His heavily armed hit men, authorities say, have been leaving the
gruesome displays of charred and decapitated bodies across the city,
signed with the moniker "Tres Letras," for the three letters in "Teo."
And authorities believe he runs a network of hideouts where kidnap
victims are held in cages.
Yet thousands of police officers, soldiers, state and federal agents can't seem to find him.
Billboards showing Tijuana's most wanted kidnappers don't include
Garcia's image, even though he is believed to be behind most of the
gang war that has claimed more than 400 lives here since late September.
"That tells you that you don't want to be the one responsible for
putting Teo's picture in public," said one U.S. law enforcement source
who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There's no future in it."
The alleged crime boss appears chubby-cheeked and sporting an
ill-fitting tie and coat in his only published photograph, labeled as
No. 27 on the FBI's narctip.com Web site. His photo bears no name, and
he is listed as one of several dozen people sought for allegedly using
false Mexican police identification in connection with slayings,
kidnappings and other crimes.
Many police officers, prosecutors and ordinary citizens go silent
when Teo's name is mentioned. What is known about him comes from the
secret testimony of captured gunmen, narco-messages left with victims
and anonymously written "narcocorrido" ballads sold at swap meets. "Pay
attention, President (Felipe Calderon). ... In Tijuana, I rule," one
song boasts. "We'll show you what a real war is like."
Mexican court documents and interviews with U.S. and Mexican
authorities paint a portrait of Garcia as a vengeful crime boss who
vows not to go down without a fight.
Garcia is said to be in his mid-30s - even his date of birth is not
known. He reportedly bets big on clandestine horse races at isolated
ranches outside Ensenada. He hires people at $400 a week to guard
kidnapping victims and to weld the barrels of caustic chemicals used to
dispose of some of his victims, according to documents and interviews.
One Mexican law enforcement official said Garcia has killed people at
parties, laughing at their stunned reactions.
"Criminals earn respect and credibility with creative killing
methods," said the official, who requested anonymity for reasons of
security. "Your status is based on your capacity to commit the most
sadistic acts. Burning corpses, using acid, beheading victims. ... This
generation is setting a new standard for savagery."
Garcia's alleged criminal empire is built largely on kidnappings
and extortion, a model for a post-drug-war crime boss who, starved of
narcotics profits, resorts to bloodier, homegrown pursuits.
Garcia's bid for power began shortly after Calderon launched his
offensive against organized crime groups in December 2006, aiming to
destroy the country's drug cartels by shattering their leadership ranks.
"The government's strategy was to break the cartels into smaller,
more manageable pieces," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border
Institute at the University of San Diego. "But smaller doesn't mean
more manageable. ... It's begetting more violence ... and more
dangerous organizations, and people like this guy."
Garcia, whose family is said to be from Sinaloa, grew up in Tijuana
and started out in the Arellano Felix organization as a trusted
enforcer, probably in the 1990s, and grew powerful as a lieutenant who
helped transform kidnapping into a multimillion-dollar industry.
This year, the head of the cartel, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, a
nephew of the founding brothers, tried unsuccessfully to halt the
abductions of doctors, businessmen and politically influential figures.
Sanchez Arellano apparently was worried that the crime wave, attributed
to Garcia, was hampering the organization's drug-trafficking business,
according to U.S. and Mexican authorities.
In April, the renegade lieutenant and the cartel leader split in
spectacular fashion; their gangs shot it out on an expressway in
eastern Tijuana, leaving 14 dead. Garcia fled to Sinaloa but returned
in September to launch all-out war. He is believed to be allied with
the Sinaloa cartel, which is led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Since then, Tijuana has seen an average of five killings per day,
many of them carrying messages boasting that they were the work of
Garcia. One victim was found with his face sliced off. Three headless
bodies were dumped near a baseball diamond. Two corpses were hung from
an overpass. Others have been doused with gasoline and set aflame.
Mexican authorities say Garcia's gunmen shot up a billiard hall, nightclubs, a motorcycle shop and seafood restaurants.
After Sanchez Arellano apparently tried to kill one of Garcia's top
gunmen outside a Rosarito Beach taco stand, Garcia's squad retaliated
by killing five of Sanchez Arellano's associates and leaving their
dismembered bodies in cars outside the same taco stand, law enforcement
The government, meanwhile, seems helpless to stop the killings.
Police officers who have not been lured away to work for Garcia as
drivers, lookouts and hit men are paralyzed with fear. Garcia is said
to possess a list with every cop's address and phone number. More than
one police officer has answered his phone to threats from a man
identifying himself as Garcia.
Other times, there is no warning - as in January, when gunmen
surrounded the home of Deputy Police Chief Margarito Saldana Rivera and
opened fire, killing him, his wife and two daughters. Authorities blame
Garcia for the slaying.
Officers stationed in Garcia's stronghold in eastern Tijuana put
tape over the numbers on their cars and patrol in groups of two or
three cruisers. If they see a convoy of Ford F-250s and Cadillac
Escalades - the drug gangs' vehicles of choice, often stolen from
California - they go the other way.
"We're scared," said one police officer. "There's no way U.S. cops would work under these conditions."
The ineffectual response has exposed the disarray of law
enforcement's anti-drug efforts in Baja California, where relations
between federal and local forces are marked by distrust and there is
little sharing of intelligence.
Garcia, who is said to move constantly, and always with armed
guards, seems to mock police efforts. One of his lieutenants, Raydel
Lopez Uriarte, nicknamed Muletas, or crutches, gives his squad uniforms
inscribed with the letters FEM: the Spanish initials for Special Forces
of Muletas. The uniform patches feature a skull and crossed crutches,
for the death and crippling injuries they leave in their path.
Garcia's alleged tactics have earned him at least one potent enemy.
In October, after a Mexican soldier was killed in a clash in which
four gunmen also died, Tijuana's top military commander, Gen. Alfonso
Duarte Mujica, mentioned Garcia's name at a news conference, signaling
that the alleged crime boss was in his cross-hairs.
About three weeks later, hundreds of soldiers and federal agents
fanned out across neighborhoods believed to be Garcia's stronghold. For
24 hours, the killings stopped. Then, more than 40 people were slain
over a three-day span.
Three were police officers. They had been decapitated along with
six other people, whose corpses left no doubt who was responsible:
Their bodies, placed head to toe, had been arranged to spell out "3 L."
Copyright: This article appeared on page A - 12 of the San Francisco Chronicle