TIJUANA, MEXICO -- When a U.S. resident of this border city parked her car recently in a lot that turned out to be reserved for the Mexican Federal Judicial Police at the Tijuana airport, she was somewhat miffed when a member of the federales, as the police are called, ordered her to move it. Her annoyance increased later when, suspicious of the U.S. license plate on the officer's car, she checked and found that the car had been stolen in the United States.

Mexico's Federal Judicial Police are coming under growing criticism from U.S. citizens and law enforcement agencies for using vehicles stolen from American owners. U.S. police and government officials say federal police in Mexico's northern border states have revived a practice of placing orders for stolen cars with rings operating in southern California. That practice led to a U.S. indictment against the then-chief of the Mexican secret police in 1982.

According to California police, the federales' stolen car of choice these days is the Chevrolet Suburban, mainly because the rugged, four-wheel-drive van is roomy enough to carry weapons, ammunition and prisoners. Seven Suburbans were stolen earlier this month from a stadium parking lot during a San Diego Padres baseball game, a California police officer said. They were among the latest in a rash of about 50 such thefts in the last six months.

For the federales, however, driving stolen cars is hardly a matter of all work and no play. Luxury cars stolen in the United States also frequently turn up in the hands of federal police, as in the case of an $82,000 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet swiped from a San Diego dealer last year. According to Gloria Laxson, business manager for Hoehn Motors, the car, one of only two such models in southern California at the time, was eventually recovered from a federal police commander. A California police officer familiar with the case said that even after the commander was confronted about the car, he asked to "borrow" it for another week so he could take his girlfriend to the bullfights.

"It's very difficult for the California Highway Patrol to recover cars in Mexico," Laxson said. "They can demand nothing. It's very much a negotiating process."

The issue has been of such concern lately that Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) raised it with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari when the Mexican leader visited Washington this month. Hunter said afterward that Salinas had agreed in a closed-door meeting with congressional representatives from border districts to check the inventories of Mexican government vehicles against a U.S. list of stolen cars and return any that belong to American owners.

Salinas reportedly told the congressmen that vehicles stolen in the United States may have been confiscated by Mexican authorities from criminals in Mexico, an argument that the federal police have used to explain their possession of U.S.-owned cars.

"What they use are cars that have been seized from drug rings," said Gustavo Gonzalez Baez, a representative of the federal attorney general's office at the Mexican Embassy in Washington. "But that doesn't mean that the police stole those cars."

However, U.S. officials say that in such cases, the Mexicans are obligated by treaty to notify U.S. authorities of the seized cars, store them in a safe place and then turn them over. At a minimum, "they are violating the treaty" by using cars stolen in the United States for official and private purposes, a California Highway Patrol investigator said. He said the explanation that the cars were confiscated is often used to conceal police involvement with car-theft rings that steal specific models in the United States "on contract."

The highway patrol says about 280,000 cars were stolen in California last year, of which 80 percent were recovered. Estimates of the number of stolen U.S. cars that wind up in Mexico range as high as 20,000 a year, of which "hundreds" are said to be in the possession of the federal police.

State government sources in this border state of Baja California Norte say the stolen-car issue may have been one reason for the sudden transfer last week of the Federal Judicial Police commander in Tijuana, Jose Luis Larrasolo, after three months on the job. Reporting on the transfer, the Tijuana weekly newspaper Zeta published a photo of vehicles loaded on flatbed trucks for shipment to Larrasolo's new assignment in the central state of Michoacan.

"Almost all of the vehicles driven by Larrasolo's federales were stolen from their original owners in the United States," Zeta reported. It said federal legislators of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had requested the commander's removal to avoid further embarrassment about his alleged "excesses."

In an interview, Baja California Norte Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel of the opposition National Action Party said he had asked federal authorities to detain the truckloads of cars until it could be ascertained whether any had been stolen in the state. "A lot of cars stolen in the United States show up in Mexico, but they come under federal jurisdiction," said Ruffo, who took office last November as the first non-PRI governor in 60 years.

A California police official said dozens of vehicles already had been shipped out of Baja California by the Federal Police before the order to detain them was issued. He said that the Baja California state police, despite their limitations in dealing with international matters, have been helpful in recovering stolen U.S. cars, including some in the possession of the federales.

In 1982, Miguel Nazar Haro, then chief of Mexico's Federal Security Directorate, the country's equivalent of the CIA, was forced to resign after he was indicted in San Diego on charges of involvement in a massive car-theft ring that stole luxury vehicles in the United States and supplied them to members of the Federal Security Directorate and other officials. He was arrested in San Diego, but jumped bail set at $200,000 and fled back to Mexico.

In December 1988, Nazar Haro was appointed chief of intelligence for the Mexico City police department but was forced to quit two months later.