(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
TIJUANA, Mexico -- Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica unzipped the Louis Vuitton bag and pulled out a skull ring coated in diamonds, a coin medallion and a gold-plated Beretta handgun engraved with the grim-reaper smile of La Santa Muerte.
The gilded narco-gear was once the property of Angel Jacome Gamboa, a suspected drug-cartel lieutenant believed to be behind the killings of at least 12 Rosarito Beach police officers. Duarte's soldiers turned in the war booty after they raided a birthday party and arrested Jacome Gamboa along with 21 others.
They didn't bring Duarte the real prize. He wants Jacome Gamboa's boss, Teodoro Garcia Simental, nicknamed El Teo.
"This was (Garcia's) most active kidnapping cell. ... And we caught almost all of them," said Duarte, cracking a smile. "We've been keeping the pressure on. ... He's constantly moving around, changing houses. ... He's worried."
The March raid marked the latest in a series of operations by the Mexican military that appears to have weakened organized-crime groups and restored a sense of relative calm to this border city.
After months of beheadings, ransom kidnappings and daylight shootouts, the number of killings in the Tijuana area has fallen to about 130 in the first three months of this year. That's still a high number, but it's significantly lower than the last three months of 2008, when there were 447 slayings. The number of ransom kidnappings, which provided gangs with large revenue streams, also has declined sharply, according to Mexican authorities and victims'-rights groups.
Duarte, a career officer who commands about 1,000 soldiers in northern Baja California, has struck hardest against El Teo, one of Mexico's most wanted men. Believed to be behind a three-year wave of kidnappings and killings, Garcia has narrowly escaped capture on at least two recent occasions.
Duarte seemed to sharpen his sights late last year when Garcia's gunmen killed one of his special-forces soldiers in a shootout. After that, Duarte identified Garcia as a top Tijuana crime boss and started referring to his associates as gente del Teo -- Teo's people.
Since then, the general's soldiers have killed or captured several of Garcia's gunmen and lieutenants, among them Jacome Gamboa, a 29-year-old former soldier believed to be responsible for a reign of terror in Rosarito Beach, where violence has all but destroyed the tourism industry.
The military also appears to be targeting symbols of narco culture. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos said the military was behind the destruction late last month of five shrines in Tijuana and Rosarito Beach dedicated to folk saints such as La Santa Muerte (Saint Death), whose followers include drug traffickers.
No one is claiming victory over organized crime here; the recent tranquillity merely could reflect a temporary truce between Garcia and his rival, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, nicknamed "El Ingeniero," reputed leader of the Arellano Felix drug cartel. But on a visit to Tijuana in early March, President Felipe Calderon hailed the Baja California anti-drug offensive as a model.
Duarte, a 54-year-old Mexico City native, took command in June. A tall, courtly man who has served at military bases throughout Mexico, Duarte quickly earned the trust of U.S. law enforcement for his aggressive tactics and willingness to act on tips provided by U.S. agencies.
On the city's streets, the general's actions are met with a sense of relief and cautious optimism. Motorists at traffic-clogged military checkpoints bemoan the delays, but some honk in appreciation at the sight of heavily armed soldiers. Local reporters hang on his every word at his rare public appearances, usually pomp-filled events at parade grounds on army bases, where soldiers haul captured cartel members in front of the media.
Even some human-rights groups that warned against the militarization of local law enforcement have said the effort thus far has shown impressive gains without the kind of serious abuse allegations that have plagued other military-led anti-drug operations.
"Tijuana society did not have much experience with the military, but so far the army enjoys a good image," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.
Nationwide, however, human-rights groups recently highlighted a surge in reports of illegal searches, arrests without cause, rape, sexual abuse and torture by army personnel. The bulk of the cases came from Sinaloa, Sonora, Tamaulipas and Michoacan, according to Mexican media.
The military's arrival in Tijuana two years ago was less than auspicious. Soldiers disarmed the city's 2,300-member police force, long thought to be compromised by the cartels, and began rumbling down busy streets in public displays of force. But the toll of killings and kidnappings only accelerated, as rival factions of the Arellano Felix drug cartel clashed, leaving behind scrawled threats to each other beside decapitated bodies or barrels of lye with liquefied human remains.
Accustomed to marijuana eradication efforts and anti-guerrilla missions in southern Mexico, the army was ill-suited for urban warfare. The military's lumbering fleet of Hummers couldn't keep pace with the gangsters' turbocharged SUVs and Ford F-150 trucks. Raids on suspected hide-outs often failed because corrupt local police would tip off targets.
In November, a captured cartel lieutenant began giving up names of police on the payroll of organized crime. Duarte's soldiers descended on high-ranking commanders across the city. Some were handcuffed and taken from police headquarters to the Morelos army base, where Duarte has his headquarters.
At least 20 officers, including some commanders, were charged with having links to organized crime.
The following week, the military purged municipal police ranks in eastern Tijuana, further weakening Garcia's protective network. Late last month, 23 more police officers were arrested.
The police departments in Tijuana and Rosarito Beach, as well as the state police, now are run by army officers.
Gone are many of the police informants, or "antennas," that supplied organized crime with intelligence and cleared the streets ahead of cartel kidnappings and raids, U.S. and Mexican authorities say.
"They took away (organized crime's) eyes and ears," said one source who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
Recent months have seen several blows against organized crime, including the capture in January of Santiago Meza Lopez, who authorities say claims to have disposed of 300 Garcia victims by disintegrating them in lye.
The biggest blow was the March 8 arrest of Jacome Gamboa, nicknamed "Kaibil" because he purportedly trained with Guatemala's elite special forces of that name, known for their brutal, scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaigns.
Jacome Gamboa was arrested in a midnight raid of a banquet hall in eastern Tijuana.
Duarte said the military learned days in advance that the crime boss would be attending a quinceanera there. When soldiers rushed in, the band stopped playing. To the troops' surprise, nobody made a move, Duarte said.
Jacome Gamboa had summoned almost his entire gang to the celebration, but most had come unarmed, according to Duarte, who believes they were overconfident about their security in their stronghold. The gang, including two law-enforcement officers, gave up without firing a shot.
Jacome Gamboa later provided the military a desperate picture of the city's criminal underworld, according to Duarte.
Jacome Gamboa's boss, Garcia, is running short of cash to maintain his crew of drug traffickers, enforcers, kidnappers and dealers, according to Duarte. Jacome Gamboa said Garcia had stopped paying him his usual $40,000 a month for overseeing the coastal area, Duarte said.
The underboss led a remarkably low-key lifestyle, according to military sources. He had a modest home in Rosarito Beach and rented a second home in a gated development in Ensenada for $800 a month.
The house in Ensenada was furnished with little more than a flat-screen television and a hospital bed, where Jacome Gamboa apparently recovered after being wounded in a shootout with a rival gang in December, military sources said.
Rosarito Beach Mayor Hugo Torres said it would be easier to improve the city's battered image with El Kaibil out of the picture. "It helps a lot to have this guy arrested," Torres said. "He was bloodthirsty ... one of the worst."