How Much Has Tijuana Done to Clean Up Its Corrupt Police Force? - Voice of San Diego

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How Much Has Tijuana Done to Clean Up Its Corrupt Police Force?

Graham McMillan was walking down a side street near Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana on a recent Sunday afternoon when he felt a vice-like grip on his elbow. Looking back, his stomach dropped.

“Come with me, to the car,” said the uniformed police officer.

Reluctantly, McMillan followed the officer and his colleague to the patrol car, where he was ordered to get in the back seat. When he refused, McMillan said, one officer brandished a billy club and the other put him in a head lock. Just as McMillan was about to pass out, the policemen handcuffed him and threw him up against the car, telling him they were arresting him for resisting their inquiries.

After threatening him with three days in jail, McMillan said, the officers suggested McMillan pay them a bribe. After weighing his options, the wiry, 47-year-old accountant agreed, and the three drove to a nearby bank. One of the policemen removed McMillan’s credit card from his wallet, asked him for his PIN number and withdrew $400 from an ATM. They then drove him to the border and dropped him off.

McMillan’s experience is by no means a rarity. Police corruption, experts say, has been rife in Tijuana for decades. There are few San Diegans who have not heard some version of this story.

However, one month ago, several Tijuana leaders called a press conference to trumpet a program of security reform in their city. They promised to tackle police corruption head-on through a series of measures and new laws aimed at empowering tourists and locals alike to make complaints and prosecute corrupt police officers.

The Voice of San Diego decided to follow up with an investigation aimed at examining how effective the measures taken by the Tijuana Police Department and the Tijuana local government have been.

Voice decided to follow McMillan’s case through the complaints system, checking in with him at every step of the process.

Voice found a system that, while certainly not user-friendly, at least has the appearance of doing its job. It’s a system in transition, whose officials seem uncertain of the exact role they should be playing in the development of true accountability for corrupt Tijuana police.

Officials say that laws have been passed by the Tijuana city government, but nobody seems sure when those laws are to go into place, and exactly what effect they will have.

Corruption in Tijuana is as old as the city itself.

“Historically, police corruption in Tijuana is very bad,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “This is a city that was founded on vice. We’re not just talking about the police, we’re talking about an entire system based on corruption that dates back to the founding of Baja California.”

The fight against that corruption doesn’t have as long a history. The Tijuana police first started taking strides toward “the norms of professional policing” with a series of reforms starting in the early 1990s, Shirk said. Spurred on by political motives and a spiraling crime rate, the police force finally established an academy for incoming officers in the mid-1990s.

But corruption remained a huge problem, and a recent sharp incline in police corruption has led Tijuana’s current mayor, Jorge Hank Rhon, to push for an overhaul of the way the police handle corruption.

That push resulted in part in the promises made by Tijuana officials at the Sept. 1 press conference. These included a 100 percent raise in police salaries over two years and a tightening-up of the procedure for tourists complaining about corrupt police officials.

McMillan was very interested in the latter.

On the Sunday he was arrested for no reason, the policemen pocketed his money and then took him to the border, where they released him. As soon as his handcuffs were removed, McMillan felt his blood begin to boil. As one policeman offered to shake hands with him, McMillan found himself wondering if he could take a swing at the officer and, if so, what his chances of survival were.

He didn’t punch the policeman. Instead, he decided to hit him where it really hurts.

McMillan wanted to ensure the policemen were brought to justice. By the time he was back at his North County home in San Diego, he had decided to make an official complaint. But McMillan, like many other tourists, hit a wall at the very first step.

“My Internet searches on police corruption came up fruitless,” he said. “There’s no central, organized procedure that can be found anywhere.”

Eventually, McMillan realized that the only way to get somewhere was by working hand-in-hand with the United States Consulate. He found a link on the consulate’s Web site to the Tijuana Sindicatura, the internal affairs department for the Tijuana police.

Following the Web site’s instructions, McMillan made a complaint online. He had high hopes. He had been astute enough to memorize the Mexican police car’s license plate number, and he included it in his complaint.

Then he waited. And waited.

After a few days of hearing nothing, McMillan contacted the consulate directly. That’s when things started to speed up. After a few e-mails forwards and backwards, a representative at the consulate set up a meeting with the Sindicatura in Tijuana.

On Sept. 27, nine days after his run-in with the police, McMillan traveled back to Tijuana. He was met at the border by a representative of the United States Consulate, who escorted him to the offices of the Sindicatura. There he met Sergio Lujan Chavez, the Sindicatura’s deputy director.

Lujan Chavez was charming and respectful, said McMillan. The two sat and discussed McMillan’s case. Lujan Chavez had already looked up which of his officers had been driving the car whose license plate McMillan had memorized. Once he had heard McMillan’s testimony, Lujan Chavez said he was satisfied that the policemen were guilty.

“He believed me,” said McMillan in an interview in San Diego a couple of hours after the Tijuana meeting. “There was little doubt in his mind that this had occurred.”

However, at no point did Lujan Chavez mention the online complaint McMillan had already registered. McMillan had already tried in vain to access that complaint from his home computer. When he asked Lujan Chavez about it, there seemed to be no record of the complaint.

Nevertheless, Lujan Chavez sent for the officers. Only one was on duty, and he was brought into a room adjacent to McMillan. McMillan was then asked to identify the officer through the window. He recognized the man as one of the two officers, the one who had taken his ATM card into the bank and withdrawn $400 of his money.

Once the officer had been sent away, Lujan Chavez turned to McMillan and began to describe what would happen next. He was very forthcoming about the failings of the Tijuana police, and explained that the department was just about to begin a new era for the prosecution of corrupt police. Unfortunately, he explained, as McMillan’s incident had occurred before the implementation of the new laws, it would fall under the old regime.

That meant the policemen would receive little more than a slap on the wrist.

Lujan Chavez explained that the new laws – which he said will come into effect shortly, though he did not have an exact date – will give him the authority to fire corrupt police officers on the spot once he has decided they are guilty. In McMillan’s case, Lujan Chavez said he can do little more than re-assign the officers to another precinct and make a note on their records so that if they are ever involved in corruption again they will be fired. McMillan’s missing $400 will be docked from the officers’ pay, Lujan Chavez said, and he will receive a reimbursement – which he will have to pick up in Tijuana – shortly.

As of press time, McMillan’s still $400 down. He doesn’t care about the money, however. Nor is he overly frustrated that he missed out on the police department’s new era by a few days. What McMillan cares about is that the police officers who stole his money will not be able to do it again without getting in serious trouble.

Whether that’s the case is hard to ascertain.

In an interview Friday with Ernesto Santillana Santillana, Tijuana’s director of public safety, police officials promised to provide the Voice of San Diego with details of the employment records of the two officers accused by McMillan. As of press time, and despite repeated phone calls and e-mails, the officials had not responded to Voice ‘s request for information.

According to Shirk, McMillan’s case is just one of perhaps thousands of instances of police corruption taking place every year in Tijuana. His case narrowly avoided the city’s new laws, but police officials in the border town insist they are doing everything they can to fight corruption, and that any cases that arise from now on will be dealt with swiftly and effectively by these laws.

“We have a new law, so that now we can suspend bad police,” said Guillermo Llorenz, director of the Sindicatura in Tijuana. “Before, we did not have that option.”

Santillana Santillana, who said that corruption has been dropping sharply within his police force, echoed Llorenz’s comments.

“We’re basically cutting red tape,” he said. “Instead of going through a committee of honorary justices, you go straight to the Sindicatura. It’s a lot quicker.”

Quicker, maybe, but not necessarily better.

Shirk has some serious concerns about Tijuana’s new regime. Although he’s pleased that something is being done to overhaul the procedure of investigating corrupt officers, Shirk pointed out that the real problem with tackling police corruption will not be eliminated with the new process. Because an officer’s fate is essentially in the hands of an individual Sindicatura official, Shirk said, there are no checks and balances on the review process.

“It sounds to me that they’re not trying to develop due process mechanisms,” he said. “It sounds like they’re simply trying to have a mechanism for eliminating someone accused of corruption. That’s good if the people who are doing the firing are honest, and if they have absolute proof that the person they’re firing is dishonest.”

But without an element of true process, such as the involvement of a citizen review board, Shirk said, any changes to the system could simply be shifting the balance of power within the establishment. In other words, passing on the corruption to another strata of Tijuana officialdom.

For McMillan, any news is good news. He’s just satisfied that a complaints procedure does exist, and that someone is doing something to make that complaints procedure more accessible and more effective for people like him. He said he’ll be a lot happier, however, once he gets his money back and once he’s received assurances from the Tijuana Police Department that the officers who decided to pick on him have received a written warning on their records.

Whether he will get either is still in some doubt.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips.

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