San Diego I shouldn't have been shocked to see the smacked-in passenger side window of my car when I emerged on a Sunday evening from a friend's apartment in Tijuana's Zona Rio area. I knew, after all, seven other people whose car windows were likewise smashed and everything of value scooped up. Several of them had the experience twice. It usually occurs at night, but one American I know, from Fresno, was a smash-and-grab victim while parked in broad daylight behind the Jai Alai frontn in downtown TJ. The thieves, who also hit a car with Mexican plates parked in front of mine, not only cleaned out the inconsequential junk in my car but had the leisure to find a key I had pasted into a cheap backpack that was in the back seat and used it to open the trunk. They hit the jackpot and made off with about $400 worth of stuff.
According to an executive (who did not want to be named) at a Tijuana company called SEPSA, specializing in "security and protection," the window smashers, known as cristaleros (for cristal, pane of glass) scout the streets at night seeking out easy targets, mostly American vehicles. The truck or van they drive is used to stash the loot, which is later disposed of through a fence. The cristaleros are specialists, interested only in the goodies in the car, not in the vehicle itself. (Car thieves would presumably not want to damage the object of their desire.)
The ubiquity of the smash-and-grab guys is one reason the security guard industry in Baja is a boom business. As evidence, the Tijuana phone book in 1992 had only a page and a half of ads for such services. In the 1996 directory, there were seven pages of ads. A few years ago it was rare in Baja to see security guards in motel or restaurant parking lots. Now, it is almost mandatory if a business does not wish to lose customers who lose their side windows and belongings while dining or sleeping. Even with the large labor pool, the employee turnover in the security guard business, said the executive, can approach 25 percent every three months. A guard, depending on the hours worked, earns only $35 to $75 per week. (A security guard was supposed to be on duty when my car was hit.)
The cristaleros have plenty of company on TJ's streets. While high-profile political and narcotics murders grab the headlines, street crime in recent years has been transforming what once was a safe city into yet another metropolitan minefield. The security service gentleman said that burglary was burgeoning in Baja. Lola Colmenares, 36, can attest to that. She lives on a hill in a seaside, working-class colonia and sardonically boasts of three great views from her house: the city, the ocean, and the hordes of cholos in her neighborhood. Recently they made off with her butane gas tank after severing the lines, and last year her purse was snatched on a downtown street. According to Sol de Tijuana, on March 2, an armed gunman entered the car of an American Catholic priest, who was dropping two other priests off on their way home from dinner. The gunman took the priest's wallet and forced him to pick up two other armed men, who then took the clergyman to an abandoned shack on the outskirts of an industrial park. The trio bound and gagged him, locked him in the shack, and headed for the rectory, where they stole valuables, $4500 in cash, and the priest's clothing. They also stole his 1995 Ford Taurus.
In Colonia Rancho Alegre, south of Zona Rio, a mechanic I go to had to fence in the back yard where he does his repairs because the ladrones were coming by at night to burglarize his customers' cars. "There are now many hungry people in Mexico," he says and shrugs. In fact, a traditional Mexican staple such as beans now costs more in Tijuana than in San Diego.
American residents in Rosarito tell me that while they still feel safer than in most American urban areas, break-in crimes are becoming more brazen. Several Americans I know who regularly visit Tijuana have had physical confrontations. One was mugged while walking down the stairs of a downtown discotheque, another while (foolishly) treading the streets of the cantina and red-light Coahuila district.
A slight increase in street danger was noticeable to visitors in the late '80s, and the trend has accelerated the past few years, particularly since the December 1994 peso devaluation, from which Mexico has not recovered. Tourism still accounts for a significant percentage of Tijuana's earnings (though less than in past years), and the important citizens are sensitive to the issue of street crime, large and small. The mayor, Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millon has made a war on crime one of his priorities, while at the same time initiating a feel-good-about-Tijuana PR campaign. (His press secretary never returned a call, after promising to arrange an interview to talk about the crime increase.)
However, police Subcomandante Jorge Ascencio was willing to discuss the issue. Ascencio, one of those rare middle-aged Tijuana natives, admits that crime has increased in his city. "But there is crime in other places - here in Mexico, in the U.S., all over the world. Still, it isn't as bad here as it is in Mexico City or Guadalajara." He says it's still safe in the downtown shopping area but acknowledges that the crime problem in other parts of the city is on the rise. Coahuila, he says, is "very, very dangerous, for both Americans and Mexicans, for everyone." He used to walk around the streets of Coahuila in the 1970s without a problem, but "five or six years ago it got very bad. It's all the poor and desperate people coming from other states in Mexico to Tijuana."
Which is the point. It's not that TJ is more dangerous than other large cities in the world, but that ten years ago it was reasonably safe, more than most U.S. cities of comparable or smaller size. I remember in the late 1970s an American woman in the downtown area was cut when her purse was grabbed. The police flooded the area, vowing to apprehend the culprit and keep the area safe for tourists. Now, such an incident would be just another entry in the police ledgers.