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TIJUANA — Mayor Hector Osuna Jaime asked Baja California’s new attorney general today to investigate the assassination of Tijuana’s Municipal Police chief and the chief’s bodyguard, who were slain near Tijuana International Airport last night after they had checked out a false report of a bomb.

March 1, 1993, - TJCOPS-Federico Benitez, Tijuana Police Chief and Director of Public Safety.

José Federico Benítez López

(Union-Tribune File Photo)

Shot to death were José Federico Benítez López, 41, whose official title was director of public safety, and his bodyguard and driver, Ramon Alarid Cardenas, an 18-year-veteran of the force. They were traveling in a city pickup that was cut off by a red Ford Bronco II with California license plates on the road from the airport, Lazaro Cardenas Boulevard, police said.

A man with an AK-47 automatic assault rifle opened fire from the Bronco. Alarid was killed instantly. Benítez was taken to the Red Cross Hospital, where he died about an hour later, at 9:55 p.m., police said.

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The mayor’s first public comment since last night’s shooting was delivered by spokesman Raul Marin in a one-page statement passed out at 1:20 a.m. today. He asked Pedro Raul Vidal Rosas, the attorney general, to investigate the killings personally.

Commander Antonio Cano Aldrete, chief of operations of Tijuana’s Municipal Police, has been put in charge of the force provisionally, a police spokesman said this morning.

The bomb hoax the chief and his bodyguard investigated was called in anonymously at 8:10 p.m., apparently from Mexicali, police said. A search of the airport, using trained dogs, turned up no explosives.

After the killings, the Bronco from which the shots were fired fled east toward Tecate, police said.

Authorities declared a state of emergency in Tijuana and checkpoints were established throughout the city and at the Otay Mesa and San Ysidro border crossings. They were staffed by federal, state and municipal police, many of them in plainclothes, carrying automatic weapons.

Benitez, a lawyer and native of Tecate, had undertaken a campaign to reduce widespread corruption in the 1,900-member Municipal Police force. The department has jurisdiction over misdemeanor and traffic matters. State and federal judicial police handle felony matters.

There was no immediate indication of who the gunman might have been, or whether the slaying was related to the March 23 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Colosio was killed in Colonia Lomas Taurinas, in the same general area of eastern Tijuana where the chief was gunned down. The confessed triggerman and several others have been arrested in that case and the investigation is continuing.

City Hall, where Mayor Osuna’s emergency meeting took place last night and early today, was under heavy police guard, as were the central police station downtown and SEMEFO, the coroner’s office.

Municipal, state and federal police officers from throughout Baja California converged on Tijuana during the night. Together with officers of the federal Highway and Port Patrol, as well as plainclothes agents of the Beta Group border crime task force, they manned roadblocks on all highways out of the city.

Earlier yesterday, Benítez had attended the founding conference of the Consultative Council for Public Safety, a joint law-enforcement effort aimed at curbing crime in Tijuana. His death comes as municipal and state police through Baja California were launching a special campaign aimed at seizing weapons.

San Diego Mayor Susan Golding said last night that Benitez’s assassination “comes as a terrible shock.” Upon hearing first that Benitez was critically injured, Golding said, she called Tijuana Mayor Osuna to express her concern and offer her support. Minutes after the phone call ended, Benítez died, she said.

“The police chief, Federico Benítez, had worked very well in cooperation with our police chief and with us in our joint efforts to better the relationship and decrease crime along the border,” Golding said.

Police spokesman Bill Robinson said Chief Jerry Sanders was notified shortly after the incident and officials briefly considered using the Life Flight helicopter service to transport the victims across the border.

Planning for the helicopter flight did not get very far when it became apparent that their injuries were grave, Robinson said.

“Our liaison officers are working (in Tijuana) with the Municipal Police and the State Judicial Police to locate the suspects,” Robinson said.

Mexican and U.S. authorities were searching along the border for the suspects, but there was no indication the assassins had fled across the border.

The chief’s shooting continues a wave of violence that has shaken this city in the last two years.

On March 23, Colosio, the leading presidential candidate, was gunned down after an outdoor rally in a poor neighborhood. A factory mechanic confessed to the assassination, which the Mexican government is contending was part of a larger conspiracy. So far, three men have been arrested in the case.

Three weeks earlier, a group of gunmen, including State Judicial Police officers, opened fire on a team of federal police investigators. The fierce exchange, in a busy intersection, left five men dead. The state police agents involved were allegedly protecting a drug trafficking chief.

Staff writers Kathryn Balint and Frank Klimko contributed to this report.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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