crime, or 'job,' have to be very, very experienced people in the weapons field. Cars on that road [Via Rápida Oriental, where de la Torre was shot] have to be going, at a minimum, 45 mph. It's like a little freeway. When I go on that road, I'm sometimes going 65 mph. It's incredibly hard to open a window and shoot accurately. It would have to be, like, a van whose side door they opened, with a gunman sitting strapped into a captain's chair, tightly. It is not simple. It has to be something like three, four, five cars [surrounding de la Torre]. These are very, very expert people. You have to be related with criminals, with the police, or with the army.... I don't know."
When Macklis and a group of Tijuana lawyers met with deputy state attorney-general Olga Jiménez Muñoz recently, pushing for more action, the mood was pessimistic. "Some of them told her, 'Olga, you are fighting a war we have already lost. You can't do anything.' It's not just [a lack of] prosecutors for this year's 80 cases. The whole state legal [infrastructure] -- courts, jails, police -- has been neglected. The Tijuana jail on Eighth and Constitución hasn't changed since 1958. The penitentiary [at Otay], since 1963. The office of the court hasn't changed since I began my career! Around 1975. No new buildings, no nothing. Even the money they pay a district attorney is low, I think about $1000 a month."
Part of the problem, Macklis believes, is inherent in the border region itself. His response is radical. "In the future, with this relationship that we have with the United States, maybe, maybe we can create one set of laws for both sides of the border. International law that applies here and in San Diego. Make this like a free-port area, because otherwise the laws are so different, the criminals [can take advantage of it]."
In the meantime, Baja California's rickety legal apparatus needs money. Since de la Torre's death, President Zedillo's government has promised to increase this year's Baja California law enforcement budget from $21 million to $53 million. But the essential ingredient lacking, Macklis says, is government willpower.
"When the last governor, Mr. Terán Terán, died, and [Alejandro González] Alcocer succeeded him, I was happy. We know Alcocer. He's an attorney. I thought, 'Okay. Now we are going to have a litigant who knows our problems, the court's problems, the police's problems.' That's what I was thinking. But right now I don't know what happened with Alcocer. Once again we are moving sideways, like cangrejos [crabs].
"I hope that the crime against my friend Alfredo de la Torre will open their eyes. They must, because otherwise the people are going to take other actions. That's the problem. The people are very angry. We are not very far from becoming like a Guatemala or a Colombia."
Victor Clark thinks the comparison should be with the United States, in the 1920s. "You were having the same problems: rapid urbanization, machine politics being challenged, and criminals making fortunes by creating and selling illegal substances — back then it was alcohol. I guess what we need today is another Elliot Ness and his Untouchables, or a Zorro, and some courageous judges to back them."
Don Alfredo, he says, certainly used to back Clark — or at least watch his back. "In 1994, '95, we were very active in denouncing the relations that [certain] people working for Governor [Ernesto] Ruffo [Appel] had with drug traffickers. And I remember — well I don't remember, I have this here in my heart: In 1997, Rafael, our main informant, who was a member of the state police and also a friend of Alfredo, was brutally murdered because he was giving us information. Alfredo was there at his funeral. He told me that night, 'Licenciado, be very careful, because this is a message for you.' On several occasions, Don Alfredo warned me about the risks that I was running, because I was touching very delicate interests of corrupted authorities and their relationship with drug traffickers. He always told me: 'Licenciado, please. You are my friend. I don't want to find you dead one of these days.' "
It's 9:00 p.m. Clark calls to "José," his bodyguard, supplied by the municipal police, waiting in the next room. It's time for both of them to get back to their families. Clark picks up a small ceramic Mayan sculpture, a figure of a woman with an oval turquoise on her breast. "Don Alfredo gave this to me because he knew I taught social anthropology at the university. He thought it might have been genuine. It's not. But that doesn't matter. With this, I will always remember him."
- Por un camino va
- la Muerte, coronada
- por azahares marchitos...
- Down a road travels
- Death, crowned with
- withered orange blossoms.
- Death sings and sings
- a song
- with her ancient white guitar,
- and sings and sings and sings.
- (From "Death Knell," by Federico García Lorca)