Baghdad on Our Border
Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico
Credit: Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico. Photograph by John Dole

Plomo o plata. Lead or silver. Honest cops in Tijuana face this choice every day. "Even if you're righteous and don't want to cooperate with the mob, you don't have a choice," says my chatty cop. "If you don't cooperate, they'll kill you." That's what happened to a district commander, his wife, and their 11-year-old daughter. They were gunned down in January of last year, and the message was clear: No one is safe from us. Cooperate or die. Plomo o plata.

In January 2007 the Mexican army confiscated the guns of every TJ police officer to determine if they had been used in any unsolved murders. Ten days later the guns were returned, but by then more than half the force had quit. The results of the forensics tests were never released, but 500 cops were fired.

Not surprisingly, police commander is not exactly an easy position to fill. Days before Alberto Capella was to start as the new public safety director last year, a dozen heavily armed gunmen dressed entirely in black surrounded his home early one morning and opened fire with automatic weapons. He survived the attack. But now he's gone, fired last December when 37 people were killed over a weekend.Police are now carefully vetted with polygraphs, psych evaluations, drug tests, and thorough financial checks. "But it's not enough," a top federal official working on the drug wars says candidly. "Mexico's problems will only begin to change when the entire legal and law enforcement system is cleaned of corruption, which is not an easy thing to do." This official is one of just 17 exhaustively vetted agents chosen by President Calderón to fan out across the country and oversee all city and state police.