Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Promise of A New Tijuana

This piece was originally written for another publication on October 25, 2010. This piece was meant to be a jumping off point for a larger series of a new era in Tijuana amid the drug war. What happened to the series? Well, there were some threats made on me, and advice I was given at the time by some officials on both sides of the border was to lay low. Sadly, many journalists covering the drug war in Mexico have been killed simply for doing their job.

October 25, 2010

TIJUANA - The violence that has plagued Tijuana as part of Mexico's larger drug war fell into a lull recently, so much to the point where Mexican President Felipe Calderón praised Tijuana’s improved condition. Two weeks ago the president helped inaugurate Tijuana Innovadora, a $5 million, two-week series of conferences aimed at improving the city’s image and drawing investment, which featured several high-profile speakers including the founders of Twitter and Wikipedia, and former Vice President Al Gore.

Tijuana Innovadora closed the event last Thursday with thousands of residents converging into Rio Zone to dance for three minutes in celebrating their love for their city. For those in town who could not make it to the main dance floor several dance spots were held throughout Tijuana.

Over the years the town along la frontera has been trying to wash away its image of a seedy town for Americans looking for a cheap thrill, and the effort has shown results with many areas of Tijuana looking like a modern, dynamic city. Some of the changes have involved drastic moves, such as firing the entire Tijuana Police force as the city makes attempts to do away with the police force's infamous corruption. Of course in recent times many Americans looking for those cheap thrills along with those looking to explore the real Tijuana have avoided crossing the border due to the violence, though truth be told most of the drug cartels who are behind most of the violence do not want anything do to with some random American tourist.

Probably the most dangerous place for American tourists making day trips into Mexico would be Ciudad Juarez, just across from El Paso, Texas. In Mexico's drug war, which has claimed 28,228 lives (up to that date in 2010), several deadly, brazen battles have taken place there, including 14 people being gunned down at a family birthday party earlier this month. Prior to the drug war for many years several women went missing in Ciudad Juarez and those cases still remains unsolved. With all due respect, the idea of a wild border town out of control has always been better suited for Ciudad Juarez than Tijuana.

Back in Tijuana, within the last two years stories of decapitations and mass murders have became commonplace, which surely did not help the city erase its seedy image of easy vice and corruption. Quite frankly the image of vice and corruption for many Americans was rapidly replace with that of a town full of sadistic murderers.

Tijuana resident Juan Gomez tells me as we walk across Universidad Autónoma de Baja California - Campus Tijuana, "A bunch of drunken American people avoiding our city gives us more room to better improve our image for Americans looking for a real international experience," but on the same token Mr. Gomez says, "a lot of our medical stores and other shops catering to border crossers closed, which means the families that run them are out of work."

Tijuana officials say prior to the drug war insurgency various medical shops catering to tourists looking for cheaper prescriptions, with or without a doctor's note, brought in on average over $100 million a year to the local economy. One Tijuana city official, one of many who asked to be anonymous, told me, "The medical tourism industry now brings about $20-25 million a year and this is one reason our city has been going after the drug cartel causing this problem, one of our main sources of revenue has been killed and hundreds of people have been put out of work."

Asked if such medical tourism added to the seedy image the city is trying to rid itself of the official says, "No, in fact once this war ends our medical tourism will improve and we'll be able to provide better facilities to address medical needs." When told how some residents still see such medical places as apart of the seedy image the city official said quite sternly, "Look, several places across the world have medical tourism, even Canada, and part of our new image is providing first-class medical facilities that will attract people from all over the world."

While there have been some improvements in reducing the crime rate the reality is law enforcement still has a long way to go.

The new and retrained Tijuana Police Department along with the help of Mexican troops throughout the city have helped reduce murders in the city. According to Tijuana officials the death toll this year (2010) is 638, while the death toll last year (2009) was 664, which was a significant decrease from 2008 where there were 844 homicides. Nonetheless the murder rate is still disturbingly high for a city its size.

Despite all their best efforts amid celebrations of a revived Tijuana, and all its potential, sadly within the last two weeks there have been sudden outbreaks of violence.

Late Sunday night in the Buenos Aires Sur area in east Tijuana masked gunmen forced residents onto the floor at El Camino a la Recuperacion, a drug rehabilitation center, and then sprayed them with bullets killing 13 people.

Then nearly a little over a week ago two days of sudden violence left 13 people dead, which included the discovery of a decapitated head in a black plastic bag with a note attached to the forehead left alongside a busy street.

Unfortunately Mexico's drug war has no immediate end in site.

Currently there are no powerful drug-trafficking organization currently maintaining control over Tijuana since the once-dominant Arellano Félix cartel had been broken-up. In fact the Baja California’s Attorney General’s Office believes this latest outbreak of violence is led by Fernando Sánchez Arellano, who commands the remnants of the Arellano Félix cartel.

While the remnants stir-up some trouble and perhaps look to take over their boss's old drug-pushing haunt the Baja California's Attorney General's Office believe another group is also leading this latest outbreak of violence, the followers of the detained drug leader Teodoro García Simental, who law enforcement authorities say have been receiving support from a Sinaloa-based group led by Chapo Guzmán.

A Tijuana law enforcement official, who asks to remain anonymous for his/her safety, tells me the latest violence, "is probably the two groups fighting for dominance and until the troops and police can get a hold of the masterminds of both cartels I have a feeling we're going to see renewed bloodbaths."

That sentiment is shared by Baja California officials along with U.S. officials who believe outside groups and members of the Félix cartel have begun fighting over control of the region.

So what is so special about Tijuana that cartels are willing to slaughter people over it? Well, the region is a major transitory point in supplying U.S. drug dealers and users with cocaine, meth and other hideous drugs.

The outgoing portal of drugs from Tijuana to America is Interstate 5, which supplies Mexican drug cartels an easy, if not perfect link to the West Coast suppliers and buyers, in which hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands. Upon changing hands the money quickly goes back south and ends up in the hands and pockets of the cartels and their people.

It is a vicious circle that is going to require drastic measures on both sides of the border.

Until there is action with both the U.S. and Mexican governments with their drug policy the people of Tijuana are going to be under the gun, and even so, there is no quick solution that will immediately free Tijuana of its problems.

Hopefully with changes within Tijuana and action by the Mexican government, and help by the U.S. government, Tijuana will become a dynamic world city that it is destined to be.

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