Ken Harrison 1:30 p.m., Dec. 6
Riding a bus in Tijuana or San Diego can be boring and frustrating one minute, entertaining and educational the next. That is if you're open minded enough about the whole thing. Plus I guess it depends on what you consider knowledge. The one emotion you don't want to feel on a bus is fear. That one doesn't belong on a bus full of unpredictable passengers. But if you traveled down 'Torpedo Alley' on a Friday night last fall, that was all every commuter and the drivers felt. Even the buses themselves seemed to shudder with dread when they'd enter it. There is only one bus company in Tijuana that operates a route through part of Altiplano(High Plains) and up into Lomas del Encinal(Oak Hills) from the Otay Mesa border crossing. They are little white minibuses that depart from the Otay border hourly. There are three lines that they run; Altiplano-Otay, Altiplano-Villa del Sol and Altiplano-R2. All three of these lines must drive down the trecharous strip of bumpy, dirt road that I took to calling Torpedo Alley. For several months last year armed bandits routinely stopped the buses and robbed both passengers and drivers alike. The road parallels the Highway 2000 corridor just before the Calle de las Aguas offramp. Actually, there is another exit prior to the Calle de las Aguas turn off. It takes you to Melchor O' Campo Street, which takes you to Cucapah Ave. The main thoroughfare in this part of Tijuana. I wouldn't recommend the Cucapah offramp of the Highway 2000. You must traverse a portion of the dangerous barrio Mariano Matamoros to get to Cucapah Ave. I used to walk it, at four in the morning, on my way to work until I was robbed nearby. Another time, my girlfriend's son and I went to a local supermarket for groceries. A body had been dumped on the Cucapah offramp that morning and the investigation was ongoing. We were stopped and although we weren't considered suspects in the murder, we were driving a car with expired registration. That cost us one hundred pesos. A relative bargain according to my girlfriends son who was driving. Torpedo Alley is strewn with litter. In between the rutted dirt road and the smooth, new Highway 2000 alongside it is a gully that fills with trash. Everything from used truck tires to used disposable diapers. On cold days it's just an eyesore, on hot days it stinks and always its incubating diseases. Now and then the city comes and cleans it out but it quickly refills with garbage. On the other side of Torpedo Alley is a small hill where there are scattered a few houses that seem to disappear into the darkness when night falls. This adds to the sinister aura that enshrouds Torpedo Alley when the dark stage of destiny parts its curtains of black silk and dares souls to partake in the play. For that, is when the bandits would strike. One victim on board a bus that had been assaulted described it such; "The gunmen hailed the bus and got on just like they were passengers. Then they pulled out pistols. They took purses, wallets and cellphones. It was fast." Another time, a passenger describes how the thieves had a member of their criminal group riding aboard the bus that was to be attacked. When the bandit's accomplices showed up and tried to stop the bus on Torpedo Alley, he stood up and fired a round into the floorboard of the tiny bus. In the words of the victim that I was speaking with; "It got my attention." Buses traveling along Torpedo Alley began getting robbed at an unsustainable rate. As one driver put it; "When the bus gets robbed the passengers don't pay me. I lose that plus what I've already made" As time went on and the armed assaults continued, eyewitness corrabaration began to reveal that one gang of about a half a dozen or so delinquents were responsible for all the crimes being committed along Torpedo Alley. There frequency had increased to the point where the drivers livelihood was at stake. You see the drivers are paid by the passenger. They rent the bus for seven hundred and fifty pesos a day plus gas and keep what remains. During those months when the banditry along Torpedo Alley was at its fiercest, I was working in Pacific Beach and commuting five times a week between there and my palatial wooden shack in northeastern Tijuana. The last buses pass near my place about ten-thirty or eleven at night. About a half hour after they have exited Torpedo Alley. Anything after eight was 'thief time' and Fridays were the worst since it was payday for most. When it comes to commuting in the dark and crime. I would much rather take my chances on the dusk before dawn instead of falling darkness. I have no good explanation. It's just me. "Good call," I congratulated myself when the evening commuters stories of armed robberies began circulating throughout the neighborhood. I felt pretty sure of myself. Then I got robbed one morning and there went that confidence. Every now and then I'd have to work late. That meant a ride home through Torpedo Alley in the dark. I'll never forget my first trip. My luck it was on a Friday. Working class Mexicans are a sociable bunch. Be they the hotel maids, janitors, and gardeners on San Diego buses or the maquiladora chattel on Tijuana buses, the commute home is rarely a quiet one. Mexican folks love to talk and they won't let a little thing like you being a total stranger stop them from indulging in one of the few pleasures these long trod upon people have left. Add to this natural inclination, a pocket full of payday and you're going to have a noisy, happy group. That's exactly how it was on the Altiplano-Otay bus when I hopped aboard it that evening. It stayed that way for about thirty minutes. Or until we arrived at the entrance to Torpedo Alley. The bus driver coughed nervously and flipped a switch. All the interior lights in the bus went off and darkness swallowed us. It was like two switches had been tripped. One turning off the lights and one turning off the talk. All of the colorful clothing of my fellow passengers turned to a black, as eiriley unnerving as the deafening roar of silence that accompanied it. The tired engine and weary suspension of the little Chevrolet jitney were the only sounds to be heard. The bus drivers had taken to turning off the interior lights in order to keep the gunmen off guard. The thieves preferred to rob buses filled with women and old folks. Targets that are much more likely to readily comply with their demands. The last thing they want is a bus load of young bucks, just drunk enough to be foolish and try something silly. Turning off the lights kept the highwaymen guessing. It also worried the hell out of me. Never in my life, have I been riding on a bus and had the bus driver, cough nervously and turn off the lights on account of we were fixing to go through bandit country. It's just not an everyday thing when you're riding the MTS in San Diego. "Damn!" I said to myself. "This is the real deal!" Then my eyes accustomed to the dark and I noticed something that really got my bladder talking to me. All I could see were the black silhouettes of my fellow passengers. I couldn't see their faces but I could see what they were all doing. The man next to me took out his wallet and stuck it between the bus cushions. A man in front of us appeared to be hiding a cellphone. I saw someone pull off a watch and stash it. Several of the women were taking their wallets out of their purses and burying them inside the bags of groceries that most of them carried. Then I remembered what my girlfriend's son had told me; "The robbers don't take bags of groceries. They want purse, wallets, cell phones and watches." Needless to say, the whole scene as pretty intense. I felt a drop of sweat trickle through a sideburn and down the side of my neck. I dared not move to wipe it. My heart was pounding from the adrenaline rush and I didn't want to ruin the high. It takes about five minutes to travel through Torpedo Alley but oh man is it a long five minutes under those circumstances. And just because you successfully pass through Torpedo Alley doesn't mean the robbers wouldn't be waiting for you under the bridge located at the end of T. A.. I suddenly flashed back to the submarine flicks of Hollywood past. The part where the gallant submarine crew is hiding silently on the ocean floor as counter-sub ships above attempt to locate them with sonar. As I sat sweating all over myself, I half expected a ping! ping! ping! to announce the beginning of a depth charge attack. Hence the nickname, Torpedo Alley. Finally, we exited the tunnel on the Lomas del Encinal side of the Highway 2000. The lights went back on and I started to breathe again. Then one day, all of a sudden, the attacks ceased and haven't started since. Nobody really knows exactly when the armed robberies on Torpedo Alley stopped. One day, I realized that residents were no longer talking about it. Which meant it was no longer happening. 'Was this truly the case?' Apparently so. I confirmed this by intentionally staying late one Friday in order to pass through Torpedo Alley in the dark. The bus driver kept his lights on, the passengers kept on chattering away and nobody hid a thing. 'How did everybody know Torpedo Alley had been cleared of thieves and who cleared it?' What Wild Bill Hickock? What Bat Masterson? What Wyatt Earp? - had drifted into Torpedo Alley. Making it safe for God fearing, hard working, honest living, blue collar, brown faced Tijuanenses like myself and my vecinos(neighbors)? The first time I heard the story of what really happened I didn't believe it. I've since heard it from several different passengers. None will do so on record. For obvious reasons. A bus driver or regular passenger on the route was approached by someone who claimed to know the identities of the gang of thieves. My guess is he sold the information. The bus driver/passenger then collaborated with other bus driver/passengers and a plan was hatched. Someone who knows the thieves (possibly the paid informant) would invite them to a drinking and drugging party in the nearby foothills. This is not an unusual pastime around here and would not have sounded odd to a local. There, waiting for the robbers was a death squad. In this manner four of the bad guys were eliminated while the other two fled the area. Hopefully, never to return. This was the rumor that circulated, for the longest time, following the cessation of the armed hold ups on Torpedo Alley. Is it true? Those who know are either dead or not talking. In Tijuana, information is acquired by street gossip, radio news, television news, newspapers and the internet. Not everybody surfs the net, reads the paper or watches television news. But almost everywhere, there is a music blaring radio, that gives top of the hour news reports. And of course there's always the chisme(gossip) on the streets. Asking to many questions in Mexico can get you killed quick. So mostly you have to sit quietly and ease drop in on conversations. I have found that the latter is the best source of information and also the worst. Separating fact from falsehood is like searching for a tiny gold nugget in a giant pile of puppy poop. You got to want it bad. I guess from the perspective of a crime victim like myself, the bottom line is that there are no more bandits along Torpedo Alley. For now. Coffee's Ready, Gotta Go!!!