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— 'Drug War Massacre at El Sauzal." "Tijuana Lawyer's Son Slain." "Mexican Army Tied to Drug Gang." "Tijuana Gunmen Slay 6." "Resort Seized By Mexican Drug Agents." "7 Mexican Border Agents Held In Slaying." "Bomb Call Shuts Border 2 Hours." "Corruption Stains Elite Police Force."

In other words, 1998 was a hell of a year for crime in Tijuana.

"Nineteen ninety-eight," says human-rights activist Victor Clark Alfaro, "was the most violent year in the history of Tijuana."

Baja California's state prosecutor has the figures that bear Clark out. "There were 357 murders in Tijuana last year," says Carlo Castillo, the state prosecutor's spokesman. "That's up from 318 in 1997."

The numbers are staggering when compared to the city of San Diego's 42 murders. San Diego's population is roughly equivalent to Tijuana's 1.2 million. Tijuana's murder rate is more like that of L.A.'s (414), which has four times Tijuana's population.

If the '90s have given Tijuana its wildest ride yet -- and they have -- '98 was the year that topped them all. From a random sampling of the year's news, you might be forgiven for thinking there was a war going on:

April 7: Captain José Luis López Barco, 59, a 31-year veteran of the municipal police force, shot and killed near the Otay Mesa border crossing, trying to stop a tractor-trailer reportedly loaded with marijuana.

April 22: Roberto Pareyón Rosas, 24, son of a well-known labor lawyer, found slumped inside his black 1997 Chevrolet in the well-to-do Chapultepec district, dead from three point-blank shots to the face. Federal authorities say he is a "narco-junior," a wealthy, young cartel thrill killer.

April 24: Mexican federal narcotics agents raid and seize the plush Oasis Resort Hotel and Convention Center, two miles north of Rosarito Beach. Attorney General's Office says it's owned by "El Caballo," Arellano Félix drug cartel council member Manuel Aguirre Galindo.

May 16: San Diego police arrest alleged Mexican money-launderers at Loew's Coronado Resort, Sheraton Hotel and Marina on Harbor Island Drive, and Marriott Suites in downtown San Diego. Tijuana shown to be international crossroad in drug trade as more than 100 people and many banks are indicted for laundering in "Operation Casablanca."

Mid-October, there was the killing of six people by Tijuana gunmen; mid-November, the execution of two students on the campus of the Autonomous University of Baja California; late December, the arrest of suspected snipers just before a visit of Mexico's president Ernesto Zedillo to Tijuana; and on the first of January, the assassination of Ovidio Santos Romo, the newly appointed assistant police chief of Tecate.

The climax of Tijuana's grisly year had to be the September 17 massacre of three families at El Sauzal near Ensenada -- 19 men, women, and children in all -- the worst massacre in Baja California history, according to Mexican officials. Panic appeared to permeate both sides of the border, from the governor of Baja California to the editorial writers of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Two weeks before he died suddenly of a heart attack, Baja governor Héctor Terán Terán said publicly that violence in his state had gone beyond his ability to control it.

When Tijuana's Mayor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán gave his farewell speech at the end of his term last November 25, he admitted public safety was the city's number-one problem. Héctor Castellanos, the Tijuana president of the National Action Party or PAN (Partido Acción Nacional), told the Union-Tribune "the city's resources are not sufficient to resolve the problems.... The city keeps growing in an anarchic and disorderly manner."

The massacre, editorialized the U-T, was the "worst example of the murder and mayhem inflicted on Mexico.... Narcotics trafficking threatens to overrun our southern neighbor."

Is Tijuana reaching a meltdown?

Curiously, the one man who almost became a statistic himself, Zeta newsmagazine's editor Jésus Blancornelas, says he has reasons to feel optimistic.

"Definitely 1998 was the most violent year in Baja California. But the causes are various," he says.

"The first is the traditional battles [among] narco-traffickers. The criminal organizations. They were the most important. But the second cause is that many, many people are coming up from the interior of Mexico to Tijuana who want to cross the border. Then, when they find they can't cross, or when they [end up] back here from the U.S., they find themselves temporarily in Tijuana. That's when they commit crimes."

Blancornelas, 62, survived an ambush by cartel gunmen November 27, 1997. He now lives under the 24-hour protection of ten machine-gun-toting soldiers from the Mexican army. The squad is always within sight, both at Zeta's office and in his home, which he travels to and from in an armored car.

Still, he says most of Tijuana's violence doesn't come from the feared Arellano brothers and other organized drug cartels but from "disorganized crime."

"The major number of crimes are lower-level crimes. Crimes of the barrios. Crimes of young people who sell crystal, who sell small amounts of drugs, who break into houses to steal a television set so they can buy drugs with the proceeds. The greatest number of murders during 1998 were carried out in these lower echelons. Disorganized crime. Amateurs. Not professionals."

He insists that the availability of guns from San Diego is a significant factor in the rising murder rate. "You can't get pistols from Mexico, because Mexico doesn't sell them. In the U.S. you have many pistols! When a carload of Barrio Logan types passes from Tijuana to San Ysidro, they're usually pulled over into secondary and inspected. But going south [into Mexico], they're not checked. That's how the arms get through. You buy drugs, Tijuana buys arms."

Blancornelas says he believes the number of organized-crime killings by important narco-traffickers is going down -- despite the massacre at El Sauzal.

"For example, the big narco-traffickers control cocaine, heroin, marijuana," he says. "The minor drug traffickers control crystal. You can make that in your own home. Then they sell them in the alleys. Those who buy may go into houses, steal a television for the money, surprise a housewife, kill her -- that's how these 'minor' drug murders happen."

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