Site of the September 1998 Ensenada shooting
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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.

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