Tijuana police get the wrong man…repeatedly

Reporter detained, frisked, and questioned many times over two years

Tijuana police truck
  • Tijuana police truck
  • Image by Willem van Bergen

I have always been afraid of the cops, even when I had no reason to be. But I have never been so afraid of the police until I moved to Tijuana.

In the two years since I moved here, I have been illegally stopped, frisked, and questioned more than a dozen times for no apparent reason. It has happened in several different locations at different hours.

Police always ask me if I have drugs on me or if I use them, which makes me believe they think I'm just another "gringo" looking to party. I'm white, over six feet tall, in my late 20s, and usually wear baggy clothes.

The first incident happened in Playas de Tijuana over a year ago, while I was walking to the store to buy a snack. I saw the cops coming from a distance and thought to myself, Hah, they are going to arrest someone. That someone ended up being me.

They stopped their pickup in front of me and claimed that I was walking next to someone who sold me drugs. They pointed to a guy that I had never seen before and started questioning him as well. He got off quickly since he was doing nothing illegal. Though I hadn't been either, I was nervous and jumpy, which prompted them to frisk me, searching everywhere, including the insides of my socks to see if I had any drugs with me.

Since then, I have been stopped in downtown several times, once in Colonia Independencia, and once in “La Cacho.” I have managed to escape their claws each time since I'm never doing anything illegal.

There’re plenty of stories of people getting arrested for nothing, then beat up and abused by the police and judges and finally thrown in La Veinte (the jail in the 20 de Noviembre neighborhood) for a petty crime or no crime at all.

On Monday, March 3, police arrested a friend of mine and tried to arrest me, too, for having an open bottle of whiskey. It was early in the night and we were headed down to a small birthday party not far from my apartment. My friend had one drink and then we headed out with the bottle in hand. As we walked down the street I was talking to him about how fearful I was of the police. The next thing we see is a police pickup turning the corner and as they made their way past us, they stopped and shined a light toward us.

“¿Que esconden? ¿Que traen?” (“What are you hiding? What do you have?”), the cops yelled at us as they jumped out of the pickup. We told them that we had an open bottle of whiskey and that we were heading to a party. They grabbed the bottle and handcuffed our wrists together. They pushed us both against the truck, started searching our pockets and going through our wallets.

Talking to them is useless; it jolly makes them more aggressive. The cop grabbed my hand and smelled my fingers. “No están haciendo drogas — saquen lo que traen o nos los chingamos” (“You’re not doing drugs now — take out what you have or we’ll f* you over”), the cop threatened us.

After finding nothing but the open container, they said they were taking both of us in for drinking on the street (which we weren’t). I had no alcohol breath on me; my friend, on the other hand, got thrown in the back of the pickup with his hands cuffed behind his back.

He was thrown in jail for ten hours, as he couldn't pay the fine — equivalent to 20 hours of minimum wage (650 pesos, or around $50). But before being thrown in jail he was moved from pickup to pickup with his hands cuffed behind his back as the cops sped through the streets of Tijuana picking up other arrestees; he didn’t feel safe until he was at the jail.

Besides being bruised from getting jerked from side to side in the back of the pickup, my friend was kicked a couple of times and teased about how they were going to drink the bottle of whiskey they confiscated. He had no visible injuries.

The next day, as I was making my way around downtown, I spotted a large group of cops in a corner. I had already decided to write a story about police abuse, so I tried to get a picture of them. They saw me. In a matter of seconds, I was surrounded by ten cops. They took my smartphone from my hands and started scrolling through the pictures and questioned me about my intentions. They threatened to arrest me for taking a picture and asked me if I had any drugs on me.

As one officer scrolled through the pictures on my phone, he found private pictures of me and my ex-girlfriend. He teased me and showed the other cops.

He then went back to the picture I took of them and asked me to send it to him. I explained that I have no text-messaging on my phone, but I could delete the picture if he wanted me to. They let me go after deleting the picture but warned me to not do anything like that again; he told me that even the press can't take pictures of the police because of safety issues.

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This sort of thing saddens me. See, I've lived here for over two decades and have never encountered these problems. And, you can't get any more "Gringo" than I am. Granted, I don't wear baggy clothing, mainly because I don't like to wear baggy clothing but also because it advertises a certain mindset that mopes seem to share. And granted, as much as I love whiskey, I don't carry around an open container because that would be illegal. And, even as a journalist, I know better than to photograph cops here, it's for their protection, you know, since they are fighting organized crime on a daily basis and are constant targets for the really, really, bad, bad guys.

Mexico is a great ride if you simply use your head. Dress conservatively, don't walk around with an open bottle of whiskey, and keep the cell phone in your pocket unless you're calling a pal. Mexico isn't the U.S., and why anyone would think it should be is beyond my comprehension.

"In the two years since I moved here, I have been illegally stopped, frisked, and questioned more than a dozen times for no apparent reason."

Sorry, I have to laugh. You move to a country where corruption is embedded in the culture, and are then outraged when you're subjected to corruption.

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