Map of Tijuana traffic accidents, 1999
  • Map of Tijuana traffic accidents, 1999
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"My patient is Tijuana," says Dr. José Rubio Soto. "My hospital is city hall. These are the X-rays." He's peering at a computer screen filled with blobs. It's a map of the city. Tijuana looks as if it has the measles, especially near the border.

"This is a map of the traffic accidents in Tijuana last year," he says. "I am looking at it from a doctor's point of view. Surveillance of risk factors."

Perhaps more important, what he's looking at is the progenitor for another map: A "crime map" of the city, showing in detail where crimes take place, with "pop-up" facts in each instance about aggressor, victim, and circumstance.

With 62 murders in its first six weeks of 2000, Tijuana needs some Rx. (San Diego only had 58 murders for the whole of last year.) But Dr. Rubio is no first-aid man. His fixes are aimed at the long term. In his practice of studying violence, he's attempting to build a multilayered picture of the city and its problems.

In the last two months, what appear to be gangland executions have been carried out in three Tijuana locations: Mesa de Otay (16 killings), La Mesa (14 killings), and the Zona Centro — downtown Tijuana — (11 killings).

Dr. José Rubio Soto

To San Diegans, even raw information like this can be useful — to know where not to go late at night or which roads require caution. To Dr. Rubio, the city's epidemiologist, and to his main backer, city councillor Renato Sandoval Franco, mapping violence is an effort to get authorities beyond a case-by-case reaction to shootings and collisions. Rubio wants to get to the roots of Tijuana's escalating crime and traffic accidents -- the two most dangerous elements of Tijuana life.

With so many murders notched up this year, it may seem curious that Dr. Rubio worries more about the city's fatal-traffic-accident rate (last year's figure was 110, compared with San Diego's 79) than the murder rate. Yet due to the defined roles of city, state, and federal police, Sandoval and Rubio walk a fine line when it comes to applying their statistical analyses efforts to crime.

"We haven't started [building crime maps] because it's very delicate, how we want to handle this," says Sandoval. "The municipal [city] police function is prevention. Crime investigation is state police responsibility. And the investigation of drug-related crimes is in the hands of the federal police."

In the meantime, Rubio concentrates on analyzing traffic accidents, a factor within the city's purview that needs attention. Rubio believes Tijuanans display an "attitude problem" toward obeying traffic laws in their own city. For instance, he notes, as they're about to enter the U.S., Tijuana drivers often strap on their seat belts and drive carefully. When they're coming back, however, they unbuckle, relax, revive their macho image, and speed up.

The city police's recent "Zero Tolerance" blitz has made a dent in this "attitude," according to Sandoval, lowering the accident rate by 25 percent in two weeks. "That's 111 fewer accidents. In those 111 accidents, if we save one life, the program is already working."

But Rubio approaches the problem differently. "I look at the problem like a doctor. I see the problem of the city like a disease. We have in city hall a lot of medication, like social work, like public works; that is my medicine."

He talks as he walks around his cramped offices on the second floor of Tijuana's Palacio Municipal (city hall). Assistants work around him, entering information into his database. The click, click, click of their computer keys overlays background ranchero music.

Most accidents haven't occurred on the highways -- despite the publicity of recent traffic incidents involving San Diegans -- or even at the crowded border crossings. According to Rubio's data, they've happened downtown, in the concentrated blocks around Second and Third Streets and Avenidas Constitución and Revolución. "And most -- 60 percent -- of these are rear-end collisions," he adds.

His data also show that some of the worst accidents happen near the border fence west of the crossing, where cars speed up on Avenida Internacional, heading toward the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood. Most fatalities are cars hitting would-be emigrants dashing across the road to get to the fence.

But as bad as these problems are, Rubio and Sandoval know they pale before Tijuana's rising tide of murder and crime. Which is why Sandoval is motivated to make sure Rubio's program is funded. In his city hall office, Sandoval, who is also president of Tijuana's Commission on Public Security, Traffic, and Transport, says he believes Rubio's maps could give Tijuana authorities an effective tool to regain control over the city's underworld.

"There are two ways to solve this problem," Sandoval says. "One is the old-school way, [trying to anticipate] where it is going to happen, or by tapping the experience of the old policemen. The other way is using all the technology available to us now. We made a trip to New York to see their problems. We also went to Washington to talk to the people from the Pan American Health Organization, to see how they work these programs with the computer.

"We first realized this program could help us when we did a study of why people don't get medical help in [city-run health] offices. When [Rubio's staff] looked at why people didn't follow through on treatment they knew they needed, they found out the health centers were too far from their homes. That was the first time we realized this map can help us resolve problems we have in the city.

"Dr. Rubio is working on creating surveillance data -- maps on common crime, not on homicides. In Tijuana, homicides get all the publicity. But 90 percent of homicides are [drug mafia]-related, and that's one problem that the federal government has to attack. But the [bigger] problem for the city is when they steal your stereo, when they steal your clothes in the neighborhood, when they assault people at their work and take their money. What we have to work [against] in Tijuana is the crime that is hurting the people the most.

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