Life in Tijuana under drug cartel violence

Mommy, why are they shooting at us again?

“Living in Tijuana is easy. It’s surviving that’s hard.”
  • “Living in Tijuana is easy. It’s surviving that’s hard.”
  • Image by Omar Martinez

Life in Tijuana goes on. The buses run, people go to work, kids go to school, traffic still jams the city’s arteries. But something has changed in the last year or so: the city’s residents go about their day-to-day business with a gnawing apprehension, haunted by an unpleasant feeling that something horrible may happen at any moment. The sensation is similar to what you feel when you narrowly avoid a car crash or catch a child just in time to avoid disaster — relief that it did not happen, distress that it almost did, dread that next time you may not be so lucky. The Tijuana state of mind has become popularly known as “the psychosis.” Anyone who lives in Tijuana knows what you’re talking about when you use the term.

"You gringos just don’t understand. Most of the people who live in Tijuana are good — don’t have anything to do at all with the narcos. And besides, you will never understand this so-called ‘corruption culture.’"

"You gringos just don’t understand. Most of the people who live in Tijuana are good — don’t have anything to do at all with the narcos. And besides, you will never understand this so-called ‘corruption culture.’"

“I don’t take my kids to the park anymore on Sundays,” says Luís, a young Tijuana father of three — eight- and six-year-old sons, and a five-year-old daughter. Luís once looked forward to the weekly family outings. Sunday is his only day off from delivering bottled fruit juices to neighborhood grocers. His sons liked to kick a soccer ball around for hours and run in the grass. His daughter favored the swings and the slide. “It’s too dangerous,” he says, shaking his head, staring at the ground. “Too many shootouts. We stay home, play Game Boy, watch TV, or rent videos. Their mom won’t even take them with her to the supermarket like she used to, even though they beg to go.”

Luís is by no means alone, not in his constant uneasiness, not in the ashen look that briefly crosses his face when he imagines what could happen to his loved ones when they venture onto the streets of Tijuana. From working-class neighborhoods like Luís’s Colonia Hidalgo near downtown, to the city’s wealthiest enclaves, Tijuanenses are hunkering down. No area of the city is considered safe. Most people of means have already fled, and more are leaving town every day. Tijuana news outlets reported not long after the New Year began that, of the 100 or so owners of PEMEX-franchised gas stations in the metro area, 60 had decided to take themselves and their families elsewhere to live. Joaquín Aviña Sánchez, director of the Tijuana Gas Station Owners Association, told the Tijuana daily Frontera that between 2006 and 2007, at least 20 owners — or members of their families — had been kidnapped.

For those who are staying behind, either because they have no choice or out of pride of place, military authorities recommend they stay at home if there is no important reason to go out. The official murder count for 2008 was 843, though suspicious Tijuanenses say there were probably a lot more. Of the 843, Frontera reported at year’s end that 25 were innocent bystanders. One reason the official death toll is suspect is that many people have vanished, their fates unknown to family and friends. On January 24, Mexican soldiers and federal police captured a 45-year-old ex-construction worker who said he was paid $600 a week by a renegade drug-cartel lieutenant known as “the uncle” to dissolve corpses in acid-filled barrels. In a short question-and-answer session with journalists following his arrest, a tearful Santiago Meza López said he had liquefied 300 bodies. The state attorney general has begun collecting photos from families of the disappeared in hopes that Meza López, who said he would cooperate, might recall some of the faces. Within a day, the attorney general said in a press conference, more than 100 photos had been collected.

Hopes for the prospect of less violence in 2009 were quickly dashed. The first murder was reported 20 minutes into the New Year. On February 2, the state attorney general’s office released Tijuana murder statistics for the first month of 2009. In January, said the statement, homicides more than doubled over the same month last year — 30 killings in January 2008, compared to 69 in 2009. Included in the statistics were six municipal police officers, seven decapitated bodies — among them four victims who were just 17 years old — and six women. Several of the murdered women died, said Frontera, only because they “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“There is a new rule in my house,” says a prominent Tijuana physician, whose swank Chapultepec home includes an indoor swimming pool and a spectacular golf course view. “No one leaves after 7:00 p.m. And every day, we use a different car, leave at a different time, and take a different route when I drop my boys at school.” The doctor has even abandoned regular office hours, seeing patients by appointment only and varying his hours each day. Some days he avoids his clinic altogether. But the doctor takes exception to the term “psychosis” to describe the popular consciousness. “Psychosis is a profound mental illness,” he explains. “We are not suffering from any mental illness. This is real.”

María, a usually happy-go-lucky third-grader, came home from school one afternoon just before Halloween trembling and fighting back tears. “The teacher told us no ‘trickie-trickie,’ ” she said, referring to the Spanish adaptation of “trick-or-treat.” “They might kill us,” sobbed the 8-year-old. “The narcos said they would kill us.” Municipal and school authorities had warned parents to keep their kids off the streets after one group among the warring narco-factions was rumored to have threatened to gun down children at random if the federal government did not withdraw the thousands of soldiers sent in to patrol city streets. It could well have been a rumor or an empty threat, but nerves are frayed in Tijuana, and no one wanted to take any chances in a city where murderous cruelty has become almost as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise. Government officials dubbed the threat “narco-terrorism” and promised for the umpteenth time to do something about it.

So the streets of Tijuana, once teeming with little witches and hobgoblins on Halloween, were virtually empty in 2008 — except for half-ton military trucks carting heavily armed soldiers through residential streets — just in case the threat wasn’t a rumor. And the very few brave enough to take the risk found that not many doors opened for them as they trekked house to house.

“Mommy, why are they shooting at us again?” a five-year-old asked her mother after being caught in the crossfire of a shootout in the parking lot of Tijuana’s Sam’s Club just before noon on November 25, Frontera reported. Mom had just picked her daughter up from a nearby preschool in what is regarded as one of the best and safest neighborhoods in the city. It was, said the newspaper, the second time the youngster had been forced to duck and cover as bullets flew. Students at the nearby Lázaro Cárdenas Federal Preparatory School could hear the gunfire from their classrooms. A few weeks later, gunmen sprayed the parking lot of a Costco in the city’s Zona Río — in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon — sending shoppers scurrying for cover.

Sometimes the results are enough to make you cry. A two-year-old boy died in a car crash when his mom, trying to evade gunfire during a shootout, was forced off a busy boulevard and into a light post head-on. An 18-month-old girl was seriously wounded when gunmen cut off her parents’ pickup truck, stormed out of their cars, and opened fire with semi-automatic rifles, shredding mom’s and dad’s bodies with bullets as the baby sat strapped in her car seat behind them. About 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night, November 29, gunmen opened fire outside a small grocery store in the Los Piños neighborhood, killing four — among them a 4-year-old named Eduardo and a 13-year-old named José.

“It used to be that they just went after their enemies — you know, other people involved in the narco business,” says the 59-year-old owner of a small and struggling corner grocery near downtown. “But not anymore. They just open fire. Whoever happens to be there at the time is just out of luck. This is a big change from before. Now they don’t care who gets killed. They are fearless, shooting down people in broad daylight. They kill women. They kill kids. It’s a war.”

“Living in Tijuana is easy,” says a neighborhood cop who patrols the middle-class El Mirador neighborhood. “It’s surviving that’s hard.” He was one of a dozen officers who stood guard outside an elementary school two blocks from a government hospital one sunny November afternoon as the school day was about to end. At least ten police cars screamed into the emergency entrance of Hospital ISSSTECALI, sirens wailing. Ski-masked officers armed with rifles jumped out of police pickups and lined the sidewalk. A police helicopter hovered overhead, and motorcycle cops blocked off the street. Two olive-colored half-ton Mexican Army trucks, carrying about a dozen semi-automatic-rifle–toting soldiers, cruised the surrounding streets. Somewhere in the city there had been another shootout, more police officers killed and wounded, and ISSSTECALI, a state-run hospital for government employees and their dependents, is where they take them.

The kids were kept inside the school and away from windows for about 45 minutes, until authorities were certain the killers were not going to come to the hospital to finish the job. And with good reason. Just after midnight on November 22, 2008, masked gunmen stormed into the intensive care unit of Hospital del Prado, one of the city’s best private medical facilities, and shot to death a patient recovering from an earlier attempt on his life. In 2007, two municipal police officers were shot dead at Tijuana General Hospital when a group of armed men said to be associated with a drug cartel tried to snatch a wounded compatriot being treated in the emergency room.

In a late-January visit to Tijuana for a conference on trauma medicine, Carlos Freaner Figueroa, vice president of the Mexican Red Cross, announced that Red Cross paramedics, who staff the country’s principal ambulance system, had adopted a “war-zone policy” when responding to calls for help from victims injured “in whatever manner during operations against organized crime.” From now on, said Freaner Figueroa, police must enter the area first, police must guard paramedics as they remove the injured, and, once a patient has been evaluated and cleared for transport to a hospital, ambulances must be accompanied by police escorts. The reason for the new policy, he said, was to prevent gunmen from finishing off patients on their way to the hospital.

Francisco, who earns his livelihood as a bootleg plumber and electrician out of the trunk of his car, says he has taught his children what to do in case they get caught in a shootout: “Chest on the ground, flat as you can! Hands over your head! Don’t stand up!” His kids, 11, 13, and 15, know well the danger, he says. “They’re not stupid. They have eyes. They have ears.” Television and radio news, along with the city’s dailies, saturate the city with the latest horrors: “Two dead in shootout”; “Body cut into pieces discovered with narco-message”; “Confrontation leaves one dead, two wounded”; “Three found executed in back alley”; “Man gunned down downtown”; “Man shot, crashes into patrol car”; “Two men shot at on Boulevard Agua Caliente”; “Another corpse wrapped in a blanket found”; “Nine dead, seven of them decapitated”; “Killed in shootout near Marriott”; “Commandos kill 16.” And that was just two days’ worth of news.

“I don’t read the newspapers and I don’t watch the news,” said one middle-aged Tijuana woman returning late one Friday afternoon from a day’s work as a maid at a San Diego hotel. “I don’t want to know anymore.” She glanced at her watch and fretted, “It will be getting dark soon. I don’t like to get home after dark.”

While the widespread and sometimes indiscriminate killings are bad enough, it is the heartless savagery that accompanies many of them that has left Tijuana close to emotional meltdown. Masked men kick in the doors of modest homes in predawn raids, singling out fathers to kill in front of their children, or children to kill in front of their parents. In some instances, entire families are slaughtered. Decapitated bodies are left on baseball fields used by youngsters; detached heads are discovered by startled taco-stand owners opening for business in the morning; sometimes, the bodies are found in one city, the heads in another. Rotting corpses are abandoned in metal barrels. Bullet-riddled bodies, their tongues cut out, have been left on the sidewalk in front of an elementary school. Corpses are strewn across the city — some wrapped in plastic garbage bags, others stranded behind the wheel of the car they were driving when death came.

Often the killer will leave a “narco message,” explaining why the person was murdered, but lately the government has decided to stop revealing the contents. Usually the message refers to the leader of an opposition cartel or one of his local lieutenants, as in “This is what happens to friends of so-and-so.” Some victims were clearly tortured before their deaths, others suffocated by having their heads wrapped in a plastic bag or their faces wrapped with duct tape. Some have had their index fingers amputated and stuffed into their mouths — a signal that the individual was a snitch.

An October 2008 Mexico travel advisory issued by the U.S. State Department says: “Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have taken on the characteristics of small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and, on occasion, grenades. Firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but particularly in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City, and Ciudad Juárez. The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted.”

Billiard halls, discos, restaurants, convenience stores, used-auto lots, taco stands, junkyards, car-stereo shops, auto-alarm outlets, and a tire store have been sprayed indiscriminately with gunfire. Professionals — engineers, lawyers, and physicians — are snatched off the street in broad daylight and held for ransom. Kidnapping has become what the State Department calls “a lucrative business.” In Tijuana, it is a side-business for the drug cartels, which have developed sophisticated techniques for tracking the daily routines of potential victims. Police have discovered elaborate private jails built inside expensive homes where kidnap victims had been held. More and more business owners are being forced to pay protection money in what one high-ranking police official described as a tactic adapted from the Sicilian mafia. Gunfire is common on the city’s major highways and principal boulevards, where wild police chases have caused chain-reaction car wrecks as drivers scramble to get out of the way. And, while cops have been shot dead — some as they sat parked in patrol cars — it is virtually impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad. From street cops to the highest levels of government, corruption is commonplace.

Corruption among government officials has been widely reported in the U.S. media, as has most of the violence, with the formulaic explanation that Mexico’s increasing misfortune has been caused by “rival drug gangs vying for control of smuggling routes,” particularly since the near-collapse of the once-powerful Tijuana-based Arellano-Félix cartel. Virtually every story reported in the U.S. media about the latest savage drug-trafficking crime in Mexico bears a version of that interpretation. And while there is some truth to it, it is a long way from portraying who is really at fault for Mexico’s descent into narco-terrorism.

“I hate to tell you this,” says Osvaldo, a high school teacher, “but Americans make me sick. Who is it that is spending all this money on drugs that made these narcos millionaires? Americans. Who is it that has shipped thousands and thousands of weapons into Mexico to make all this violence possible? Americans.”

Many Baja Californians, including the state’s governor, share Osvaldo’s point of view. “Who’s causing greater harm to whom?” asked Gov. José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, speaking to a November 12, 2008 confab of hundreds of the state’s political, business, and civic leaders. “Is it the migrants who with great pains come to work in that country, or is it the tens of thousands of weapons that cross the border, from north to south?”

Since December 1, 2006, when President Felipe Calderón took office, and April of 2008, more than 14,000 handguns and assault rifles, along with 863 hand grenades were seized by Mexican law enforcement. Both the government of Mexico and the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agree that at least 90 percent of them originated in the United States. The problem has become so serious that the ATF has launched a program it calls “Project Gunrunner.” The agency reported in a September 2008 “Fact Sheet” that it was “deploying its resources strategically on the Southwest Border to deny firearms, the ‘tools of the trade,’ to criminal organizations in Mexico and along the border, and to combat firearms-related violence affecting communities on both sides of the border.” Project Gunrunner was begun, said the ATF, “to stem the flow of firearms into Mexico, and thereby deprive the narcotics cartels of weapons.” Last year the ATF provided something called “eTrace technology” to nine U.S. consulates in Mexico, where seized weapons can now be traced back to their original point of sale.

“Trends indicate the firearms illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are becoming more powerful,” said the ATF. The agency reported it had analyzed weapons seized in Mexico between 2005 and 2007 and had “identified the following weapons most commonly used by drug traffickers:” 9 mm pistols, .38 caliber “super pistols,” 5.7 mm pistols (known in Mexico as “cop-killers” because the bullets can pierce body armor), .45 caliber pistols, AR-15-type rifles (a semi-automatic version of the U.S. military’s M-16), and AK-47-type rifles. In addition to the weapons seized in Mexico, “In the past two years, ATF has seized thousands of firearms headed to Mexico.”

While high-powered weapons from the U.S. may be the “tools of the trade” of Mexico’s drug traffickers, without the huge demand from American consumers for marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin, they would soon go out of business. Mexican and Colombian drug-trafficking organizations “generate, remove, and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually,” according to the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center. The Mexican cartels, said the report, “are the greatest drug-trafficking threat to the United States; they control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, advanced communications capabilities, and strong affiliations with gangs in the United States.” The Mexican cartels, the report continued, “control a greater portion of drug production, transportation, and distribution than any other criminal group…. Their extensive drug-trafficking activities in the United States generate billions of dollars in illicit proceeds annually.”

The Mexican cartels “maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 U.S. cities,” said the report, including San Diego, Escondido, and El Centro. “Mexican drug traffickers transport multi-ton quantities of drugs from Mexico into the United States annually using overland, maritime, and air conveyances. The use of varied conveyances enables Mexican drug traffickers to consistently deliver illicit drugs from Mexico to warehouse locations in the United States for subsequent distribution.”

The multibillion-dollar profits from the drug-hungry U.S. create another huge problem for Mexico and help explain why the drug cartels have become so much a part of the fabric of Mexican life: all those billions have to be laundered before they can be spent or legally returned to the U.S. as bank deposits. From time to time, the U.S. Treasury Department issues statements identifying money-laundering outfits in Tijuana. Since 2006, the lists have included construction companies, real-estate agencies, armored-truck companies, pawn shops, currency-exchange businesses, liquor and restaurant supply companies, import-export firms, jewelry stores, and mail-delivery services. Currency-exchange businesses — the ubiquitous casas de cambio found in almost any Tijuana neighborhood — far outnumber any other business named by the Treasury for money laundering. There are likely many more businesses under the radar of the U.S. government, says Carlos, a longtime Tijuana resident in his early 60s. “The little corner restaurant that never has many customers but stays in business year after year, there are a lot of those,” he said. “Just across the street from the apartment I used to live in, there was a small shopping center with stores selling clothes, a photo studio, that kind of thing. The only time I saw any real traffic was after midnight — Mercedes, Escalades, Suburbans. Made me wonder what was really going on there. It’s one of the reasons I moved.”

Leticia, a mother of two, works at a major Tijuana new-car dealership. She says she has no idea whether the company launders money but still wishes she could find work elsewhere. “It’s some of the customers that come in,” she says. “People with lots of money to spend. You don’t know whether they might be targeted to be kidnapped or whether they got their money legally. All I can tell you is, when they come in, me and the other women try to head to the back or brace ourselves, ready to run if we need to. It makes my skin crawl. I get goose bumps.”

On December 4, 2008, the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, a Defense Department unit of military experts from various services, issued its annual report on threats to American security around the world. “In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico,” said the report. “The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.”

While Tijuana has yet to descend into chaos, the situation is so stressful — almost unlivable — for ordinary people who just want to live their lives and raise their families that some have begun calling on the government to call a truce with the narco cartels or to allow one cartel to win control with government help. That, say some, had long been the policy of the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years before its defeat in the 2000 and 2006 presidential elections by the right-leaning PAN. The increasing level of violence that has swept the country began, they say, in December 2006, when President Calderón launched an all-out government war on the cartels. Since then, more than 25,000 federal troops have been dispatched across the country to do battle with the well-armed drug lords. In 2008 alone, the president’s war claimed more than 5000 lives.

“You’re just going to write one of those stories that has nothing but bad things to say about Tijuana, aren’t you?” asked Felipe, a taxi driver. “Why should I bother talking to you? You gringos just don’t understand. Most of the people who live in Tijuana are good — don’t have anything to do at all with the narcos. And besides, you will never understand this so-called ‘corruption culture.’ Tell me what you would do if someone threatened you or your family? Most of the time it’s ‘plata o plomo,’ ” he explained, which in English translates to “silver or lead.” What Felipe was trying to convey is that government officials are often made the proverbial unrefusable offer: cooperate, take the bribe — or we’ll kill you.

Despite growing calls for a truce — as one government leader said, “The people are on their knees” — that strategy seems unlikely. In the same meeting of business and civic leaders in November in which Baja California Governor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán pointedly complained about “the tens of thousands of weapons that cross the border, from north to south,” the governor also issued a plea to his war-weary citizens: “I urge you not to give in, not to grow faint, not to allow crime under any form to be a part of our lives and eat away like an incurable cancer.”

(Writer’s note: The people who speak in this story are real, and what they told me has been faithfully recounted. But certain details — their names, anything that might even remotely be used to identify them — have been changed or omitted. This was done for the same reason I am writing this under a pseudonym — fear of becoming the next victim.)

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This is the most irresponsible piece of trash I've ever read. I've lived in Tijuana for seventeen years, no one here walks around with their head on a swivel unless they are "involved".
What, did the San Diego Union-Tribune lay you off? You write just like those idiots.

You have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. I'll give you two options: You are either totally clueless or you are outright lying. Take your pick.

While I guess none of us should be surprised that the Reader is once again allowing "anonymous" individuals masquerading as journalists to write yet another sensationalistic and negative article about Tijuana (Mr. Refried Gringo above has called it what it is), isn't one every three months or so a little too much... Oh, well.

Let me suggest that people can actually visit the safe downtown Tourist District of Tijuana -- stretching from Avenida Revolucion to the Tijuana Cultural Center to the wonderful Caliente Casino -- where they'll see for themselves that the above is a misleading portrayal of the very large and diverse City of Tijuana (a city of 1.6 million people, and the second-largest on the Pacific Coast of North America). Want to see another perspective -- visit www.120ThingsToDoInTijuana.org and really learn about Tijuana!

It's true that anytime you take a few limited impressions, you can write over-reaching, baised articles like that above that tell only part of the story. If the Reader really wanted to tell a story, the above types of articles could also be told of parts of LA, Oakland, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington DC... But, that wouldn't be as sensationalistic I suppose. I wish Mr. "Iverson" good luck on his next trip to Tijuana -- he should enjoy himself more, and relax instead of giving in to his paranoia...

Signed, Anonymous, ("I am writing this under a pseudonym — for fear of becoming the next victim...of bad journalism.")

Sorry to belabor the point, but since Mr. "Iverson" likes to reprint portions of the Frontera newspaper, maybe he'd like to reprint this quote just covered by the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano (as quoted in Frontera tonight):

========= "Pese a la extensa cobertura noticiosa de los hechos de violencia y la guerra contra el narcotráfico en México, la secretaria de Seguridad Interna de Estados Unidos, Janet Napolitano, asegura que los visitantes estadounidenses están seguros en México.

“El visitar México ahora, para los americanos, que son razonablemente prudentes, van a estar seguros, no tenemos información que indique que los turistas americanos sean un blanco”, dijo Napolitano durante una conferencia de prensa en la garita de carga de Otay Mesa.

“El único temor que tengo es que alguien se vea atrapado, sin deberla, en medio de algún incidente de violencia en Tijuana, pero repito, todos los indicativos son que la gente permanezca en la zona turística y ande con cuidado, no tienen que temer”, agregó la secretaria.


Basically says that Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano believes that American tourists aren't at all targets, and that they are safe in Tijuana...

Hmmmm... who probably understands security better...? A writer for the SD Reader, or....the Secretary of Homeland Security...?

Just thought a little balance might be useful.

The solution to all this violence that is tearing Mexico apart, and the solution to America's budget problems too, is to stop beating our heads against the wall, admit that prohibition doesn't work, and legalize (and tax) weed.

I second Rickey.

This "war on drugs" has gone on long enough. It's a war on ourselves and our neighbors. Time to stop already.

Re: Post #1 from Refriedgringo:

You're a good enough writer. Sit yourself down at the keyboard and submit a story. If it's any good, the Reader will probably publish it. You've commented elsewhere on the poor quality of reporting from your home city, and you seem well qualified to rectify the situation. Go for it...

Is okay to talk from the sidelines. Until one of your relatives is kidnapped, ransom money is paid then the dead body is found the next day. Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada I mention these because these are tourist attractions. Any one can be a victim at any time of the day or night in Mexico, whether your mexican or caucasian a stray bullet knows no colors. So play it safe why even bother going down there. By the way I thought the article is correct.

As soon as the Reader prints a story that reveals the ugly truth abut Tijuana, two apologists jump in to defend its soiled reputation. The reality is that Tijuana is not a safe place for anyone. It never has been one, but the level of hazard has varied widely over the years.

The popularity of TJ as a tourist destination was based on it offering some things that were not readily available in the US, without having to go vary far. It started out as a town offering gambling and horse wagering when such things were illegal or unavailable in California. Then, with the beginning of Prohibition, it offered legal boozing. Over the years its foreignness consisted of handcrafts, people speaking a different language, and a massive display of noise, filth, and visible poverty. For many visitors that dark side to the place made it vaguely exciting. Then there were the purveyors of illicit drugs, illicit sex, and an "anything goes" attitude that was overlaid onto a corrupt city government and police force. For many visitors, a shakedown by a cop was part of the local color and part of a complete visit to the city of sin and sleaze. Over 50 years ago, the Kingston Trio had one of their "folk song" hits, entitled "The Tiajuana Jail".

But I for one am not going to accept the blame for the current level of street and gang violence as totally due to US drug abuse. The US did not bring corruption to Mexico. It has that as founding tradition going back centuries. The drug cartels may have brought it to a new level of money involved and lives lost, but it has been in Tijuana for as long as there has been a Tijuana.

It may be true that everyday US and foreign tourists are not particularly "targets" of the kidnappers and assassins in TJ. But people are being kidnapped there on a daily basis, and not all are ransomed successfully. There will always be a few tourists for whom a near miss in a shootout between the cartels will be remembered as an adventuresome episode in an otherwise dull vacation trip. But I'm not one of those. I suspect few others are.

So, the Reader performs a service not being performed by the U-T when it tells the truth about our south-of-the-border city neighbor. Copies of this week's Reader should be passed out at every tourist information office in San Diego county, starting with the one in Oceanside and also the one at Mission Bay Park. It would save a lot of unsuspecting tourists from a really rotten day or more of terror at the hands of really brutal people, just a few miles south of the border.

If you want to put your trust in some message from Janet Napolitano, which does caution tourists to Mexico, rather than those who REALLY know, go ahead. She's in the same tradition as those in our federal government who "prevented" 9/11.

Thank you Reader for performing a valuable public service, and keep doing it. We need a paper that tells the truth.

6 & #7:

Obviously, you're entitled to your opinion, but it's as uninformed as is the article. I'm not an apologist for anyone, much less a country that I did not grow up in, but I'm telling you both that FACTUALLY the tone of this story is not true. At some point I will write a story and dare the Reader to print it. I will ask that they donate whatever the normal payment would be (should they decide to publish it) to a charity of their choice. I won't do it for money. And I'll insist that they print my name in full.

This is what the article will reveal:

  1. Tourists are actually safer in downtown Tijuana at the moment than ever before, at least in the last nineteen years. The police have their hands full with other issues, and have no time to attempt to intimidate tourists into paying them off.

  2. Sensationalizing what is going on down here is made much easier by the fact that deaths are being recorded. Ten years ago, no one said a word, no one recorded anything. The increase in corpses is due to two factors: That the Mexican Government's success at knocking out the cartel's leaders is creating factions that war against each other. The other factor is that the press and the Government are getting more accurate with the body count.

  3. Kidnapping in Tijuana is generally limited to two types of victims: The first are business people who have something going on in back of legitimacy, in that they would have something to lose by not paying a ransom other than getting the hostage released. The second are business people who flaunt their cash or worth in stupid ways, advertising to the bad guys that they are potential targets.

  4. Very few people here are frightened, although in any city you can find a few that are afraid of something. I have a sixteen year old daughter that goes to school ten miles away from where I live. I'm not worried any more now than I was ten years ago. In fact, I'm encouraged by the efforts of the president of Mexico and the armed forces of this country.

Journalists who are targeted by the cartels are targeted because they are attempting to fight them, much in the same way that this story sensationalizes the problems on the border. Some people make money by running drugs over the border, others make money writing stories about it. Even songs.

I've lived here for almost seventeen years. I've seen a lot. My Spanish is excellent now. I read the papers here, talk to my neighbors. I am telling you, people who are not involved in trafficking are not worried, they are living their lives just fine, and they probably have more confidence in their government now than they had when I first moved here.

Good news for Osvaldo!

The Myth of 90 Percent: Only a Small Fraction of Guns in Mexico Come From U.S.:


I would write a story about the truth in Tijuana, but SD Reader has made it very clear to me that it will only allow negative and false information about Mexico in general to be published.

I can't believe people buy this? They make TJ seem like Afghanistan or Somalia... It's so sad for the people that rely on this mag to form a prespective. That's horrbile and SD Reader should be ashamed!!!

Im shocked and appalled.

Did these events the story reported on happen. They are very trackable stories, shootings in walmart parking lots, escorting children in and out of school. People fearing the night time. I MEAN COME ON!

I dont know if this is all true. Im a new resident. But I work in a Mexican Restaurant and they travel through TJ into places like Ensenada and farther quite often, if not every week. They're more cautious if anything. Thats my two cents about what I PERSONALLY know

In terms of this story. Is there absurd violence? Is their senseless slaughtering rather than calculated war? Has the Red Cross truly declared it a war zone?

Lets talk facts her children, before we go calling one another names. We are obviously the few people who care about truth and legitimacy. Lets go find the answers not call others out for not providing them.

The truth lies in that the drug wars are getting more out of hand. Its obviously a sign of the global recession. People are becoming more desperate. Mexico is in a terribly scary place because their history of Patronismo is changing. Their story is changing as a nation. It may return to the previous president's methods. It may change forever. We now as Americans, as bordertown residents, we need to be informed and sensible. Violence is violence is violence. We must keep it out of our neighborhoods and then controlled and then snuffed out. Its a complicated problem having blame on our shoulders and theirs. But we must recognize the reality. Not defend deny or lie. Lets find the truth and work towards the correct solution.... not verbally bashing one another...

God, Im not even in my thirties and I sound older than the lot of you.

As a frequent visitor to Tijuana, I have to say that Mr Iverson's article is actually good, though very incomplete. It would be much better to tackle such a complex and relevant topic in a four or five part series, because as it stands, it does not do it justice.

How much better the article might have been if it included an interview with a city official, a casual American tourist, a journalist, and at least one police officer. (Remember, in Mexico, law enforcement is divided into municipal, state, and federal police.) Diverse points of view from its citizens would have demonstrated the complexity of the situation.

I take strong issue with the comments that seem to shrugg off the fear simply because no turist has (fortunately) been a victim thus far. That said, I also take issue with Mr Iverson's interpretation that everyone is walking around paranoid like living in a state of seige. Truth is, there is a little of everything and the devil-may-care attitude of many Mexicans is not going to change anytime soon. In fact, my periodontist, who happens to be Governor Osuna Millan's younger brother, personally said to me referring to the violence, "Le hacemos fiesta." Translated: we make a big hoopla out of it. What I neglected to ask, was if he was referring to the populace, the media, or both. Now this remark, coming from the Governor's brother, who is now a candidate for the Federal Chamber of Deputies, is outrageous negation or at the very least, highly irresponsible.

Duh or Doh, I'd look for better sources than FAUX NEWS, if I were you.

Gov. José Guadalupe Osuna Millán and Osvaldo's comments do not make me feel anymore sympathy towards the problems they have going on. When I see "Americans make me sick" because Americans buy drugs from Mexico, we all seemed to get lumped together. that's not a fair veiw, we're not all addicts and users. Plus, it is a matter of supply and demand, unfortunately. And whose corrupt police system and joke of a government makes easier to make that happen? Mexico. They are JUST as much to blame if not more. I no longer have sympathy for those people. If it bothered you so much, you should have done something about years ago. But we don't live in "Shouldland", do we? Good luck with all of that, you had it coming. Marc

mlanotte: Why would you think that Mexicans are seeking your sympathy? And what, exactly, did Mexicans "have coming"? You're incredibly arrogant.

Mexico is to blame more than anything else!? I ask you this: WHO is the biggest consumer of drugs? Who imports illegal drugs from other countries? Where are guns coming from? AMERICA

does it matter who is the biggest user of drugs? who is the biggest supplier of drugs? MEXICO. maybe if mexico would have put the effort forth to combat the manufacturing of these drugs as america has, the problem would stay here in the states, as i think it should. why mexico? why not canada? because mexico was the easiest place to do this. we already go after the druggies here, the prisons here filled with a high percentage of drug offenders. by the people of mexico putting up with a corrupt police force(and have for years), and terrible government (as they have for years) they should have worked harder a long time ago to fight this problem. democracy inaction. i never said they want my sympathy, don't make an arrogant assumption coming from your misplaced pride. but to sit there and blame america for the problems???? both are to blame and we all know it. and to ask you do americans make you sick, too? you live here in the U.S.? want to live in mexico? instead staying and fighting to have a better life there, they come here. and that's great, most i know are very productive and positve roles in america, glad to have 'em. but there is a reason they leave. also, see the article on this site about guns from the U.S.


i've seen a couple of reports on this on cnn as well. it's easy to point the finger at america, everyone does until they need us.


Wow, where to start with this. Okay, first of all, Mexico does not manufacture most of the drugs that are consumed in the United States of America. There is a moderate amount of marijuana grown here, and a small amount of crack manufactured here, but the vast majority of the drugs consumed in the U.S. are grown or manufactured either in South America or in the U.S. (even Canada in the summer has a large amount of marijuana grown and much of it is sold in the U.S.) Most of the drugs manufactured in South America are distributed through Mexico to the U.S.

Mexico is not a supplier. There is a criminal element in Mexico that are distributors. Wrap your head around this: It's worth 20 billion dollars per year. This is a lot of money. People are willing to die for a chance at a piece of that stash. Cops are willing to become criminals for a piece of that stash.

Twenty billion dollars. Twenty. Billion.

Let's put twenty billion dollars into perspective. Many Americans enjoy playing the lottery, gambling, say, ten dollars per week for a chance to win maybe 20 million. The odds of winning the California State Lottery are far more than 20 million to one. But people play, they have dreams of maybe getting lucky. Who can blame them?

It's a lot easier to run drugs across the border than to win the lottery. There are no Ping-Pong balls to determine your luck. You don't have to buy a ticket. It's simply this: Do what you're told. Get the drugs across. Look the other way. Whatever.

Twenty billion dollars can't be wrong.

I'm a citizen of the United States of America. I'm proud of who I am. I'm also very discouraged by people from where I used to live that are willing to make snap judgements based on sources that are uninformed, or otherwise seeking to exploit a bias that is political in nature. You seem to be a victim of your own media.

Mexico is not pointing the finger at America, although they probably could. Actually, they are doing an outstanding job attempting to combat this problem. Otherwise, you would have no news to read about, your conservative media would have no bad news to report, and you would have no reason to argue a pointless case. I would rather see drugs legalized in order to reduce the body count here, but I can report, as a resident of Tijuana, that otherwise, things are just fine here.

No matter what you choose to believe.

The only reason people talk trash about TJ , is so people won't look at how much america looks like crap! Before you talk about TJ and their problems worry about this trash azz country called america first. The only reason why drugs come threw mexico to america is because this deceitful azz government that you dumb azz americans vote on allows it. When will people wake up and smell the shyt america tries to cover up all the time , by playing the blame game. Lets blame mexico for the drugs that come in america , sounds like the biggest joke i've every heard. The real reason why drugs come threw mexico is because it's easier for the american government to ship it across the border. Plain and simple!!!!!!

of course...TJ, the Jewel of civilization!!! makes the rest of the world wish we were just like it!!! of course, SpliffAdamz is right!!! i was too blind to see what a wonderful city it is!!! maybe i'll honeymoon there, my bride would love it!!

I must second the comment by Fred_Williams that refriedgringo should write an article of his own and submit it to the Reader. He writes very well--really! But in his refutation to my post #7, refried confirms my claims about the dangers of travel to Mexico. That included blaming the victims of kidnappings for their victimization. He says they are either criminals themselves, or "flaunt their cash." What that means isn't clear. Does that mean that if you have anything you must hide it, as in being unable to enjoy the fruits of your labors?

Whether the little people in TJ are generally afraid or not, the basic message of this story was that Tijuana is a dangerous place. Many gringo tourists do not know this, because they are from far away, or are just clueless. But they deserve to know the story, and a piece like this one in the Reader is one of the few that reveals the grim reality. And the Reader is to be commended for printing it.


I am working on it. I do not feel comfortable simply getting a couple of interviews that would support my case, I would rather reflect the true nature of Tijuana, her residents, and how it really feels to live here. Writing it from my perspective entirely would be bias and unfair. Gathering information and reflection on a random basis from random Tijuanenses would be a better approach.

To clarify my statements: I do not blame the victims for their being kidnapped. I simply state that potential victims are targeted based on their potential willingness to pay the kidnappers and leave the police out of the ordeal. Also, by flaunting one's money, it is in drawing attention to one's wealth. Kidnappings in Tijuana are not so random as portrayed by the media. The criminal element here is very smart, and very equipped. In short, the bad guys do their homework.

Think of the most dangerous area you have been to in the greater San Diego area. Would you wear your best clothes and most expensive jewelry there? Rent or purchase an expensive car and cruise down the street? Probably not. Unfortunately, some people here have been kidnapped and that could have been prevented but for a little common sense.

I have often walked the streets of Tijuana with large amounts of cash in my pocket. I've never had a problem. Of course, I'm the guy in blue jeans and an old shirt. I also do not take my money out of my pocket. I wear no watch, no rings, and I refuse to drive unless it's absolutely necessary.

I also speak fluent Spanish, which helps tremendously.

Tijuana is a dangerous place if you want to compare it to the Gaslamp Quarter. Here, if you use poor judgement, you can run into trouble. But there are several areas of San Diego (and pretty much any large city) where good judgement is vital to living comfortably within the confines of the criminal element. In this respect, Tijuana is no more dangerous than anywhere one should use good judgement.


Actually, I recommend Cancun for a honeymoon. It is much more romantic there. However, if you insist on Tijuana, I can recommend many very nice hotels and restaurants. Also, here are some tips for a very enjoyable trip to Tijuana:

  1. Tijuana isn't the U.S., don't expect it to be. The laws are very similar, but enforcement is less strict. For example, prostitution really isn't legal here. There are areas where it is permitted, because realistically, the cops know they aren't going to stop it from happening - they simply contain it. But it isn't legal. Many laws here work similarly.

  2. Do not over-tip. Ten to fifteen percent is generous. If you appear to have money, you could be targeted. Keep cash in all pockets in order to divide it up and not appear to be a big spender.

  3. Dress down. Jeans and a shirt are fine.

  4. Don't drive here. There is no need. Taxis are relatively inexpensive, and you're helping the environment at the same time.

  5. You probably won't be hassled by a corrupt cop, but if you are, respectfully decline to pay the cop off. He or she will eventually lose interest. Even if they decide to put you into their car, just go with it. After they know you won't be intimidated, they'll let you go. Then, report it.

  6. Stay in crowded areas, lots of traffic is preferable. People that live here hate to see tourists get into trouble. Make sure you're seen by some of them.

  7. Learn a bit of Spanish. Even the most basic words convey your respect for Mexican culture. Simple words work just fine, you don't have to be fluent.

  8. Be very polite with Mexicans. You would be amazed with how far that will get you here.

  9. Do not drink tap water in Tijuana. It isn't the microbes, it's the chemicals used to kill them that could make you sick.

  10. Relax. Tijuana has an amazing artistic community, some wonderful restaurants, and a very diverse cross-section of Mexican heritage. Enjoy it.

Yo mlanotte i'm glad u think Tj is the jewel civilization. i'm pretty sure u think just like alot of over work , under paid , unemployed , no health care , miss informed , racist amerikkkans. Our country is the best in the world it can do no wrong!!!! Come live in good old amerikkka just don't bring your cultural baggage here!!!! Really ask yourself is TJ that dangerous of a place to visit or live compared to amerikkka? People have been dying here in amreikkka over drugs for years , but you act like it's a big conspiracy in TJ just cause the amerikkkan government arrested their own connect in Tj. If you are that blind to understand that the government you half azz believe in is the real reason for drugs coming in this country , then you are a true amerikkan. Brain wash and confused!!!.

TJ is a dump. that has no reference to the violence there, or the drugs. it's a hole.

RE this remark from Refried: "Do not drink tap water in Tijuana. It isn't the microbes, it's the chemicals used to kill them that could make you sick." WRONG! It is the microbes, not the chemicals. Another piece of fiction from a really uninformed ex-pat. I know priests who travel into remote areas of the city to visit families, and, to be polite, they accept offers of a glass of water. What follows is three or four days of gastroenteritis. Chemicals in the water? Give me a break. Anyone with any sense in Tijuana drinks bottled water delivered in 5-gallon plastic bottles. It's cheap and readily available.

"WRONG! It is the microbes, not the chemicals. Another piece of fiction from a really uninformed ex-pat. I know priests who travel into remote areas of the city to visit families, and, to be polite, they accept offers of a glass of water. What follows is three or four days of gastroenteritis."

Hey, Bob, "remote areas" are not going to be encountered by tourists (in case you didn't actually read the article). I realize that you are now on some sort of a crusade now, but don't make yourself look like an idiot. In the city, tap water is heavily treated by chemicals (you really should make a trip to your local CESPT, Bob, and ask questions), and it is the chemicals more than microbes that affect the human body. In the city, Bob. Not the "remote areas".

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