San Diego It's clear that Catarino Valdéz, chief of the Tijuana Police Department's newly formed mounted police, is a bigwig by the way he arrives at the stables: in an off-road pickup driven by a bodyguard, while a second bodyguard, toting an automatic weapon, stands in a kind of cage in the bed of the truck. When the wheels stop, the gun-wielding man hops down, runs around to Chief Valdéz's door, and, his back to the door, scans the area. Convinced that it's secure, he stands away and lets Valdéz step out of the truck.
Chief Valdéz is a muscular man in his mid-40s, about five foot nine, with a commanding presence that's similar to an American cop's but mixed with a Latin machismo. Dressed in a navy blue police uniform topped with a baseball cap of the same color, he stands with feet planted widely, shoulders squared in front of a visitor here to tour the stables. He stares through mirrored aviator glasses straight at the visitor. His answers are short and direct. Examples:
Who conceived the idea of having mounted police in Tijuana?
"In order to cover security in areas where cars and motorcycles can't go."
Where, for instance?
"Rural areas like La Presa and Rodríguez Dam."
"Tourist areas like Avenida Revolución."
Loosening up (slightly), Valdéz explains that a force of mounted officers is something he and others have wanted for years. The idea was tried in 1994, "but it wasn't as organized as the current effort, and it didn't last long."
The department has wanted a equine force "because," Valdéz says, "there are areas where vehicles can't go even in the middle of the city. The river channel, for example. Also, when you have large gatherings, events, meetings, and rallies, the mounted police have a much better ability to go among the people and within the crowds and to control the crowds than officers in cars or on motorcycles. The height of the horse is a great advantage too. You have better visual coverage of an area, and the delinquents can easily see you, which is a deterrent."
The city of Tijuana is paying for the care of the horses -- Valdéz couldn't give an exact figure for the cost. But the city didn't buy the 40 steeds. They were donated by the new mayor, Jorge Hank Rhon, the millionaire who owns the Agua Caliente Racetrack and a menagerie that includes peacocks, llamas, turkeys, and a collection of dogs.
The police horses are housed in stables behind the track. At 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday in late June, the stables buzz with activity. Fifteen or 20 mounted police officers-in-training walk, wash, brush, and saddle their horses. A few officers are already mounted and trotting their horses back and forth in the 20-foot-wide dusty alley between a stable barn and concrete washing pens. Seven or eight fighting cocks, caged behind the pens, provide a soundtrack for the equestrian parade.
It's difficult to imagine a nicer day for horseback riding. It's crystal clear. A sea breeze bearing a salty tang cools both horse and rider in the midday sun. But one tall gray horse doesn't seem to be enjoying the experience. He stamps sideways along the alley before rearing up.
"¡Cuidado! ¡Cuidado!" Valdéz calls to the rider. "Careful! Careful!"
The horse rears again. His rider, in an effort to control him, punches him hard in the side of the neck. The result is an even more vigorous effort to throw the rider.
"Zamora," Valdéz yells, "dismount and walk him for a while."
Though the large gray horse trying to throw Officer Zamora is a thoroughbred, the other 39 horses are mostly Spanish and Portuguese. "Those are the breeds," Valdéz explains, "not where they come from. They are from farms around Mexico." (A July 12 Union-Tribune story researched later indicated that the Spanish and Portuguese horses have been replaced by thoroughbreds and quarter horses.)
Are they police horses?
"No," Valdéz answers, "we're training both man and horse for the mounted police."
Valdéz walks toward a golden brown horse. Though not as tall as some of the other horses, the animal is shiny and muscular. Patting its flank, Valdéz says, "This is Sepijal. He's a Portuguese, nine years old. The breed is used for showing, dressage, and charro riding competitions."
Near Sepijal is a white horse tied to a barn post while his master saddles him. "This is a Spanish horse," Valdéz says. "He's ten years old, and his name is Lagunero. The Spanish horses are a happy breed. They are livelier than the Portuguese. And they were bred specifically for exhibition, for showing, so they like being around people."
Across the alley from Sepijal, a dark brown horse is tied to the corner post of the washing pens. "His name is Matador," Valdéz explains. "He's a quarter horse, seven years old. Quarter horses, of course, are bred for racing. The Spanish, Portuguese, and quarter horses are very intelligent, trainable breeds, and they learn easily the routines and tasks they need to perform for their specific job. With good care, they should be able to work until they are 15 years old."
Though intelligent, the horses' work ethics weren't up to police standards when they arrived in April. "They are accustomed to working one or two hours and then just kind of loafing the rest of the day," Valdéz explains. "Now, with the job that they are going to be doing, they are going to be working up to four hours a day, so they need to get accustomed to that too."
For six days a week, for the past two and a half months, the mounted officers have been training. "They do some warm-ups; also, they do some walking with the horse, and then they do situations where they jump off the horse, then jump back on it. They do mock-ups of crowd control, and then they also do police arrests or detentions. We try to simulate those situations. The horses are doing very well, but they need more work. They need more and more identification with the rider."
The riders in Tijuana's mounted police are officers from the Tijuana police force who have had prior experience with horsemanship. In the future, their ranks will be supplemented by new officers trained for the mounted force in the police academy. Valdéz, a former member of the Mexican Army's cavalry, handles the training himself.
Six riders direct their mounts around the corner of the stables to a ring. One hundred feet in diameter and partially surrounded by grandstands, it's called a lienzo. It's a show ring for traditional Mexican charro riding. Under the watch of Valdéz, who stands on a raised platform just outside the ring, the officers walk their horses in slow circles. On a word from their chief, they form into a single file and nudge their mounts to a trot, then a canter. Valdéz orders the group to cluster on one side of the ring. From the opposite side, two of the younger officers walk into the ring. After 20 steps or so, one of the riders shouts at the men to halt. When they don't, the passel of riders gallops forward, surrounds the two men, shouting at them to get down on the ground. Four of the horsemen stay in the saddle, surrounding the two men on their knees, while two riders dismount and handcuff them.
Next, they perform the exercise with the two "delinquents" running across the ring toward the platform Valdéz is on. The sight of six horses galloping up behind the running men is impressive to his visitor, but Valdéz is not happy. He yells at one of the officers, "Don't wrap the reins around your hand like that when you dismount." To a mounted officer he yells, "Get around to the other side and cover the whole area."
The riders repeat the drill, this time covering all four quarters around the delinquents. The dismounted officer, instead of wrapping the reins around his hand, drapes them over his chest and shoulder like a Miss America sash. This allows the horse to move freely but not walk away while the cuffing is going on, Valdéz explains. "Much better," he calls to his officers.
To his visitor, he says, "Two or three more weeks and we should be ready."