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Tijuana hears complaints against police by US tourists

Guilty officers to be punished

TIJUANA, Mexico -- Michael Wilson's run-in with Tijuana police is a familiar story.

The 43-year-old Las Vegas man says he and a friend were accused of having illegal drugs, then handcuffed and driven around in a squad car for hours before paying $500 to be let go.

What happened next, though, makes his experience unprecedented. The city's Honor and Justice Council -- a panel of two police officials, two City Council members, and two citizens -- promised to investigate and punish the officers for any wrongdoing.

The tribunal began hearing complaints from American tourists in April. So far, Wilson and seven others have claimed they were victims of police shakedowns, forced to cough up between $60 and $700 apiece. If found guilty, the officers can face any of several penalties, from unpaid leave to dismissal.

In the past, US authorities relayed tourists' complaints to city officials, and typically nothing happened. About 5,000 Americans visit Tijuana's tourist zone of boisterous bars and souvenir shops every weekend night. The US Consulate typically hears from one to three tourists a month who say police officers fleeced them. Officials suspect many more simply don't bother to file reports.

The tribunal hasn't made any decisions on the 16 officers who have been accused so far, but US officials say it is progress that the cases are even being heard.

"This is a really good first step, but, of course, there's much more to be done," said Al Anzaldua, chief of American citizen services at the Tijuana consulate. "Most people were too intimidated to go to the police because the police just robbed them. The last thing they want to do is go back."

The incipient crackdown is part of Tijuana's efforts to shed its seedy reputation for drugs, cheap booze, prostitution, and corrupt police. The Image Committee, a group of civic leaders, is touting an emerging arts scene and abundant shopping opportunities. The border city of 1.2 million people has won a few converts: Newsweek magazine last year named Tijuana one of the world's eight new cultural meccas.

In its fight against police corruption, Tijuana published a 20-page tourist "legal guide" that admonishes visitors to avoid paying "fines" directly to officers. The guide, a joint effort with San Diego, advises tourists to politely insist on a written citation.

The tribunal has been meeting sporadically for about two years, usually once every three to six weeks, to investigate all kinds of police abuse, said City Attorney Martin Dominguez Chiu. About 40 officers were fired last year from the 1,300-member force after they tested positive for drugs.

The panel began hearing complaints from American tourists after US officials urged them to do so, Dominguez Chiu said. The eight cases stem from alleged incidents between November and June.

Wilson says his run-in with police happened in May, on a trip to buy patio furniture and visit a few nightclubs. He says he was walking with a friend when police ordered the pair into a squad car and showed them a wad of tin foil, accusing them of drug possession.

The officers, he says, demanded $3,000 but settled for the $500.

Americans who complain are asked to return only once to Tijuana for an interview with the city attorney's office, which prosecutes cases before the tribunal.

None of several visitors interviewed in Tijuana's tourist zone on a recent Saturday night knew about the tribunal. Several acknowledged police corruption was a problem but said it wouldn't stop them from visiting.

San Diego resident Dan Williams said he and his brother-in-law forked over $300 about six months ago to officers who accused them of disturbing the peace, a charge that he denies. He says they agreed to pay the money after police threatened to jail him for five days.

"I was just happy to get out of there," said Williams, 42.

The tribunal won't reveal details of the cases before it and does not open its deliberations to the public, said Martin Dominguez Rocha, a tribunal member and Tijuana's public safety secretary.

Adjudicating many of the cases has been difficult, he said, because of the lack of witnesses. Often, tribunal members are forced to choose between the officer's story and the alleged victim's.

Dominguez Chiu, the city attorney, is recommending the 16 officers be fired and says he is confident that decisions will be reached by the end of the month.

"It takes us a long time to investigate these cases," he said. "It's a very slow process."

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