A Crackdown On Baja Bribes

Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2007

Baja California sees a lucrative future in the luxury residential towers sprouting up along its coast, and officials are hoping developments by the likes of Donald Trump will bring Southern California prosperity south of the border.

But there’s a problem: The 5-mile highway from the border to the beaches is notorious for police who pull tourists’ cars over in search of bribes.

Now Tijuana police say they’re cleaning up the route and targeting corruption elsewhere in an effort to make the border area more inviting.

They’re installing cameras to catch extortion attempts, publicizing that people can pay tickets with credit cards and transferring corrupt cops. They’ve deployed a squad of female traffic officers to offer courteous help to tourists. They’ve even declared the stretch of road a “no-ticket” highway.

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Police say that this time, unlike before, their efforts will make a difference.

Corrupt cops have long slipped around such measures to prey on retired American expatriates, surfers and college kids on weekend getaways.

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Government officials, they say, can’t readily dismiss the concerns of investors set to pour an estimated $3.5 billion into the local economy.

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Along the 70-mile stretch of coast from Tijuana through Rosarito Beach to Ensenada, 25 condominium and hotel high-rises are planned or are under construction, some with golf courses and private beaches. The Trump Ocean Resort Baja, set to break ground this year on a 17-acre oceanfront bluff, is pitched as the new standard for Baja California luxury.

Potential buyers, many from Southern California, are treated to sales events with open bars and gourmet food. At one event in Del Mar, Calif., buyers got to meet Trump’s 25-year-old daughter, Ivanka. Sales agents said she bought a unit in one of the three towers.

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Many potential buyers visit Mexico frequently and are not fazed by petty corruption. But Realtor association President Torres said developers have lost $3.5 million in sales this year as buyers pulled out of deals after being extorted.

One former police patrol officer in Rosarito Beach, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimates he took more than 3,000 bribes in six years, enough to build his own house near the beach. “It was a good living,” he said.

Many police officers turn to extortion, he said, because their supervisors threaten to transfer them to dangerous neighborhoods if they don’t fork over a daily share of cash from bribes.

Officers usually don’t demand cash from the drivers they stop, he said. Instead, they start asking a lot of questions and reviewing registration records. Most people are quick to offer a bribe to avoid long dealings with officers who seem to have nothing but time on their hands.

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The best way to avoid paying a bribe, he said, is to insist on being taken to the police station.

“If the American wanted to go to the station, I would follow for a while, and then put on my lights and pretend I had an emergency. I didn’t want to get in trouble with my supervisors,” the former patrol officer said.

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Near the border crossing, the squad of female officers—many of whom are bilingual—directs traffic in an effort to ease congestion. The women wear crisp white shirts and smile a lot to calm harried tourists.

Tijuana Police Chief Zatarain said he has transferred a notorious motorcycle squad and its supervisor from the coast to other areas. Two police officers who harassed tourists last month were thrown in jail for 36 hours as punishment, he said. This month, the Police Department began subjecting officers suspected of corruption to lie-detector tests on a new polygraph machine that officials say is 98% accurate.

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The latest anti-corruption measures, say border experts, reflect Baja California’s growing commitment to professional law enforcement. Police salaries in Tijuana were recently doubled—to about $1,500 monthly—making the force the highest paid in Mexico, say officials who hope the increases also will make their officers the least likely to seek bribes.

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The former Rosarito Beach police officer said many cops viewed the building boom as a bribe-taking bonanza on par with the filming of “Titanic” in Baja in the mid-1990s, when he and other police regularly stopped studio workers and visiting Hollywood executives.

“They were easy targets because of the language difference and because they were always in hurry,” the former patrol officer said. “Those were great days.”

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