December 11, 1998

Violence, Corruption Plague Tijuana

By Michelle Ray Ortiz

TIJUANA, Mexico - On the border in northwestern Mexico, Tijuana sits between the haves and the have-nots: those in Mexico who have cocaine, marijuana, heroin and speed, and those in the United States who do not but will pay lots for it.

Small-time dealers cook speed, or methamphetamine, in backroom labs hidden in poor neighborhoods. Big-time traffickers tally their profits behind guarded fortresses. Others in this border city of 2 million people just do their best to keep out of the line of fire.

Every 30 hours, on average, violence claims another life in this gritty metropolis or in the barren deserts nearby - the overwhelming majority of them connected to the smuggling of drugs, arms or undocumented workers.

Some fear Tijuana is on the edge of becoming the new Medellin, the Colombian city that fell into chaotic drug violence in the 1980s and early '90s.

Tijuana newspaper publisher Jesus Blancornelas said Tijuana has not yet seen the level of violence that characterized Medellin, but added: ``I can't deny that at any moment it could happen.''

The city, home to the busiest border crossing on Earth, is one of the main ports of entry for drugs heading into the United States the world's largest drug market. U.S. officials seized more than 188 tons of drugs worth an estimated $308 million at the five Mexico-California border crossings in the 1998 fiscal year - up 44 percent from the previous year.

Along the 2,000-mile (3,220-kilometer) border, homicides this year have hit record levels near drug passage points: 156 in Tama-ulipas state, 49 in Chihuahua, and 216 in Sinaloa, not a border state but a prime trafficking center, according to the Binational Center of Human Rights, an independent Tijuana group.

The fragile balance that had checked drug violence in the past was upset by the July 1997 death of Amado Carillo Fuentes, who led a powerful cocaine smuggling cartel based in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

In Tijuana, big-time trading still is firmly controlled by the Arellano Felix brothers, whose group brings multi-ton drug shipments into the western United States and beyond to Chicago, Kentucky, Ohio and New York.

Yet struggles between mid-level and emerging dealers have made 1998 the bloodiest on record for the city, according to Victor Clark, director of the human rights center.

``It has provoked a feeling of uncertainty, of insecurity along the border,'' he said.

In September, a hit squad pulled an alleged marijuana trafficker and 18 of his relatives from their beds and killed them in El Sauzal, 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of Tijuana. In October, young men with a Kalashnikov assault rifle killed six strangers and wounded a seventh in what police say was a drugged, thrill-seeking spree.

Fear keeps middle-class people from going out at night and private bodyguard services and security companies are booming.

``This was never seen on the border before,'' Clark said. ``This is new in Tijuana.''

Yet the city long has borne an outlaw reputation - at least for foreigners. For decades, Americans have dipped south of the border for prostitution and gambling. Every weekend, college students taking advantage of Mexico's rarely enforced drinking age of 18 down cheap shots of tequila in its garish discos.

More than 200,000 foreigners visited Tijuana last year. But many who cruised the stalls of rough-hewn blankets and leather goods on Avenida Revolucion one afternoon were careful not to venture too far.

``We've been on edge here,'' said Joina Kavvadas, an Australian tourist.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said last year that almost 90 percent of police officers, prosecutors and judges in Tijuana and in the state of Baja California were reportedly on the Arellano Felix payroll.

Witnesses have said the brothers pay up to $1 million a week in bribes to federal, state and local officials.

But one DEA offcial said Tijuana's violence is not as bad as Medellin once was - simply because the Arellano Felix organization is so dominant. The Colombian city, caught in a war between two rival cartels, saw daily outbursts of violence.

``I served 2 1/2 years in Colombia,'' said Errol Chavez, the DEA's special agent in San Diego. ``I know Medellin. This is not Medellin.''

He called the bulk of the violence around Tijuana ``house-cleaning'' - drug traffickers seeking retribution for debts or deals gone bad.

Still, a year ago, gunmen waiting outside the federal court building in Tijuana ambushed and killed two Mexican military men after the arrest of a high-ranking member of the Arellano Felix group.

The DEA says bribery and corruption may be why Baja California state police withdrew the protection squad assigned to Blancornelas, the newspaper publisher, who then was shot in November 1997 and barely survived.

Blancornelas, who continues to take on drug-traffickers and corrupt police in his Zeta weekly, now arrives at his guarded offices in a bulletproof vest, surrounded by bodyguards toting assault rifles. But he does not blame his beloved city.

``Our biggest problem is geographic,'' he said. ``We are in a place that is both privileged and unfortunate.''

While Tijuana's proximity to the United States has fueled the growth of the manufacturing plants that keep the city's employment rate high, it lies right in the path for drug trafficking. On top of that, hundreds of Mexicans and Central Americans arrive daily looking to cross illegally into the United States.

Few see any quick remedy for Tijuana.

``This is not a war that has reached the levels of Colombia, but it is the start of another Colombia,'' said Clark, the human rights advocate.

Return to Homepage