Home News Stories 2010 August Southwest Border, Part 4

Forging Ties in Tijuana

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Border liaisons for FBI and Tijuana Police Dept.
FBI Special Agent Mike Eckel, left, is one of the Bureau's five border liaison officers. He meets
about once a week with counterparts like Alejandro Lares of the Tijuana Police Department.

On the Southwest Border
Forging Ties in Tijuana

08/16/10

Amid the car horns, engine exhaust, and constant flow of people on foot and in cars, Special Agent Mike Eckel inched through traffic at the San Ysidro Port of Entry—the world’s busiest land border crossing—on his way from San Diego to Tijuana. Although the Mexican city can be a dangerous place for Americans, in his role as one of the Bureau’s five border liaison officers, Eckel makes the trip about once a week.

On this day, he will visit his counterpart at the Tijuana Police Department in hopes of locating a U.S. citizen wanted for a 2009 murder in Nevada who may be hiding with relatives in that region of Mexico.


Cooperation and Training

In addition to establishing strong relationships and coordinating international investigations with Mexican law enforcement, our border liaison officers also provide valuable training.

In the late 1980s, the Bureau established the Mexican-American Liaison and Law Enforcement Training (MALLET) program to teach some of our time-tested investigative techniques such as evidence recovery and crime scene management. The weeklong courses, held about four times a year, also offer instruction in ethics and managing investigations. The training is conducted by border liaison officers and other FBI instructors.

“The training is another way we foster good partnerships,” said Special Agent Mike Eckel, one of our border liaison officers.

“The idea behind the border liaison program is to build relationships and to exchange information with Mexican law enforcement,” said Eckel, who speaks fluent Spanish. “We try to take geography out of the equation so we can share intelligence and help each other and bring criminals to justice on both sides of the border.”

In the past, such relationships were difficult to cultivate in Tijuana because of the level of corruption there, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. “But the tide is turning,” Eckel said. “There is less corruption now, and the FBI and other federal entities have established solid working relationships with our Mexican partners.”

Less than an hour after crossing the border, Eckel sat in a small office in a busy Tijuana police substation. He was speaking with officer Alejandro Lares about the Nevada murder fugitive and other matters, including suspected cartel members who live freely in San Diego, where they have committed no crimes. Lares, who has been on the Tijuana force for four years, has served as the liaison officer for U.S. law enforcement for the past year.

“Today, the cartels have less power than they had in the past,” Lares said, largely because the Mexican federal government has exerted its military presence in the area. “We are moving in the right direction,” he added, but acknowledged that the crime and corruption associated with the drug trade will never disappear completely.


About This Series

FBI.gov recently visited the Southwest border region for a firsthand look at what the Bureau and its law enforcement partners are doing there to combat crime.

Part I: Border Crime | Gallery
Part II: Public Corruption
Part III: Violence Too Close to Home
Part IV: Forging Ties in Tijuana
Part V: A Drug Buy in El Paso
Part VI: The Major Players
Part VII: The Gang Threat
Part VIII: Importance in Intelligence

Graphic: Border By the Numbers

Thanks to drug money, the cartels have enormous power—and they use it to bribe, intimidate, and murder. To get what they want from police and government officials in Tijuana and elsewhere along the Mexican border, the cartels offer “the silver or the lead”: the silver being money and the lead being bullets.

Even well-intentioned public servants who refuse outright bribes might be compelled to look the other way if their lives—or the lives of their families—have been threatened. “And these are not hollow threats,” Eckel said. “They will kill you.”

But efforts such as the border liaison program and the determined, collaborative work of law enforcement on both sides of the border are making a difference.

“Sharing information is the key,” Eckel said. “By being able to gather intelligence and quickly analyze and share it, we can actually save lives. I have seen that happen.” Working with the Mexicans as well as other U.S. partner agencies, he added, “We help keep each other safe. We all get along extremely well, because our lives can depend on it.”

Next: A Drug Buy in El Paso 

Kidnappings by the cartels and the gangs who work for them have become a serious problem in several U.S. cities on the Southwest border. In the past, kidnap victims were usually rivals in the drug trade. Sometimes victims were kidnapped for revenge, sometimes to intimidate. And paying a ransom was no guarantee the victim would be released.

But when the gangs realized how easy—and profitable—kidnapping could be, they started abducting anyone who looked wealthy enough to command a hefty ransom, and that included Americans on either side of the border.

In the Texas border town of McAllen, for example, the rate of kidnapping has nearly quadrupled. Between October 2008 and September 2009, 42 people were kidnapped in the McAllen area, compared with 11 the previous year. And many kidnappings go unreported because the victims may be involved in illegal activity and don’t want to contact authorities.