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"I served two and a half years in Medellín," Chavez told AP. "I know Medellín. This is not Medellín."

"I don't think Tijuana will ever get to the level of violence that Medellín or Bogotá reached during their heights of the '80s," concedes LeBlanc. "But the reason for that is probably its closeness to the U.S. border. I don't think that the U.S. government would allow a full-fledged drug war per se to occur 90 miles from a major U.S. city [Los Angeles]."

The "dangerous" cities Tijuana joins on Air Security's list are a motley bunch: among them Moscow ("Organized crime groups dominate the city," says the report); Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (" 'Raskal gangs' [are] armed with high-powered rifles, handguns, machetes, knives and even grenade launchers"); and Almaty, Kazakhstan ("police impostors continue to target foreigners"). Johannesburg; the entire country of Colombia; Lagos, Nigeria; São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro; and Mexico City round out the nine worst crime cities.

LeBlanc says it's hard to parallel Tijuana's problems to those of other cities on the list. "You can't compare them because you're talking about completely different levels. Mexico City, São Paulo, or Rio de Janeiro have millions and millions of people. Their crime problem is very centered around a population problem and a poverty problem. It's not as drug-related as you're seeing in Tijuana, or as we saw in the '80s with Medellín and Cali and Bogotá."

In Rio or Mexico City, he says, the problem is armed robbery, or pickpocketing, crimes where the intent is not to injure the victim, but to get money.

"The crimes we're seeing in Tijuana, the intent is to injure the victim and usually to the point of death. We're seeing very assassination-style killings, and we're becoming very concerned that the problem is not being addressed. When you look at some of the statistics, the police may or may not be investigating these situations, because of their potential ties."

He quotes a DEA opinion reported by Associated Press that " 'The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said last year [1997] that almost 90 percent of police officers, prosecutors and judges in Tijuana and in the state of Baja California were reportedly on the Arellano Félix payroll.'

"Ninety percent! For a U.S. agency to come out and make that kind of statement is pretty powerful," says LeBlanc.

He says that was the last of four wake-up calls he's had about Tijuana. The first was the March 23, 1994, assassination of Mexican presidential aspirant Luís Donaldo Colosio in the Lomas Taurinas area of Tijuana. The second was the August 10, 1996, kidnapping of Japanese Sanyo executive Mamoru Konno, who was dragged from his car in Tijuana (where Sanyo has a maquiladora) after attending a company softball game. He was held for ten days, until Sanyo paid the $2 million his captors demanded.

"Yes. It was surprising to me that Tijuana had emerged into this level of crime. Tijuana has always been known for some police corruption within its forces -- hassling of some tourists, a typical border town mentality -- but going to this step and kidnapping a multinational executive opened our eyes. The [Konno kidnapping] was very similar to the situation in Mexico City, where kidnapping has been a problem for years. The majority [of kidnappings] until recently have been local residents. Now what we see in Mexico City is a switch to foreign nationals. This is why we put people on alert."

The third event was last year's El Sauzal massacre, where an alleged marijuana trafficker and 18 of his relatives were woken from their beds, taken outside, and gunned down.

This shows, says LeBlanc, that "the drug lords have begun to entrench themselves. Turf wars tend to become extremely violent. As this event showed, it's not a matter of killing just one or two people. I don't see Tijuana escalating to the violence levels of Medellín or Cali, but the potential is there, if this cycle continues with drug trafficking."

(When contacted by the Reader, Special Agent Vince Rice, spokesman for the DEA's San Diego office, questioned the 90 percent figure quoted by AP. "Who knows what the corruption level is in Mexico?" he says. "I don't think any of us know. Not that it really matters. Because the appetite for the drugs is here in this country. That's the problem. If parents would take care of their children to start with, we wouldn't have this problem. It all starts there. If there's no market, there's no problem.")

Rice also feels his boss Chavez was talking about another difference between Tijuana and Medellín.

"I don't think the comparison of Tijuana with Medellín is a good comparison. It's more like a street gang [in Tijuana] versus a business organization that was actually concerned with trying to take care of some of the citizens and the people [in Medellín]. Not that it was right for [Medellín drug lord Pablo Escobar] to be trafficking drugs, but in a lot of respects he gave back. That's why the people were so supportive of the guy. You don't see that same support for the Arellano Félix organization in Mexico. It's more of a fear thing than 'Hey, that guy's really cool. He helped us out. He helped us build homes.' It's completely different."

LeBlanc's advice to his clients who do business in Tijuana is angled toward the dangers of kidnapping.

"We advise a lot of precautionary measures. Most kidnappings do not occur as a spur-of-the-moment situation. Usually the victim has been tracked. He's been surveilled for a period of time. There have probably even been some practice runs that have been done. So we recommend a lot of preventive behavior tips: don't set patterns for yourself. Don't take the same routes every day. Vary your schedule. Keep your schedule as confidential as possible. Ensure that you've got a certified security driver who understands the city and who has been trained in counter-surveillance techniques.

"We advise [which] areas of the city to avoid at night, especially by yourself. If you thwart the kidnappers before it occurs, then you've won the battle."

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