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Monday, June 20, 2022

MEDIA MONDAY / WHO YOU GONNA CALL? THE GRINGO HUNTERS

An officer with the International Liaison Unit leads 21-year old Damion Salinas, accused of killing a man following a traffic accident in Fresno, to one of the unit's vehicles after Salinas' apprehension in Tijuana.

GUEST BLOG / By Kevin Sieff, Reporter, The Washington Post via San Diego Union-Tribune
--The fugitive could have been anywhere, so Ivan kept his voice down. “We know he’s probably armed,” he told the members of his team. They had pulled into a parking lot near the cruise ship terminal, a semicircle of undercover Mexican police officers, handguns hidden in the waistbands of their jeans. 

If anyone asked, they were just friends on their way to the beach. But behind their sunglasses, their eyes darted between possible suspects. They were searching — as always —for an American. 

“Another guy who thinks he can create a new life in Mexico,” Ivan said. Information had trickled in from the U.S. Marshals Service in the case of Damion Salinas, a 21-year-old accused of killing a man after a traffic accident in Fresno. But the intelligence was weak. Salinas appeared to have crossed the border into Mexico. 

He might be working as a barber in Ensenada. Or he might be in Tijuana. Or in any of the expat hideouts in between. Authorities had lost track of him more than a year earlier. The cops knew this feeling well. Their cases almost always began the same way — with a sense that the foreigners could be anywhere. 

There are a lot of them: Americans on the run from U.S. law enforcement who have slipped into northern Mexico. They include fugitives on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list, serial killers, billionaires accused of securities fraud. Here in Baja California, there’s one small unit of state police — 10 men and two women — assigned to catch them. 

Officially, they’re the International Liaison Unit. But they’re known by another name: the Gringo Hunters. 

Pursuing American fugitives in Mexico might seem like the punchline of an unwritten joke, a xenophobic stereotype inverted: Donald Trump’s “bad hombres” in reverse. This is, after all, the Baja Peninsula, a dagger of land jutting into the Pacific, with deserted beaches and sprawling cities that nurture anonymity. Among its most popular tourism campaigns? “Escape to Baja.” 

The unit now catches an average of 13 Americans a month. Since it was formed in 2002, it has apprehended more than 1,600. Many of those suspects were inspired by one of America’s oldest clich├ęs: the troubled outlaw striding into a sepia-toned Mexico in the hope of disappearing forever. 

“I’m goin’ to Mexico,” Susan Sarandon says in “Thelma & Louise” after her character kills a man. 

“Way down to Mexico way,” Jimi Hendrix sang. “Ain’t no hangman gonna — he ain’t gonna put a rope around me.” Ivan knows the stereotypes — all the ways life imitates art in Baja — because he apprehends versions of the same misguided fugitive every other day. “We find them everywhere,” he said. “And almost always, they have no idea we’re looking for them. They think: ‘We’re in Mexico. We’re home free.’ ” 

Here’s an incomplete list of where Mexican officers have found American fugitives: --In beach resorts. 

--Dangling from parasails. 

--In remote mountain cabins. 

--In fishing boats. 

--At a nightclub called Papas & Beer. 

--In drug rehabilitation centers. 

-- In trailer parks. 

--Tending bars. 

--In cars with prostitutes. 

--In Carl’s Jr. parking lots. 

 Some were on crystal meth. Some had undergone plastic surgery and acquired new names they couldn’t pronounce. Some were found dead. There were former Playboy models, Catholic priests, professional athletes, C-list celebrities, ex-Marines. So when the case of Damion Salinas crossed the Gringo Hunters’ desk, it seemed pretty straightforward. 

Then again, so had other cases. It was late March. The unit had been busier than at any other time in its history. While politicians in Washington argued over whether there was a crisis at the border, it felt to the fugitive unit that crime was spilling over in the opposite direction. 

“Honestly, I think it’s all the drugs over there,” said Moises, the liaison unit’s commander. Like other unit members, he spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld so he can continue to work undercover. In its office, the unit keeps a whiteboard with the month’s apprehensions tallied by name, date and charge. In the first three weeks of March, there were eight accused of drug trafficking, two of murder and one of pedophilia. 

The Salinas case was another one that seemed to reflect something rotten across the border. On Aug. 16, 2020, Salinas allegedly arrived at the scene of a traffic accident involving his girlfriend. 

Several people argued over who was responsible for the crash. Within minutes, authorities say, Salinas pulled out a handgun and shot 36-year-old Joshua Thao at close range. 

“He never saw it coming because he shook the killer’s hand thinking everything was fine,” the victim’s sister told a local TV news reporter. 

Nineteen months later, Baja police received a tip that Salinas was cutting hair at the Teximani barbershop in Ensenada, a small black storefront painted with murals of boxing champions. 

The bulletin from U.S. authorities was emblazoned with Salinas’ photo. 

“DANGEROUS,” it warned in bold. “Remember,” Ivan told his team at the outset, “don’t take any unnecessary risks.” One of the younger undercover officers, a lanky man named Carlos, went into the barbershop and sat down for a haircut. “Just a little off the sides,” he said, and looked around for Damian. 

Members of the unit are trained to spot the ways Americans make themselves conspicuous in Mexico. They wear more shorts and more flip-flops. Many speak little Spanish. One officer swears he can identify how long a foreigner has been in Mexico by the depth of his tan. 

Carlos had studied the photos of Salinas from his Facebook profile. He was 6 feet tall and 185 pounds, an amateur rapper. He wore his hair in dreadlocks. “Forever West Coast” was tattooed on his right arm. 

“This guy is going to stand out,” Carlos thought. Scanning the shop, he didn’t see Salinas. But there was an apartment upstairs and a steady flow of clients. He called for backup. That’s how three unmarked cars, each with two or three heavily armed agents, came to be sitting outside the barbershop. 

I was in the back of one of the cars, behind Ivan and his colleague Abigail. Spring-breakers were taking selfies along the bay. New copies of the biweekly Gringo Gazette — with its tagline “No Bad News” — had recently been delivered. Ivan turned up the Bad Bunny song on the radio. He squinted through the windshield. 

 “Where are youuu, Damion?” he said, to no one in particular. Ivan, like the rest of the team, had grown up along the border. He prefers “thank you” to “gracias.” He worked for years in construction and then as a bodyguard. In 2010, he was recruited by the unit. The unit’s existence surprised him. “I was like, wait, you chase Americans?” 

He shuddered when he learned that fugitive pedophiles often settle near primary schools. He noticed the mark the job was beginning to leave on him — the way he triple-checked that his front door was locked when he got home, or reproached his wife for sitting in the car too long outside their home. 

“You’re raising our profile,” he insisted. He learned that the dumbest fugitives were often the most violent. There was the Oregon man running from rape charges who worked as a surfing instructor with a LinkedIn profile (“High performing, results oriented”). 

There was the California murder suspect found in Tijuana after he posted a music video for a song called “Stay Gangsterific.” Ivan’s job flickered between humor and danger, suddenly and without warning. On his phone, he saved the photos of dozens of American fugitives he’d caught, like a digital trophy gallery. 

One recent photo showed the body of Anthony “Lucky” Luciano. The police had been surveilling Luciano last year as he cruised downtown Tijuana. He was wanted for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Los Angeles. Hours into the mission, Luciano leapt from the car, spraying bullets. Then he hijacked a Mini Cooper with a woman in the back seat and continued shooting at the police. Ivan was hit in the foot. The officers fired back. Luciano died of his wounds. 

Parked in front of the barbershop, Ivan read through the WhatsApp group “DAMION SALINAS.” It included a map showing Baja barbershops where the target might be working. “This guy must know people here,” Ivan said, scratching a chin covered by a few days of stubble. “Someone’s got to be hiding him.” 

For decades, fugitives fleeing to Mexico have posed a profound challenge for U.S. law enforcement officers, who cannot operate independently on this side of the border. They rely instead on Mexican police to make apprehensions on their behalf. It isn’t extradition, which involves a formal request by the United States and a court process in Mexico. 

Technically, the foreigners are deported for violating Mexican immigration law. “Without the Mexicans able to do this for us, no one is going to get caught,” said Scott Garriola, a former FBI agent who led a fugitive task force in Los Angeles until last year. U.S. officials pass intelligence on to Mexican police. 

--Sometimes it comes from tracing U.S. wire transfers to rural Mexican banks. 

--Sometimes it’s from phone records of relatives in the United States. 

--Sometimes it’s a tip, prompted by U.S. reward money. 

After big cases, U.S. officials send plaques, FBI apparel and gift certificates to their Mexican counterparts. They invite the Mexican agents to training sessions across the United States and ply them with drinks and dinners. “A lot of it boils down to keeping the jefes happy,” Garriola said. 

Ivan and the others say they have a different motivation. “We don’t want a bunch of criminals in our community,” Ivan said. The Gringo Hunters had been sitting in front of the barbershop for about an hour when the U.S. marshals called again. Ivan picked up his phone and nodded. His eyes widened. “He’s not here,” Ivan told a colleague. 

“It looks like he’s in Tijuana.” The team headed north, the ocean on their left. Abigail sped through it at 90 miles an hour. She gripped the steering wheel with one hand and held her phone with the other, firing off voice memos to headquarters. “That’s the telephone number of the target,” she said in one. “Check to see if it’s registered.” “Find out who has the deed to the barbershop,” she said in another. 

Abigail, a member of the International Liaison Unit, poses as a tourist going for an ATV beach ride as she searches for a fugitive couple wanted in a killing.
Photos: Luis Antonio Rojas, for the Washington Post.

“This is a homicide case,” she advised gently. “It’s a little bit urgent.” Abigail was the only woman on Ivan’s team. She wore blue jeans and had straight hair down to her shoulders. 

She, too, had grown up on the border, in Tijuana, secretly dreaming of becoming a police officer. Her mother begged her not to. Abigail waited until her own daughter was 2, and then signed up. A few years later, she transferred to the fugitive unit and immediately helped make several major arrests. 

Still, even when her colleagues praise her, the compliments can sometimes be loaded. “She can do anything,” Ivan said. “She’s like a man in a woman’s body.” 

 Abigail says she isn’t bothered. She rose to the top position in the liaison unit’s Tijuana field office. She became known for finding ways to capture fugitives without engaging in high-speed chases or shootouts. When a former Texas police officer, wanted for sexually assaulting a child, fled to Rosarito, she tracked his Facebook account until he posted to a local expat group, looking for a woman to show him around. 

Abigail created a fake profile and contacted him to offer a tour. When he showed up, freshly coifed and wearing cologne, the team arrested him. “You expect these guys to be smarter than that,” she said. The team quipped about her having a “woman’s sixth sense” — and maybe there was something to that, she thought. She half-joked about migrating to the U.S. to increase her salary, roughly a thousand dollars a month. “I could apply a lot of blush and tell them I’m Ukrainian,” she said. 

But the more time she spends in the unit, the less appealing the U.S. has come to seem. Is it possible to arrest a nonstop procession of foreign criminals without feeling a little less enthusiastic about their country? It was noon when Abigail parked across the street from Bunker Cuts in Tijuana. 

 The U.S. marshals believed Salinas might be living in the apartment above the barbershop. Abigail could see a rack of clothes left to dry on the patio. They waited, air conditioning blasting, staring through the windshield. The conversation turned — as it always did — to speculation about the fugitive’s life on the run. Which version of the Baja outlaw life had Salinas chosen, they wondered. Was he parasailing? Was he in a mountain hut, protected by cartel gunmen? 

Some fugitives have lived in Mexico for decades without being caught. Others last only a few days. Baldomero Barrientos Banuelos, who allegedly stabbed his wife to death in North Hollywood has been at large for 29 years. “Some of these guys are really gifted at blending in,” Ivan said. 

 Abigail went to the store next to the barbershop, bought a plastic cup of potato chips dipped in chili and came back shaking her head. “Nothing,” she said. To pass the time, they talked about old cases: the alleged pedophile who tried to stab himself when he was apprehended, the ex-football star who was so strong that it took the entire team to detain him. 

The call came out of nowhere, another officer on the walkie-talkie. “That looks like him. In the beige Honda Accord.” Abigail and Ivan turned on a siren and took off, tearing through two lanes of traffic. It took them about 15 seconds to cut off the Accord. They pulled a tall, thin man out of the car. He didn’t look much like the picture of Salinas I’d seen, grimacing at the camera. He was gangly, with a bowl haircut and a wispy mustache. He wore a pair of Air Jordan sandals. He looked like he’d just woken up from a nap. 

 “I don’t think it’s him,” Ivan said. But when Ivan took a wallet out of the man’s pocket, there it was: a California driver’s license with the name “Damion Ariza Salinas.” “Pon las manos atras,” one of the agents shouted. It became clear Salinas didn’t understand, so the agent repeated the words in English. 

“Put your hands in the back.” The agents handcuffed Salinas and led him to the back seat of one of the unmarked cars. Abigail began weaving through traffic on the way to the police intake center. Ivan called his colleagues in the United States. “We got him,” he said. 

Sieff writes for The Washington Post. 

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