Baja California candidate’s brother, a former Tijuana police chief, accused of taking cartel payoffs

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 3, 2013 

— Just days before state and local elections that will send a third of Mexicans to the polls, the ruling party candidate for governor in Baja California faces allegations that his brother is tied to a drug cartel.

A leaked court deposition of a top insider in the Tijuana Cartel says gangsters paid Fernando Castro Trenti’s brother Francisco at least $20,000 a month in protection money when he was the state’s senior criminal investigator.

The 13-page sworn statement, obtained by McClatchy, was given by a secret witness deposed in early 2012 in San Antonio, Texas, by investigators of the organized crime unit of Mexico’s attorney general’s office. The statement identifies the witness only as “Howard,” but news reports in Mexico have identified him as Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, a former Tijuana Cartel chief who was captured in 2006 and extradited to the United States, where he is serving a life sentence.

Sunday’s vote will send Mexicans in 15 states to the polls in what analysts view as a litmus test for the 7-month-old government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who brought the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as PRI, back to power in December after a 12-year hiatus.

Voters on Sunday will elect 1,374 mayors and state legislators in 15 states, as well as the governor of Baja California, which borders California and Arizona.

Both Fernando and Francisco Castro Trenti denied the allegation.

“It is false, absolutely false. It is not true. I don’t even know this man,” Francisco Castro Trenti told the correspondent for El Universal newspaper.

The Baja California vote is closely watched because it offers the PRI a chance to take the state back from the center-right National Action Party, which has ruled there since 1989.

A poll conducted in late June by the Demotecnia public opinion firm showed Castro Trenti’s lead diminished and the race is nearly a tossup. While voters preferred Castro Trenti’s opponent, Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, more of those polled said they would support the PRI on election day.

Francisco Castro Trenti currently serves as the public security chief in Rosarito, a Baja resort popular among U.S. retirees. Previously, he served as state director of criminal investigations and as police chief of Tijuana, a teeming border city of 1.5 million people across from San Diego.

In his deposition, the Tijuana Cartel insider said one of his top aides in 2003 offered Castro Trenti $200,000 to get one of the cartel’s hit men off the hook for a murder.

“I said it was OK. He later confirmed to me that he gave Castro $20,000 and later another $200,000,” the sworn deposition says.

Castro Trenti remained on the cartel’s payroll when he became police chief in Tijuana, rotating zone commanders at the behest of the cartel, the witness swore.

The witness said that Castro Trenti told his henchman that “when some of our men were arrested they could be freed, and for this we paid him $20,000 monthly, via ‘El Ciego.’ I remember his time as chief was short.”

Since taking office Dec. 1, Pena Nieto has put the focus of his security strategy on reducing crime and violence rather than capturing top kingpins, a departure from his predecessor. Media coverage of organized crime has fallen sharply.

Soldiers remain in the streets in much of the nation. The Pena Nieto government says homicides fell 17 percent in the first quarter of 2013, but critics say authorities may be using new criteria to determine which are killings related to organized crime.

Grisly crimes continue. The Reforma newspaper website reported Wednesday that police had found seven human heads and other body parts in plastic garbage bags strewn along a highway west of the city of Guadalajara. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in the surrounding state of Jalisco said he had no official confirmation of the macabre discovery.

Jalisco is not among the 15 states holding elections Sunday, but it is the battleground for the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation crime groups.

Email: tjohnson@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @timjohnson4

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