“Living in Tijuana is easy. It’s surviving that’s hard.”
Life in Tijuana goes on. The buses run, people go to work, kids go to school, traffic still jams the city’s arteries. But something has changed in the last year or so: the city’s residents go about their day-to-day business with a gnawing apprehension, haunted by an unpleasant feeling that something horrible may happen at any moment. The sensation is similar to what you feel when you narrowly avoid a car crash or catch a child just in time to avoid disaster — relief that it did not happen, distress that it almost did, dread that next time you may not be so lucky. The Tijuana state of mind has become popularly known as “the psychosis.” Anyone who lives in Tijuana knows what you’re talking about when you use the term.
"You gringos just don’t understand. Most of the people who live in Tijuana are good — don’t have anything to do at all with the narcos. And besides, you will never understand this so-called ‘corruption culture.’"
“I don’t take my kids to the park anymore on Sundays,” says Luís, a young Tijuana father of three — eight- and six-year-old sons, and a five-year-old daughter. Luís once looked forward to the weekly family outings. Sunday is his only day off from delivering bottled fruit juices to neighborhood grocers. His sons liked to kick a soccer ball around for hours and run in the grass. His daughter favored the swings and the slide. “It’s too dangerous,” he says, shaking his head, staring at the ground. “Too many shootouts. We stay home, play Game Boy, watch TV, or rent videos. Their mom won’t even take them with her to the supermarket like she used to, even though they beg to go.”
Luís is by no means alone, not in his constant uneasiness, not in the ashen look that briefly crosses his face when he imagines what could happen to his loved ones when they venture onto the streets of Tijuana. From working-class neighborhoods like Luís’s Colonia Hidalgo near downtown, to the city’s wealthiest enclaves, Tijuanenses are hunkering down. No area of the city is considered safe. Most people of means have already fled, and more are leaving town every day. Tijuana news outlets reported not long after the New Year began that, of the 100 or so owners of PEMEX-franchised gas stations in the metro area, 60 had decided to take themselves and their families elsewhere to live. Joaquín Aviña Sánchez, director of the Tijuana Gas Station Owners Association, told the Tijuana daily Frontera that between 2006 and 2007, at least 20 owners — or members of their families — had been kidnapped.
For those who are staying behind, either because they have no choice or out of pride of place, military authorities recommend they stay at home if there is no important reason to go out. The official murder count for 2008 was 843, though suspicious Tijuanenses say there were probably a lot more. Of the 843, Frontera reported at year’s end that 25 were innocent bystanders. One reason the official death toll is suspect is that many people have vanished, their fates unknown to family and friends. On January 24, Mexican soldiers and federal police captured a 45-year-old ex-construction worker who said he was paid $600 a week by a renegade drug-cartel lieutenant known as “the uncle” to dissolve corpses in acid-filled barrels. In a short question-and-answer session with journalists following his arrest, a tearful Santiago Meza López said he had liquefied 300 bodies. The state attorney general has begun collecting photos from families of the disappeared in hopes that Meza López, who said he would cooperate, might recall some of the faces. Within a day, the attorney general said in a press conference, more than 100 photos had been collected.
Hopes for the prospect of less violence in 2009 were quickly dashed. The first murder was reported 20 minutes into the New Year. On February 2, the state attorney general’s office released Tijuana murder statistics for the first month of 2009. In January, said the statement, homicides more than doubled over the same month last year — 30 killings in January 2008, compared to 69 in 2009. Included in the statistics were six municipal police officers, seven decapitated bodies — among them four victims who were just 17 years old — and six women. Several of the murdered women died, said Frontera, only because they “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“There is a new rule in my house,” says a prominent Tijuana physician, whose swank Chapultepec home includes an indoor swimming pool and a spectacular golf course view. “No one leaves after 7:00 p.m. And every day, we use a different car, leave at a different time, and take a different route when I drop my boys at school.” The doctor has even abandoned regular office hours, seeing patients by appointment only and varying his hours each day. Some days he avoids his clinic altogether. But the doctor takes exception to the term “psychosis” to describe the popular consciousness. “Psychosis is a profound mental illness,” he explains. “We are not suffering from any mental illness. This is real.”
María, a usually happy-go-lucky third-grader, came home from school one afternoon just before Halloween trembling and fighting back tears. “The teacher told us no ‘trickie-trickie,’ ” she said, referring to the Spanish adaptation of “trick-or-treat.” “They might kill us,” sobbed the 8-year-old. “The narcos said they would kill us.” Municipal and school authorities had warned parents to keep their kids off the streets after one group among the warring narco-factions was rumored to have threatened to gun down children at random if the federal government did not withdraw the thousands of soldiers sent in to patrol city streets. It could well have been a rumor or an empty threat, but nerves are frayed in Tijuana, and no one wanted to take any chances in a city where murderous cruelty has become almost as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise. Government officials dubbed the threat “narco-terrorism” and promised for the umpteenth time to do something about it.
So the streets of Tijuana, once teeming with little witches and hobgoblins on Halloween, were virtually empty in 2008 — except for half-ton military trucks carting heavily armed soldiers through residential streets — just in case the threat wasn’t a rumor. And the very few brave enough to take the risk found that not many doors opened for them as they trekked house to house.
“Mommy, why are they shooting at us again?” a five-year-old asked her mother after being caught in the crossfire of a shootout in the parking lot of Tijuana’s Sam’s Club just before noon on November 25, Frontera reported. Mom had just picked her daughter up from a nearby preschool in what is regarded as one of the best and safest neighborhoods in the city. It was, said the newspaper, the second time the youngster had been forced to duck and cover as bullets flew. Students at the nearby Lázaro Cárdenas Federal Preparatory School could hear the gunfire from their classrooms. A few weeks later, gunmen sprayed the parking lot of a Costco in the city’s Zona Río — in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon — sending shoppers scurrying for cover.
Sometimes the results are enough to make you cry. A two-year-old boy died in a car crash when his mom, trying to evade gunfire during a shootout, was forced off a busy boulevard and into a light post head-on. An 18-month-old girl was seriously wounded when gunmen cut off her parents’ pickup truck, stormed out of their cars, and opened fire with semi-automatic rifles, shredding mom’s and dad’s bodies with bullets as the baby sat strapped in her car seat behind them. About 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night, November 29, gunmen opened fire outside a small grocery store in the Los Piños neighborhood, killing four — among them a 4-year-old named Eduardo and a 13-year-old named José.
“It used to be that they just went after their enemies — you know, other people involved in the narco business,” says the 59-year-old owner of a small and struggling corner grocery near downtown. “But not anymore. They just open fire. Whoever happens to be there at the time is just out of luck. This is a big change from before. Now they don’t care who gets killed. They are fearless, shooting down people in broad daylight. They kill women. They kill kids. It’s a war.”
“Living in Tijuana is easy,” says a neighborhood cop who patrols the middle-class El Mirador neighborhood. “It’s surviving that’s hard.” He was one of a dozen officers who stood guard outside an elementary school two blocks from a government hospital one sunny November afternoon as the school day was about to end. At least ten police cars screamed into the emergency entrance of Hospital ISSSTECALI, sirens wailing. Ski-masked officers armed with rifles jumped out of police pickups and lined the sidewalk. A police helicopter hovered overhead, and motorcycle cops blocked off the street. Two olive-colored half-ton Mexican Army trucks, carrying about a dozen semi-automatic-rifle–toting soldiers, cruised the surrounding streets. Somewhere in the city there had been another shootout, more police officers killed and wounded, and ISSSTECALI, a state-run hospital for government employees and their dependents, is where they take them.
The kids were kept inside the school and away from windows for about 45 minutes, until authorities were certain the killers were not going to come to the hospital to finish the job. And with good reason. Just after midnight on November 22, 2008, masked gunmen stormed into the intensive care unit of Hospital del Prado, one of the city’s best private medical facilities, and shot to death a patient recovering from an earlier attempt on his life. In 2007, two municipal police officers were shot dead at Tijuana General Hospital when a group of armed men said to be associated with a drug cartel tried to snatch a wounded compatriot being treated in the emergency room.
In a late-January visit to Tijuana for a conference on trauma medicine, Carlos Freaner Figueroa, vice president of the Mexican Red Cross, announced that Red Cross paramedics, who staff the country’s principal ambulance system, had adopted a “war-zone policy” when responding to calls for help from victims injured “in whatever manner during operations against organized crime.” From now on, said Freaner Figueroa, police must enter the area first, police must guard paramedics as they remove the injured, and, once a patient has been evaluated and cleared for transport to a hospital, ambulances must be accompanied by police escorts. The reason for the new policy, he said, was to prevent gunmen from finishing off patients on their way to the hospital.
Francisco, who earns his livelihood as a bootleg plumber and electrician out of the trunk of his car, says he has taught his children what to do in case they get caught in a shootout: “Chest on the ground, flat as you can! Hands over your head! Don’t stand up!” His kids, 11, 13, and 15, know well the danger, he says. “They’re not stupid. They have eyes. They have ears.” Television and radio news, along with the city’s dailies, saturate the city with the latest horrors: “Two dead in shootout”; “Body cut into pieces discovered with narco-message”; “Confrontation leaves one dead, two wounded”; “Three found executed in back alley”; “Man gunned down downtown”; “Man shot, crashes into patrol car”; “Two men shot at on Boulevard Agua Caliente”; “Another corpse wrapped in a blanket found”; “Nine dead, seven of them decapitated”; “Killed in shootout near Marriott”; “Commandos kill 16.” And that was just two days’ worth of news.
“I don’t read the newspapers and I don’t watch the news,” said one middle-aged Tijuana woman returning late one Friday afternoon from a day’s work as a maid at a San Diego hotel. “I don’t want to know anymore.” She glanced at her watch and fretted, “It will be getting dark soon. I don’t like to get home after dark.”
While the widespread and sometimes indiscriminate killings are bad enough, it is the heartless savagery that accompanies many of them that has left Tijuana close to emotional meltdown. Masked men kick in the doors of modest homes in predawn raids, singling out fathers to kill in front of their children, or children to kill in front of their parents. In some instances, entire families are slaughtered. Decapitated bodies are left on baseball fields used by youngsters; detached heads are discovered by startled taco-stand owners opening for business in the morning; sometimes, the bodies are found in one city, the heads in another. Rotting corpses are abandoned in metal barrels. Bullet-riddled bodies, their tongues cut out, have been left on the sidewalk in front of an elementary school. Corpses are strewn across the city — some wrapped in plastic garbage bags, others stranded behind the wheel of the car they were driving when death came.
Often the killer will leave a “narco message,” explaining why the person was murdered, but lately the government has decided to stop revealing the contents. Usually the message refers to the leader of an opposition cartel or one of his local lieutenants, as in “This is what happens to friends of so-and-so.” Some victims were clearly tortured before their deaths, others suffocated by having their heads wrapped in a plastic bag or their faces wrapped with duct tape. Some have had their index fingers amputated and stuffed into their mouths — a signal that the individual was a snitch.
An October 2008 Mexico travel advisory issued by the U.S. State Department says: “Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have taken on the characteristics of small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and, on occasion, grenades. Firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but particularly in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City, and Ciudad Juárez. The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted.”
Billiard halls, discos, restaurants, convenience stores, used-auto lots, taco stands, junkyards, car-stereo shops, auto-alarm outlets, and a tire store have been sprayed indiscriminately with gunfire. Professionals — engineers, lawyers, and physicians — are snatched off the street in broad daylight and held for ransom. Kidnapping has become what the State Department calls “a lucrative business.” In Tijuana, it is a side-business for the drug cartels, which have developed sophisticated techniques for tracking the daily routines of potential victims. Police have discovered elaborate private jails built inside expensive homes where kidnap victims had been held. More and more business owners are being forced to pay protection money in what one high-ranking police official described as a tactic adapted from the Sicilian mafia. Gunfire is common on the city’s major highways and principal boulevards, where wild police chases have caused chain-reaction car wrecks as drivers scramble to get out of the way. And, while cops have been shot dead — some as they sat parked in patrol cars — it is virtually impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad. From street cops to the highest levels of government, corruption is commonplace.
Corruption among government officials has been widely reported in the U.S. media, as has most of the violence, with the formulaic explanation that Mexico’s increasing misfortune has been caused by “rival drug gangs vying for control of smuggling routes,” particularly since the near-collapse of the once-powerful Tijuana-based Arellano-Félix cartel. Virtually every story reported in the U.S. media about the latest savage drug-trafficking crime in Mexico bears a version of that interpretation. And while there is some truth to it, it is a long way from portraying who is really at fault for Mexico’s descent into narco-terrorism.
“I hate to tell you this,” says Osvaldo, a high school teacher, “but Americans make me sick. Who is it that is spending all this money on drugs that made these narcos millionaires? Americans. Who is it that has shipped thousands and thousands of weapons into Mexico to make all this violence possible? Americans.”
Many Baja Californians, including the state’s governor, share Osvaldo’s point of view. “Who’s causing greater harm to whom?” asked Gov. José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, speaking to a November 12, 2008 confab of hundreds of the state’s political, business, and civic leaders. “Is it the migrants who with great pains come to work in that country, or is it the tens of thousands of weapons that cross the border, from north to south?”
Since December 1, 2006, when President Felipe Calderón took office, and April of 2008, more than 14,000 handguns and assault rifles, along with 863 hand grenades were seized by Mexican law enforcement. Both the government of Mexico and the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agree that at least 90 percent of them originated in the United States. The problem has become so serious that the ATF has launched a program it calls “Project Gunrunner.” The agency reported in a September 2008 “Fact Sheet” that it was “deploying its resources strategically on the Southwest Border to deny firearms, the ‘tools of the trade,’ to criminal organizations in Mexico and along the border, and to combat firearms-related violence affecting communities on both sides of the border.” Project Gunrunner was begun, said the ATF, “to stem the flow of firearms into Mexico, and thereby deprive the narcotics cartels of weapons.” Last year the ATF provided something called “eTrace technology” to nine U.S. consulates in Mexico, where seized weapons can now be traced back to their original point of sale.
“Trends indicate the firearms illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are becoming more powerful,” said the ATF. The agency reported it had analyzed weapons seized in Mexico between 2005 and 2007 and had “identified the following weapons most commonly used by drug traffickers:” 9 mm pistols, .38 caliber “super pistols,” 5.7 mm pistols (known in Mexico as “cop-killers” because the bullets can pierce body armor), .45 caliber pistols, AR-15-type rifles (a semi-automatic version of the U.S. military’s M-16), and AK-47-type rifles. In addition to the weapons seized in Mexico, “In the past two years, ATF has seized thousands of firearms headed to Mexico.”
While high-powered weapons from the U.S. may be the “tools of the trade” of Mexico’s drug traffickers, without the huge demand from American consumers for marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin, they would soon go out of business. Mexican and Colombian drug-trafficking organizations “generate, remove, and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually,” according to the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center. The Mexican cartels, said the report, “are the greatest drug-trafficking threat to the United States; they control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, advanced communications capabilities, and strong affiliations with gangs in the United States.” The Mexican cartels, the report continued, “control a greater portion of drug production, transportation, and distribution than any other criminal group…. Their extensive drug-trafficking activities in the United States generate billions of dollars in illicit proceeds annually.”
The Mexican cartels “maintain drug distribution networks or supply drugs to distributors in at least 230 U.S. cities,” said the report, including San Diego, Escondido, and El Centro. “Mexican drug traffickers transport multi-ton quantities of drugs from Mexico into the United States annually using overland, maritime, and air conveyances. The use of varied conveyances enables Mexican drug traffickers to consistently deliver illicit drugs from Mexico to warehouse locations in the United States for subsequent distribution.”
The multibillion-dollar profits from the drug-hungry U.S. create another huge problem for Mexico and help explain why the drug cartels have become so much a part of the fabric of Mexican life: all those billions have to be laundered before they can be spent or legally returned to the U.S. as bank deposits. From time to time, the U.S. Treasury Department issues statements identifying money-laundering outfits in Tijuana. Since 2006, the lists have included construction companies, real-estate agencies, armored-truck companies, pawn shops, currency-exchange businesses, liquor and restaurant supply companies, import-export firms, jewelry stores, and mail-delivery services. Currency-exchange businesses — the ubiquitous casas de cambio found in almost any Tijuana neighborhood — far outnumber any other business named by the Treasury for money laundering. There are likely many more businesses under the radar of the U.S. government, says Carlos, a longtime Tijuana resident in his early 60s. “The little corner restaurant that never has many customers but stays in business year after year, there are a lot of those,” he said. “Just across the street from the apartment I used to live in, there was a small shopping center with stores selling clothes, a photo studio, that kind of thing. The only time I saw any real traffic was after midnight — Mercedes, Escalades, Suburbans. Made me wonder what was really going on there. It’s one of the reasons I moved.”
Leticia, a mother of two, works at a major Tijuana new-car dealership. She says she has no idea whether the company launders money but still wishes she could find work elsewhere. “It’s some of the customers that come in,” she says. “People with lots of money to spend. You don’t know whether they might be targeted to be kidnapped or whether they got their money legally. All I can tell you is, when they come in, me and the other women try to head to the back or brace ourselves, ready to run if we need to. It makes my skin crawl. I get goose bumps.”
On December 4, 2008, the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia, a Defense Department unit of military experts from various services, issued its annual report on threats to American security around the world. “In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico,” said the report. “The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.”
While Tijuana has yet to descend into chaos, the situation is so stressful — almost unlivable — for ordinary people who just want to live their lives and raise their families that some have begun calling on the government to call a truce with the narco cartels or to allow one cartel to win control with government help. That, say some, had long been the policy of the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years before its defeat in the 2000 and 2006 presidential elections by the right-leaning PAN. The increasing level of violence that has swept the country began, they say, in December 2006, when President Calderón launched an all-out government war on the cartels. Since then, more than 25,000 federal troops have been dispatched across the country to do battle with the well-armed drug lords. In 2008 alone, the president’s war claimed more than 5000 lives.
“You’re just going to write one of those stories that has nothing but bad things to say about Tijuana, aren’t you?” asked Felipe, a taxi driver. “Why should I bother talking to you? You gringos just don’t understand. Most of the people who live in Tijuana are good — don’t have anything to do at all with the narcos. And besides, you will never understand this so-called ‘corruption culture.’ Tell me what you would do if someone threatened you or your family? Most of the time it’s ‘plata o plomo,’ ” he explained, which in English translates to “silver or lead.” What Felipe was trying to convey is that government officials are often made the proverbial unrefusable offer: cooperate, take the bribe — or we’ll kill you.
Despite growing calls for a truce — as one government leader said, “The people are on their knees” — that strategy seems unlikely. In the same meeting of business and civic leaders in November in which Baja California Governor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán pointedly complained about “the tens of thousands of weapons that cross the border, from north to south,” the governor also issued a plea to his war-weary citizens: “I urge you not to give in, not to grow faint, not to allow crime under any form to be a part of our lives and eat away like an incurable cancer.”
(Writer’s note: The people who speak in this story are real, and what they told me has been faithfully recounted. But certain details — their names, anything that might even remotely be used to identify them — have been changed or omitted. This was done for the same reason I am writing this under a pseudonym — fear of becoming the next victim.)