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Is Baja cleaning up its act?

 

To keep a real estate boom going, Tijuana is cracking down on cops who press tourists for bribes.

TIJUANA, MEXICO - Baja California sees a lucrative future in the luxury residential towers sprouting up along its coast, and officials are hoping developments by the likes of Donald Trump will bring Southern California prosperity south of the border.

But there's a problem: The 5-mile highway from the border to the beaches is notorious for police who pull tourists' cars over in search of bribes.

Now Tijuana police say they're cleaning up the route and targeting corruption elsewhere in an effort to make the border area more inviting.

They're installing cameras to catch extortion attempts, publicizing that people can pay tickets with credit cards and transferring corrupt cops. They've deployed a squad of female traffic officers to offer courteous help to tourists. They've even declared the stretch of road a "no-ticket" highway.

"I've told my officers it is strictly prohibited to stop vehicles with foreign plates, especially from California," said Victor Manuel Zatarain, Tijuana police chief.

Corrupt cops have long slipped around such measures to prey on retired American expatriates, surfers and college kids on weekend getaways.

Still, with stretches of shoreline now attracting heavyweight developers from outside Mexico, the latest crackdown, even with its gimmicky touches, seems to be being taken seriously, say border experts and real estate professionals.

"I think they're finally getting the message," said Gustavo Torres, president of the Rosarito Beach-Ensenada Board of Realtors. "They don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg: the developers."

Along the 70-mile stretch of coast from Tijuana through Rosarito Beach to Ensenada, 25 condominium and hotel high-rises are planned or are under construction, some with golf courses and private beaches.

Many potential buyers visit Mexico frequently and are not fazed by petty corruption. But Torres said developers have lost $3.5 million in sales this year as buyers pulled out of deals after being extorted.

One former police patrol officer in Rosarito Beach, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimates he took more than 3,000 bribes in six years, enough to build his own house near the beach. "It was a good living," he said.

The best way to avoid paying a bribe, he said, is to insist on being taken to the police station.

Serious problems remain, including a lack of professional training, minimum educational requirements and an entrenched culture of corruption. But the latest anti-corruption measures, say border experts, reflect Baja California's growing commitment to professional law enforcement. Police salaries in Tijuana were recently doubled -- to about $1,500 monthly -- making the force the highest paid in Mexico, say officials who hope the increases also will make their officers the least likely to seek bribes.

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