Corruption-buster, friend to US killed in cross-border drug war
TECATE, Mexico - A drug-sniffing dog pulled the US Border Patrol agent to a rusty cargo container in the storage yard just north of the Mexican border. Peeking inside, he saw stacks of bundled marijuana and a man with a gun tucked in his waistband.
The officer and the man locked eyes for a moment before the smuggler scrambled down a hole and disappeared. By the time backup agents cast their flashlights into the opening, he was long gone, through a winding tunnel to Mexico.
US authorities called a trusted friend on the other side, Juan Jose Soriano.
The deputy commander of the Tecate Police Department gathered the entire shift of 30 officers at the decrepit police headquarters on Avenida Benito Juarez. Soriano knew any of them might leak information to the tunnel's gangster operators.
So he took their cellphones and sent them away on a ruse about a car chase near the border.
The veteran officer told only a few trusted aides about the tunnel. Later that day, the officers went into the United States and traversed the length of the passageway to an empty building, where they found computers, ledgers, and other key evidence.
For US authorities, it was an encouraging example of cross-border cooperation in the drug war. For Mexico's crime bosses, it was a police victory that could not go unpunished.
That night last December, while Soriano slept with his wife and baby daughter, two heavily armed men broke into his house and shot him 45 times. The 35-year-old father of three young daughters died in his bedroom. He had lasted two days as second in command of the department.
The death of a police officer is generally greeted in Mexico with a knowing smirk. All too often it is assumed the officer in question was playing for both sides in the drug war, which has claimed at least 2,000 lives in Mexico this year.
But all indications, from American and Mexican sources, suggest that Soriano was among the good ones, poorly paid but somehow immune to the lure of big money and the threat of deadly firepower from Mexico's violent drug gangs.
An intense, soft-spoken man, Soriano struggled for years to clean up the troubled department. But his corruption-busting ways earned him only contempt from many on the force.
At the small shrine to fallen officers in the courtyard at police headquarters, Soriano's image is conspicuously absent.
"It's a shame," said Donald McDermott, a former Border Patrol assistant chief who worked with Soriano.
"He was one of the good guys. . . . His untimely demise was a blow to border enforcement on both sides of the border."
A city of 120,000 tucked in the rugged mountains 40 miles east of Tijuana, Tecate is best known for its tree-lined plaza and beer brewery. But its tranquil veneer masks its reputation as a hub of organized crime groups that use the surrounding area of boulder-strewn peaks and remote valleys as a launching pad for smuggling drugs and humans.
Soriano stood apart: an aggressive, disciplined lawman who aspired to become police chief, law enforcement sources on both sides of the border said.
Unlike most Mexican police officers, he had a degree in police science. And he spent three years working for Grupo Beta, a federal immigrant-safety force with whom he once saved 65 immigrants in a snowstorm.
In 2003, Soriano took charge of Tecate's SWAT-like special response team. In a break from past practices, he reached out to US agencies for training and cross-border crime fighting.
Soriano's officers arrested border bandits, disrupted smuggling operations, and went where police hadn't gone in years, say American and Mexican sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.
Soriano was a go-to source for the US Border Patrol and other agencies and was a regular at binational meetings, where he shared information.
"He wanted to do things the right way," said one Mexican law enforcement source. "But that was a problem for many people."
Police brass reassigned Soriano to a desk job in 2005. "They took away his wings. They weren't ready for where he was going," said one US law enforcement source.
Late last year, Tecate's new mayor salvaged Soriano's career, asking him to take the number two job at the department. Law enforcement contacts across the border applauded the move and didn't wait long to restore ties.
It was crucial to find the opening of the tunnel discovered that December morning. US authorities didn't want the operators to have time to clear out the drugs and other evidence. Soriano took immediate action.
After confiscating the officers' cellphones, he and several trusted people on the force started searching for the tunnel in buildings near the border.
The search failed. Someone would have to traverse the passageway to find the opening.
Soriano volunteered seven officers. They crossed into the United States and descended into the tunnel while US and Mexican authorities waited for them to surface in Mexico. About 45 minutes later, the Mexican team climbed up the 80-foot-deep shaft into a vacant two-story building a block south of the border.
Soriano, alerted by a radio call from his team, arrived at the building just ahead of the crush of reporters and other police. Mexican federal agents took over the crime scene.
At about 2 the next morning, a convoy of vehicles drove down the deeply rutted road leading to Soriano's modest house, which was decorated with a string of Christmas lights.
Two men armed with AK-47s broke in. Soriano jumped out of bed, but the men stopped him before he could grab his weapons in the hallway.
Mexican authorities suspect police were involved in the slaying, either as the triggermen or the lookouts for hit men. Nobody has been arrested in the case.