Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Gringo, This Bullet Is For You

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 |

Tijuana: Gringo, This Bullet Is For You.

Posted by Bill Conroy

For U.S. Citizens, Baha’s Largest City is Murder Capital of Mexico

The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert a little more than a week ago warning U.S. citizens to exercise extreme caution when visiting Mexico because “violence in the country has increased.”

The travel alert states that “Mexican drug cartels are engaged in violent conflict” for control of drug-smuggling routes and plazas.

Singled out in the travel alert for special attention, among others, is Ciudad Juarez, located across the border from El Paso, Texas, and now considered the murder capital of the world.

“Mexican authorities report that more than 2,600 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2009,” the State Department travel alert notes. “Additionally, this city of 1.3 million people experienced more than 16,000 car thefts and 1,900 carjackings in 2009.”

However, also among the credits in the State Department travel alert is another border city that, as of late, has fallen off the radar of the national mainstream media — which seemingly has only recently rediscovered the drug war, due to the escalating violence in border cities like Juarez.

In fact, National Public Radio recently aired a segment on the infamous House of Death mass murder in Juarez [which Narco News has been investigating and reporting on since 2004]. However, the mainstream public broadcasting giant failed to acknowledge it is years behind the curve in getting to the story — and also failed to acknowledge, on air or in print, the reporting done by Narco News to advance the story.

However, it is clear that NPR was aware of Narco News’ work on the story, as evidenced by an e-mail sent to Narco News on July 21, 2009, well in advance of the airing of its “House of Death” story.

The e-mail, from an NPR editor named Brian Duffy:

I am an editor at NPR working with one of our reporters on a story that your Bill Conroy did some great work on a few years back. You guys called it “The House of Death” and our reporter has been doing some digging into the situation involving the CI [confidential informant] in that case, a man name Guillermo Ramirez Peyro, aka “Lalo.”


If you or Bill could offer any guidance as to contact information for some of the principals in that case or would be willing to have a background conversation with me about its status, I would be very grateful. …


Sincerely,

Brian Duffy
That brings us back to that other city spotlighted in the State Department travel alert: Tijuana, a community of about 1.6 million people located across the border from San Diego.

More from the Feb. 22 State Department travel alert:
Large firefights have taken place in towns and cities across Mexico, but occur mostly in northern Mexico, including Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Chihuahua City, Nogales, Matamoros, Reynosa and Monterrey. … Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana and Nogales are among the cities which have experienced public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centers and other public venues. Criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in border areas including Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, and Tijuana.
From the Union-Tribune story:
“It’s time for tourism to return to the city; the authorities are in control and coordinating to combat crime,” Ramos told reporters….
The Secretary of Tourism for Baja California, the Mexican state in which Tijuana is located, also expressed frustration with the U.S. State Department’s travel alert, indicating that Baja “spent $500,000 last year on a U.S. public relations firm and a San Diego marketing group to help boost tourism,” according to a story published by San Diego’s public broadcasting station KPBS.

And, in fact, Tijuana can point to some figures that appear to show it is making some progress on the drug-war front. The Mexican city’s homicide rate dropped from a record 844 murders in 2008 to 657 in 2009 — a mere fraction of the 2,600-plus murder rate registered by Juarez last year.

But those figures only tell a portion of the story. Other numbers, and facts on the ground, point to what might be seen as some very dark clouds gathering on the horizon of the Tijuana/San Diego border region — clouds that could well bring the same hard rain that is now falling on Juarez.

Hard Numbers

The U.S. State Department also monitors another set of data in Mexico via a report it calls: “Death of U.S. Citizens Abroad by Non-Natural Causes.”

Among those “non-natural causes” is murder. The State Department report points out that the tracking of murders of U.S. citizens overseas is not a precise science, and likely undercounts the actual number of homicides, since “only those deaths reported to the Department of State and deaths that can be established as non-natural are included” in the report.

With that caveat noted, the homicide figures for Tijuana, and the state where it is located, Baja California, are quite telling with respect to the State Department’s concern over the safety of U.S. citizens traveling in that region of Mexico.

Between 2004 and the end of June 2009, a total of 260 U.S. citizen s were murdered in Mexico. A total of 94 of those homicides occurred in 2008 and the first six months of 2009 [the most recent figures available].

Here’s the rub. Of the 260 homicides in Mexico involving U.S. citizens since 2004, according to the State Department data, a total of 95, or some 36 percent, occurred in Mexico’s Baja region — and 58 of those homicides took place in Tijuana. By comparison, in Juarez, the most violent city on the planet, over the same period, only 34 U.S. citizens were murdered.

And to put an even sharper edge on the relative danger facing gringos in Mexico, in Juarez, over the 18-month period ended June 2009 (a timeframe marked by horrendous violence in that city), a total of 23 U.S. citizens were slain, according to the State Department report. Meanwhile, Tijuana notched 24 murders of U.S. citizens over the same period.

For the Baja as a whole over that period, the State Department figures show, 35 U.S. citizens were murdered, while in Chihuahua (which is the state where Juarez is located) the murder tally came in at 24.

So clearly, if Juarez is the most dangerous city on the planet, it is primarily so for Mexicans. It is Tijuana, though, that is the most deadly city in Mexico for gringos.

And though Tijuana finished 2009 with a reduced overall murder rate, that number is a bit misleading.

From December 2009 through the end of February 2010, some 300 people were murdered in Tijuana.

Although Juarez remains far more violent as measured by the bloodshed meter, it’s worth noting that over the first two months of this year, the murder tally in that city stood at 361 — not far off the mark set in Tijuana between December 2009 and the end of February of this year.

So what’s happening in Tijuana that accounts for the gringo death factor?

Hotel California

Narco News queried several law enforcers who have experience with the drug war along the border. Their read, a consensus, as to why Tijuana, and the Baja in general, ranks as the most deadly region in Mexico for U.S. citizens comes down to a matter of numbers and geography. They point out that Tijuana serves as the gateway plaza for the expansive, and lucrative, San Diego/Los Angeles drug market — which far exceeds the scope of the Juarez/El Paso plaza.

Explains one law enforcer:
It seems to me that it's like shark attacks. Put the biggest [number] of sharks at the most populace beach [Tijuana/San Diego/L.A.] you get the biggest number of attacks [murders].
The Baja/California border region is the golden triangle of the drug war in the Americas and certain to be a major battlefront so long as prohibition remains the law of both lands — with the potential to exceed even Juarez in terms the bloodshed required to gain, and maintain, control of that plaza.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics tracks border crossing data at the major ports of entry into the United States. The BTS U.S. entry data for El Paso in 2008, the most recent full year of data available, shows that some 30.5 million people crossed into the U.S. from Juarez via bus, car and foot. For San Diego, the volume of individuals passing through U.S. Customs from the Baja stood at 69.2 million in 2008.

Clearly, the beach is much bigger in Tijuana.

Narco News also reached out to several individuals in the city of San Diego who are familiar with the nuances of the drug war in that area and who have made frequent trips to Tijuana over the years. The murder figures involving U.S. citizens in Tijuana did not surprise them in the least.

“People living near Tijuana used to have no fear of going there,” one of the individuals said, asking that his name not be used. “I used to enjoy going off the beaten path in Tijuana and down into [the Baja], taking the back roads and avoiding all the tourist traps. I just would not do that now.”

The individual attributes the increased danger in Tijuana and the Baja to the rising tensions in the drug war, adding that it’s important to realize that the drug business extends across both sides of the border, and that those who get drawn into it face similar deadly risks, whether they live on the Tijuana or San Diego side of the border.

“Anyone who gets deep into the drug business knows they’re taking a chance that they will end up going to prison or getting killed, and the more likely outcome is the latter,” the source told Narco News.

Another individual who spoke with Narco News pointed out that the narco-trafficking organizations are now recruiting high school kids “out of Chula Vista and San Diego” to run drugs and carry out executions.” So, when some U.S. kid winds up slain in Tijuana, it’s not big leap of logic to assume they were sucked into the business by the allure of the money and found a bullet as a final payment for their services.

“There’s been a lot of gruesome crime in Tijuana over the last year and half, dismemberments and the like,” the individual said. “The mafia is making a point. It’s what happens when drugs, guns and gangs come together in poor communities on either side of the border.”

And the preferred location for executions in this West Coast drug war, according to these individuals, is Mexico, because the crimes are not likely to be investigated, a fact pointed out by the State Department’s travel alert:
U.S. citizens should be aware that many cases of violent crime are never resolved by Mexican law enforcement, and the U.S. government has no authority to investigate crimes committed in Mexico.
History Doesn’t Go Away

Earlier this year, in the wake of the arrest of a major Tijuana narco-trafficker (Teodoro Garcia Simental, known as “El Teo”), Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced that he would be sending nearly 900 more Mexican soldiers into the city to help keep the peace.

In 2007, Calderon sent some 2,500 troops into Tijuana for the same purpose (and the Mexican army has had a presence in the city ever since). In the wake of the Mexican army’s arrival, homicides in Tijuana hit a record level in 2008. The same pattern played out in Juarez, where Mexican troops arrived in March 2008 and the murder rate escalated rapidly.

The arrival of fresh troops in Tijuana, then, cannot be seen as a good sign, even if a tenuous Pax Romana is the goal for that city.

In 2008, a law-enforcement training document leaked to Narco News predicted the following about the dominant drug organization in Tijuana:
Tijuana DTO [historically led by the Arrelanos Felix family]: Fractionalized with a probable lifespan of less than four years remaining.
It seems clear from press reports on both sides of the border that the Tijuana DTO is divided, as evidenced by the bloody street war of attrition waged by former Tijuana DTO member El Teo against the remaining Arrelanos Felix organization (AFO) family leadership.

With El Teo’s capture earlier this year, and the now further weakened condition of the AFO, the sharks will be out in force, smelling the blood in the water.

Unless a deal is cut among competitors, the violence in Tijuana is only likely to escalate as the AFO fights to keep control of its fleeting empire — as has been the pattern with other major drug organizations confronting a threat to their control of a major plaza in the American drug war.

Recently, Mexican President Calderon has been forced to publicly defend his hyper-militant drug-war policies that have involved unleashing thousands of heavily armed troops on Mexican cities. In particular, he has been put into a position of having to refute allegations that he is favoring the infamous narco-trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo,” and his Sinaloa drug organization.

As part of that defense, in a recent news conference, Calderon pointed to the arrest of El Teo in Tijuana, who allegedly aligned with Guzman’s Sinaloa organization after splitting off from the AFO. Calderon claimed his arrest is evidence that he is taking the drug war to Guzman’s door.

That is a clever political twist of the facts, though, since it is just as likely Guzman supported El Teo as a means of weakening the AFO so that the Sinaloa organization and its military confederates would have an easier time of moving in to take over the Tijuana plaza — arguably the most lucrative port of entry into the U.S. drug market, one that both Guzman, as well his colleagues in the Mexican government and business community, surely have an interest in controlling.

And it’s vital to keep in mind that throughout the history of the American drug war, one of the key forces in assuring that the drug plazas remain open for business has been the Mexican military, in particular the generals who make up the military cartel.

Although there are plenty of examples of this corruption over the years, one such pertinent illustration is contained in a book penned by Charles Bowden, one of the great American writers on the modern drug war that has now marked two U.S. centuries.

From Bowden’s book, Down by the River:
A report surfaces of a meeting that took place January 26-28 [2001] in northern Mexico at Apodaca, on the edge of Monterrey.


Apodacais a center for Mexican smugglers, a place businessmen favor for meetings, and where residents can be trusted to keep their mouths shut. Men in suits and cowboy boots arrived in private jets, at least sixty in all. One of the men [Chapo Guzman] was supposedly on a kind of peculiar furlough from Mexico's highest-security prison, the same facility where Raul Salinas Jr. was incarcerated.


For three days they dined and talked and decided several matters. There must be a joint strategy for moving drugs through Mexico and peddling them in the United States. They must pool their money to bribe Mexican officials. Two Mexican generals in attendance endorsed this new pool for payment. They must also stop killing each other, though they did agree to increase violence if they must to destabilize the Mexican government. …
Welcome to the drug war. Look for this update, or one like it, in the far, far future on an NPR or other mainstream media outlet near you. The prominent mention of Tijuana in the travel alert raised the cackles of the mayor of that Mexican city, Jorge Ramos, who announced in late February to the San Diego Union-Tribune that he planned to lobby the State Department for a change in the wording of the alert to reflect the high level of security his city affords U.S. travelers.The technique of lifting, without credit, stories from the authentic media is worth mentioning not as a “gottcha moment,” but rather because it points out how far behind the actual story the national mainstream media typically is with respect to the fast-moving currents of the drug war.

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1 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

Although one can not help but notice the abundance of police type forces in border towns, they are clearly not effective. Instead of ten patrols of 2 cops per car, they ride around two cars deep with at least ten officers. Which shows to me that they are concerned for their own safety and not that of the citizens or tourists. I have been in Nuevo laredo for a few weeks and have had no trouble what so ever. I have not seen more than five tourist the entire time here. I feel safer here then in East St. Louis or Detroit. It sad that no one here seems to know English because they have no need to because no one cross over even for day trips anymore. I enjoy your website and the information it provides

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