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Tijuana winds up on an international Dangerous Cities list

Killers in the neighborhood

Site of the September 1998 Ensenada shooting
Site of the September 1998 Ensenada shooting

Tijuana has joined a list of cities it doesn't want to join: it has been ranked one of the most dangerous business-travel destinations in the world.

Houston-based Air Security International, which caters to private-jet-flying executives, has been compiling the list for its clients for the past two years. In its third annual listing, it included Tijuana among its nine worst cities in the world for crime.

"Drug-related violence has become a major concern," reads the warning on Tijuana. "As a result, Tijuana is gaining the reputation as the next Medellín."

Downtown Tijuana

The security brief on Tijuana gets specific. It outlines the dangers of visiting Guaycura, a colonia near the bus terminal, about eight miles east of downtown and two miles west of the Fraccionamiento Murúa district. "There are approximately 8000 homes in this neighborhood, which is within walking distance to several industrial parks, including El Aguila and Presidentes Industrial Park. In February 1992, this neighborhood was the scene of a drug cartel vendetta. On 15 February 1992, a former police investigator and a man with known ties to the drug trade were among six people dragged from a house in Guaycura by a group of heavily armed men.... The bodies of the men were later found after having been dumped separately in isolated areas near Tecate and Ensenada."

The brief also highlights the Zonal del ex-ejido Chilpancingo, around five miles east of downtown.

"[Chilpancingo] has received much attention due to its alarming rate of the extremely rare, fatal birth defect known as anencephaly. Infants with anencephaly are born without fully developed brains. The high number of cases of this disease in Chilpancingo has been linked to chemical toxins in the water supply. Residents of this area, and areas with similar problems, have become increasingly frustrated over Mexico's lack of environmental protection legislation and controls on industrial waste levels. Their anger has also logically been focused on the perpetrators -- industrial manufacturing companies.... This anger could become more direct.... An executive in one of these companies could become a target of their frustration. If possible, when taking the route through the colonias, it would be advisable to travel in a group of at least two vehicles. That way, even if one vehicle became disabled, the other vehicle could take both parties to a more secure area to seek help."

The list is presented in four categories: crime, war/insurgencies, political violence, and kidnapping. Colombia alone pops up in all four listings. Tijuana appears only under "crime." But it is included in the general "Mexico" category for kidnapping.

"Kidnapping rings operate throughout the country," says the report on Mexico, "often with the assistance of law enforcement. 'Express kidnappings,' which occur at higher frequency than traditional kidnappings, involve abductions for shorter periods of time and smaller ransom payments."

"We've got sources all around the world that we call in information from," says Charlie LeBlanc, Air Security International's managing director, an ex-cop who has spent years working in security with various airlines and security companies. (The president is Issy Boim, whose background LeBlanc says includes 22 years in Shin Bet, the Israeli security services.) LeBlanc says he also uses information from the U.S. State Department and other foreign agencies.

According to LeBlanc, Air Security's main client base is executives from "Fortune 500-size companies that have their own corporate aircraft flying to different destinations around the world. Cities and countries that make the list have either had a continued history of violence or corruption or insurgency within their country, or have seen a dramatic increase of either crime, corruption, or insurgency."

LeBlanc says Tijuana fits the latter category.

"Tijuana has blossomed, for lack of a better term, from a very sleepy border town to a growing business area," comments LeBlanc. "With NAFTA being passed, Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Nuevo Laredo have become central points of trade. It's not necessarily that the crime rate in Tijuana is higher than that in, say, Mexico City, because it's not. But what has occurred in Tijuana is a very apparent rise in drug trafficking and drug-trafficking-related crimes. And whenever that occurs, turf battles ensue.

"That's what brought it to our attention, the increase in those areas, that have made Tijuana a high-risk area for some potential businesses, some that we consult with in the area. I can't divulge who. But there's one large corporation that has a factory in Tijuana that is one of my clients.

"Businessmen have become targets of kidnapping attempts. Some of them have been successful, some have not been successful. They have occurred against multinational companies...kidnapping for ransom."

LeBlanc says he knows the cause. "Whenever you have a drug-turf battle, cash-flow becomes a very important item in your business. And we're seeing a lot of these kidnappings for quick cash. The actual target, the corporation, is not necessarily a factor. It's more that they know that the executive is going to have the means to pay a quick ransom to be released."

LeBlanc is sure of one thing. "The increase in the crime in the [border] region has been directly related to drug-gang wars, trying to take control of the drug trafficking in the area."

The comparison with Medellín is not as far-fetched as it appears, he says. "Medellín, like Tijuana, was a very small city. Medellín was a city that unless you were familiar with Colombia, you would probably not know it even existed. Like Tijuana. People who don't live in California probably don't know that Tijuana exists.

"Medellín became the shipping point and a manufacturing area for cocaine and heroin, very much like we see in Tijuana, where drugs are being not only manufactured in the city and near the city, but its close location to the U.S. border makes it an obvious shipping point. And like Medellín, you ended up having one or two controlling factions that split and then started going to war with each other over turf."

Errol Chavez, the DEA's special agent in San Diego, pointed out to Associated Press last month that Tijuana has been saved so far from Medellín-class violence, mainly because the Arellano Félix organization has become so dominant, unlike Medellín, where two cartels were locked in constant rivalry.

"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."

LeBlanc says he's not advising business executives to stay away from Tijuana.

"Not at all. Our mission is to be able to advise clients on how they can get to locations safely and securely. There are very few locations in the world where we would advise a client not to go."

In fact, he says, he knows of far worse places. "Some high-risk locations in Africa, [like] Lagos, Nigeria. There's still a lot of rebel activity in Colombia, Khmer Rouge activity in Cambodia. But Lagos ranks pretty high up there. I'd much rather go to Tijuana than Lagos."

Still, LeBlanc is not optimistic about Tijuana. He sees it staying on the "dangerous" list for a while. "Unless some measures are taken from a law-enforcement standpoint to address the corruption problem in that region, [we would] think the situation is going to get worse."

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Site of the September 1998 Ensenada shooting
Site of the September 1998 Ensenada shooting

Tijuana has joined a list of cities it doesn't want to join: it has been ranked one of the most dangerous business-travel destinations in the world.

Houston-based Air Security International, which caters to private-jet-flying executives, has been compiling the list for its clients for the past two years. In its third annual listing, it included Tijuana among its nine worst cities in the world for crime.

"Drug-related violence has become a major concern," reads the warning on Tijuana. "As a result, Tijuana is gaining the reputation as the next Medellín."

Downtown Tijuana

The security brief on Tijuana gets specific. It outlines the dangers of visiting Guaycura, a colonia near the bus terminal, about eight miles east of downtown and two miles west of the Fraccionamiento Murúa district. "There are approximately 8000 homes in this neighborhood, which is within walking distance to several industrial parks, including El Aguila and Presidentes Industrial Park. In February 1992, this neighborhood was the scene of a drug cartel vendetta. On 15 February 1992, a former police investigator and a man with known ties to the drug trade were among six people dragged from a house in Guaycura by a group of heavily armed men.... The bodies of the men were later found after having been dumped separately in isolated areas near Tecate and Ensenada."

The brief also highlights the Zonal del ex-ejido Chilpancingo, around five miles east of downtown.

"[Chilpancingo] has received much attention due to its alarming rate of the extremely rare, fatal birth defect known as anencephaly. Infants with anencephaly are born without fully developed brains. The high number of cases of this disease in Chilpancingo has been linked to chemical toxins in the water supply. Residents of this area, and areas with similar problems, have become increasingly frustrated over Mexico's lack of environmental protection legislation and controls on industrial waste levels. Their anger has also logically been focused on the perpetrators -- industrial manufacturing companies.... This anger could become more direct.... An executive in one of these companies could become a target of their frustration. If possible, when taking the route through the colonias, it would be advisable to travel in a group of at least two vehicles. That way, even if one vehicle became disabled, the other vehicle could take both parties to a more secure area to seek help."

The list is presented in four categories: crime, war/insurgencies, political violence, and kidnapping. Colombia alone pops up in all four listings. Tijuana appears only under "crime." But it is included in the general "Mexico" category for kidnapping.

"Kidnapping rings operate throughout the country," says the report on Mexico, "often with the assistance of law enforcement. 'Express kidnappings,' which occur at higher frequency than traditional kidnappings, involve abductions for shorter periods of time and smaller ransom payments."

"We've got sources all around the world that we call in information from," says Charlie LeBlanc, Air Security International's managing director, an ex-cop who has spent years working in security with various airlines and security companies. (The president is Issy Boim, whose background LeBlanc says includes 22 years in Shin Bet, the Israeli security services.) LeBlanc says he also uses information from the U.S. State Department and other foreign agencies.

According to LeBlanc, Air Security's main client base is executives from "Fortune 500-size companies that have their own corporate aircraft flying to different destinations around the world. Cities and countries that make the list have either had a continued history of violence or corruption or insurgency within their country, or have seen a dramatic increase of either crime, corruption, or insurgency."

LeBlanc says Tijuana fits the latter category.

"Tijuana has blossomed, for lack of a better term, from a very sleepy border town to a growing business area," comments LeBlanc. "With NAFTA being passed, Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Nuevo Laredo have become central points of trade. It's not necessarily that the crime rate in Tijuana is higher than that in, say, Mexico City, because it's not. But what has occurred in Tijuana is a very apparent rise in drug trafficking and drug-trafficking-related crimes. And whenever that occurs, turf battles ensue.

"That's what brought it to our attention, the increase in those areas, that have made Tijuana a high-risk area for some potential businesses, some that we consult with in the area. I can't divulge who. But there's one large corporation that has a factory in Tijuana that is one of my clients.

"Businessmen have become targets of kidnapping attempts. Some of them have been successful, some have not been successful. They have occurred against multinational companies...kidnapping for ransom."

LeBlanc says he knows the cause. "Whenever you have a drug-turf battle, cash-flow becomes a very important item in your business. And we're seeing a lot of these kidnappings for quick cash. The actual target, the corporation, is not necessarily a factor. It's more that they know that the executive is going to have the means to pay a quick ransom to be released."

LeBlanc is sure of one thing. "The increase in the crime in the [border] region has been directly related to drug-gang wars, trying to take control of the drug trafficking in the area."

The comparison with Medellín is not as far-fetched as it appears, he says. "Medellín, like Tijuana, was a very small city. Medellín was a city that unless you were familiar with Colombia, you would probably not know it even existed. Like Tijuana. People who don't live in California probably don't know that Tijuana exists.

"Medellín became the shipping point and a manufacturing area for cocaine and heroin, very much like we see in Tijuana, where drugs are being not only manufactured in the city and near the city, but its close location to the U.S. border makes it an obvious shipping point. And like Medellín, you ended up having one or two controlling factions that split and then started going to war with each other over turf."

Errol Chavez, the DEA's special agent in San Diego, pointed out to Associated Press last month that Tijuana has been saved so far from Medellín-class violence, mainly because the Arellano Félix organization has become so dominant, unlike Medellín, where two cartels were locked in constant rivalry.

"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."

LeBlanc says he's not advising business executives to stay away from Tijuana.

"Not at all. Our mission is to be able to advise clients on how they can get to locations safely and securely. There are very few locations in the world where we would advise a client not to go."

In fact, he says, he knows of far worse places. "Some high-risk locations in Africa, [like] Lagos, Nigeria. There's still a lot of rebel activity in Colombia, Khmer Rouge activity in Cambodia. But Lagos ranks pretty high up there. I'd much rather go to Tijuana than Lagos."

Still, LeBlanc is not optimistic about Tijuana. He sees it staying on the "dangerous" list for a while. "Unless some measures are taken from a law-enforcement standpoint to address the corruption problem in that region, [we would] think the situation is going to get worse."

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