La Fuga de Agua Prieta

Jul 14th, 2008 | By Michel Marizco | Category: General News, Organized Crime, Politics
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THE BORDER REPORT

Here’s a story I wrote for The News over the weekend.

AGUA PRIETA, SONORA – Elena Matuz wasn’t worried when she talked to her husband José Luis for the last time.

The 37-year-old cop was set to resign from the Agua Prieta police force on July 20 and he promised her he’d be extra careful in the coming days. After all, two local officers had been shot at a taqueria downtown a couple weeks before, and a little over a year before that, Police Chief Ramón Tacho Verdugo was taken out in front of the police station.

But this was a quiet Monday night and as far as Elena knew, there were no threats against her husband.

“I’m going to bed now,” she said when she called him.

“Okay, I’ll see you in the morning,” he told her and then hung up.

Sometime in the next 15 minutes, Matuz and his partner, Enoc Soto, pulled away from a stop sign in this frenetic city on the border with Arizona. A white Jeep Cherokee stopped in front of them and two men climbed out, both carrying AK-47s with drum magazines. They turned to face the squad car behind them and opened fire. Matuz never stood a chance.

“He managed to fire his pistol, I know that. But those little pistols they give the officers, what are they going to do against machine guns?” his widow said, her voice wavering between anguish and anger.

Matuz took more than seven shots to the head, chest, hand, arm and a leg. He was dead even before his body slumped forward. His partner, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, managed to take cover under the car.

The killers escaped; police would later find the Cherokee with Arizona license plates abandoned on the highway leading out of Agua Prieta along with a fragmentation grenade and more than 100 rounds of ammunition.

The resignations began the next day: first four officers, then another five, then three more.

By last Friday, 12 cops had quit the Agua Prieta Police Department, according to traffic division commander Noé Chávez.

But Chávez considers the number of resignations “completely normal” and said they had nothing to do with Matuz’s killing, something few else here seem to believe.

“They told us they had personal issues to deal with that required their presence outside of the city,” he said. “Of course, people believe this is abnormal, they’re saying, a caníjo, what’s happening here? But I consider this normal.”

The twelve officers who resigned make up about ten percent of the 115-member police force, city records show.

Whatever police say, anecdotal history shows a mass resignation of this scale hadn’t happened here before.

CANANEA CONNECTION

Like most Mexican border cities, Agua Prieta police don’t earn much. Matuz, for example, took home about 6,200 pesos a month.

In addition, equipment is often inadequate and corruption runs high. Two hours west, in Nogales, the Army arrested a city cop driving a truck stolen from Arizona last Friday. In Naco, a half hour to the west, being police chief is not a popular job. Eleven men have held the position since 2004.

One of them, Roberto Tacho Verdugo, brother of the murdered Agua Prieta chief, was arrested in Arizona in March 2007 after he tried to smuggle 59 pounds of marijuana into the United States. Last month, the chief of police of a small town south of here committed suicide. Nobody could explain how the man, a recovering cocaine addict was appointed in the first place. Last fall, yet another police chief was arrested after the Army found a cache of automatic rifles in the roof of the police department. A fourth was arrested last fall for poaching while west of here, a fifth was sentenced in U.S. District Court to seven and a half years in prison after trying to bribe a U.S. Border Patrol agent on behalf of the Sinaloan cartels.

Throughout the country, more than 480 police officers and soldiers have died since the start of 2008, a number often attributed to President Felipe Calderón’s mobilization against the nation’s drug trafficking cartels. In all, more than 2,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence this year in Mexico, according to the Mexico City daily El Universal.

In Culiacán, Sinaloa, the murders reached nearly one a day for most of the month of May. In Ciudád Juárez, two hours to the east, a vicious fight between the Sinaloan narco-syndicate and the Juárez Cartel has overtaken the city, leaving nearly 500 dead this year.

In Sonora, all eyes are on Cananea, where drug trafficker Francisco Hernández García, alias “El 2000,” has established himself as the go-to man for the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel. Two days after Matuz was murdered, four bodies were found buried on a ranch outside of the mining city, a 45-minute drive from Agua Prieta.

Federal prosecutors believe El 2000 is slowly taking over Agua Prieta as well.

Last year, El 2000 launched a vicious attack in Cananea that left 24 people dead.  It remains the single bloodiest day in the cartel wars that have overtaken Mexico.

The events began in the predawn hours of May 17 when a convoy of SUVs loaded with hit men descended on the city, snatching 11 cops and civilians off the streets. One victim had a “Z” etched into his back with a hunting knife. For six-to-eight hours, the killers lay siege to Cananea.

For the entire night, the city was lawless. Municipal police ran away, at least one defecting to the United States, and state and federal reinforcements did not arrive until the next day. The killers raced through the streets, grabbing two pre-teenage girls, setting up roadblocks and snatching cell phones from terrified residents trying to drive away. Loaded on cocaine, the hit squad raced southeast to the old Spanish provincial capital of Arizpe where they grabbed an eldery rancher, forcing him to lead them to the banks of the Río Sonora, from where they planned to escape.

The Sonoran government dispatched two snipers in a helicopter, meticulously hunting the men down one at a time, taking them out with shots to the head.

A report from the CISEN federal intelligence agency shows the killers were targeting people faithful to former police chief Ramón Tacho Verdugo. Two months before the Cananea attacks, Tacho, who had by then been named chief of police in Agua Prieta, was gunned down outside his office in a hail of some 50 bullets. He’d been chief for less than six months. The next chief would last less than a year before he resigned for “personal reasons.”

According to the intelligence report, the killers were brought in to eliminate police loyal to Tacho. Seven cops were killed that day.

CONTRABAND CONTINUES

The restructuring of power in the area has led to Matuz’s killing and the mass resignations in Agua Prieta, said a U.S. Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“The cops don’t know which way is up,” the official said. “There’s a purging going on.”

But, the official noted, it hasn’t affected drug trafficking at all.

“There’s been no drop off in contraband,” he said.

The resignations have citizens confused and bitter about the lack of public security.

“If even the cops are leaving the city, what am I doing here?” said Daniel Ruelas as he sat on a bench, watching his daughter play in a park.

Last week, Ruelas watched two young men gunned down across the street from his house. He has little doubt about who’s running the city.

“They need to settle this soon and get back to normal,” he said.

Two weeks ago, an officer from nearby Chihuahua turned himself in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, seeking asylum in the U.S. The man may be a cop but he was also arrested on drug trafficking charges in Arizona four years before, said the Justice Department official.

An asylum program in Arizona has seen a marked increase in the number of cops coming to them, says Rachel Wilson, an asylum attorney with the Lutheran Social Services Asylum Program in Tucson, Ariz.

“Among our clients are some police officers who have fled Mexico,” she said, though she declined to specify how many cops the organization is representing.

Publicly, the U.S. State Department has said 63 people came into Texas seeking asylum, among them, three police commanders.

Overall, Wilson believes the broad number is far higher.

It’s also very new.

“In the lawyer community this is a whole new type of case, police officers from Mexico,” she said.

Asylum seekers from Mexico are treated as immigrant detainees, languishing in detention centers for months before their cases are heard, she said. The visa process can take as long as a year.

SOME STICK IT OUT

Not all cops are worried; Mario Castillo has been a detective in Agua Prieta for twenty years and he’s got no plans to step down.

“Hey, how come you haven’t quit yet?” a cop standing guard outside the police station south of town yells at him.

“Que vá!” Castillo says, as he saunters over to take a smoke break.

The traffic cop who shouted at him is wearing a brand-new bulletproof vest and carries an AR-15 rifle, its sling still creased from its newness.

“I have a brother living in Utah, he owns a landscaping company. He sees what’s been happening on the border and tells me, ‘Come work for me, get out of there. I’ll make you a manager!’ But I’ve been a detective for half my life, what else am I going to do?” Castillos said.

Across the border in Douglas, Arizona, local police have little knowledge of what’s happening in Agua Prieta, said Sgt. Mark Gonzalez, police spokesman.

“We’ve severed nearly all communication with police across the line,” he said. “There have been issues of corruption, among other things.”

Back at her house in Agua Prieta, Elena Matuz doesn’t know what she’ll do anymore.

“We had plans to open a second-hand furniture store, raise our four children, live our lives in peace,” she said, hugging her oldest son Jorge close to her. Nobody from the city has approached her about life insurance or her dead husband’s pension.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I just keep thinking of that last phone call. I told him to quit and he was so close, just 13 days away,” she said.

“I knew this was going to happen.”

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