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Tuesday, May 24, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In Mexico, Even Police Drive Stolen Suburbans, Jeeps

Los Angeles Times

TIJUANA, Mexico - They are getaway vehicles and status symbols - war wagons whose mystique blends menace and style. In Mexico's drug wars, Chevrolet Suburbans and Jeep Cherokees rule, prized by both gangsters and cops.

The vehicles have been immortalized in Mexican popular song - the street poetry of a violent underworld in which drug lords replace the revolutionaries of traditional ballads. In "The Suburban of Death," the Monterrey-based Pioneers of the North croon about the exploits of two traffickers in a Suburban stocked with machine guns and high-tech gadgetry:

"The Suburban of Death

Is what they call it everywhere

And Customs and soldiers can't stop it

When the federales see it, they'd better beware" Mexican police, Calif. plates

Four-wheel-drive vehicles have played a recurring role in drug-related incidents in Tijuana. And the new bloodshed has revived an old scandal involving the use of stolen U.S. vehicles by Mexican officials.

Mexican federal police unintentionally set off a public-relations bomb early this month during their surprise arrest of Baja California's deputy attorney general on corruption charges. Televised images showed dozens of federal officers with heavy weapons departing with the prisoner in a traffic-stopping convoy of Jeeps and Suburbans - some with California license plates.

When record checks found that up to 30 unmarked police vehicles appeared to have been stolen north of the border, outraged San Diego County officials demanded action by both governments. An investigation ordered by Mexico's attorney general resulted in charges against one officer for possession of a stolen Jeep Cherokee. Eighteen other officers have been questioned.

"Mexican officials were caught red-handed with the goods," said Brian Bilbray, a San Diego County supervisor. "We have to take care of this problem. I think all of us who wanted to encourage free trade across the border didn't mean this kind of free trade."

Mexican police allegedly keep confiscated cars for themselves, do business with auto-theft rings and even send paid enforcer-informants, known as "aspirinas," north to steal vehicles, U.S. officials say.

The demand for sport utility vehicles in Mexico and Central America helps explain a low 20 percent recovery rate, compared to an overall recovery rate of about 82 percent for stolen autos, according to San Diego County's Regional Auto Theft Task Force. The California Highway Patrol recovers about 2,400 stolen U.S. cars in Baja each year with the help of Mexican authorities.

But it is common knowledge among police and journalists in Tijuana that some stolen vehicles end up in possession of Mexican officers and can be seen parked outside the headquarters of the federal, state and municipal forces.

"Up to 30 vehicles have been seen in and around different agencies in Mexico with either license plates that don't belong on them or actually stolen California license plates," said Daniel Ryan, an FBI agent who heads the multi-agency auto-theft task force.

In an incident last March, two Suburbans carrying an elite team of Mexican federal agents stopped a red Suburban driven by state judicial police officers. The passengers allegedly included a drug lord in the Arellano cartel and aspirinas affiliated with the state police. A gunfight at the busy Tijuana intersection followed, leaving five men dead and igniting a political conflict between state and federal governments.

Family sees its car on TV news

The Tijuana shootout also was a shock for the Rogers family of Poway, a community northeast of San Diego. During a news broadcast, the family spotted their red Suburban, which had been stolen two weeks earlier from a restaurant lot and still bore California plates.

The vehicle had been transformed into the "Suburban of Death." The grainy footage showed rivulets of blood, frenzied paramedics and sprawled bodies in the street beneath the open doors.

Korinne Rogers, whose 8-year-old daughter recognized the cherry-shaped air fresheners hanging from the rear-view mirror, said the experience was "kind of eerie."

Despite their popularity, Suburbans seem to be giving way to Jeep Cherokees as the vehicle of choice. In San Diego, Jeep thefts averaged 34 a month last year, but jumped to 88 in March.

"It's like going shopping"

Law-enforcement experts attribute the rise in Jeep thefts at least partly to the arrival in Tijuana of Mexican federal police units investigating drug traffickers and the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Some officers are suspected of using their proximity to San Diego to place orders for Cherokees with thieves, according to police sources on both sides of the border.

"What happens is all these feds are being sent up here working on these special projects, and it's like going shopping," a U.S. law enforcement source said.

San Diego officials are threatening to set up a video system and freeway checkpoints to intercept southbound stolen cars. Said Bilbray, the county supervisor: "The old attitude that we all know what's going on at the border and are going to ignore it is over with."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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