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My visit to Tijuana — and a journey into the world of Mexico’s drug wars

Soldiers guard packages of marijuana
REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
Soldiers guard packages of marijuana at a military base in Tijuana. Mexican soldiers discovered 12 ton of marijuana in trucks at Mexico’s border with California last year.

A day in Tijuana seemed like a good idea until my husband and I had crossed the pedestrian bridge from California and walked past row upon row of discount pharmacies. It was a ghost town. Not a gray-haired gringo in sight.

Bargain hunting senior citizens usually are a fearless force. Something had to be terribly wrong.

Another ominous signal came on the main drag for tourists. Though we were the only shoppers in sight, hucksters did not hassle us with the usual vigor. A few heads popped out of doorways, sounded sales pitches and then pulled back inside. Even the guy with zebra stripes painted on his donkey seemed leery about pushing tacky photo ops.

The city felt like a scene from an old western movie, the one where the townsfolk take cover as deputies load their guns for a shootout with the bad guys.

But in Tijuana the law wasn’t on horseback. Federal soldiers patrolled the streets in trucks. They wore ski masks. And they held automatic weapons at the ready.

That was in early December.

A week later, the Los Angeles Times reported Tijuana’s toll from Mexico’s drug wars. Since September, the city had seen an average of five killings a day.

“One victim was found with his face sliced off,” the Times reported. “Three headless bodies were dumped near a baseball diamond. Two corpses were hung from an overpass. Others have been doused with gasoline and set aflame. . . . gunmen shot up a billiard hall, nightclubs, a motorcycle shop and seafood restaurants.”

In January came the arrest of a hit man, allegedly paid by a drug kingpin to dissolve 300 bodies in lye.

It’s no wonder the normally upbeat Tijuanans were hiding indoors. 

We are adventurous travelers: I’ve covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. My husband has worked in tense Middle Eastern countries. Together we have hiked along the wild Colombian-Ecuadoran border, shopped at Casablanca markets that had been bombed by terrorists and walked calmly away from an attempted mugging in a Buenos Aires slum.

But our travel-honed instincts told us to get off Tijuana’s streets that day.

Is Mexico a failing state?
After all but ignoring Mexico for years, Washington, D.C., has awakened to the crisis to our south. And now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other cabinet officials are visiting Mexico in advance of a trip President Obama plans to make there on April 16-17.

Washington’s official eye-opener came when the Defense Department’s U.S. Joint Forces Command listed Mexico along with Pakistan as “weak and failing states.” The command’s report (PDF) said both states “bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse,”

The threat in Mexico may seem less likely, “but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels,” said the report dated Nov. 28, 2008.

“How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state,” it said. “Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.”

The implications, of course, go far beyond homeland security concerns. To name a few:

• Mexico is the United States’ third largest trading partner, after Canada and China. In 2008 we shared $368 billion in total trade including about $666 million in exports from Minnesota to Mexico.

• The violence and drug trafficking reach all the way to Minnesota. Last month authorities arrested 27 people in the Twin Cities with alleged ties to Mexican drug networks, primarily the Sinaloa Cartel which is blamed for much of the violence in Tijuana. They had run a major cocaine and methamphetamine market in the Twin Cities, said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Authority. Authorities estimate that Mexican distribution cells make $3.5 million a month in the Twin Cities.

• Our two countries are inextricably linked by culture and custom. A million people legally cross our shared border every day, including thousands of frost-fleeing Minnesotans. You can have Florida and Arizona. My choice is Mexico. I’ve lost track of how many trips I made there — admiring architecture and art in Mexico City, reporting stories in the central regions and playing along the lush coast of the Yucatan Peninsula all the way down to Mexico’s border with Belize. Now I am worried sick that tourists will be scared away with devastating effects on Mexico’s economy.

The not-failing argument
The “failing state” report triggered spirited rebuttal. Here are some highlights:

“Mexico is not a failed state, and won’t be any time soon,” Mark Krikorian wrote in the National Review Online. He directs the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that advocates stricter immigration standards.

“In fact, the reason for the explosion of violence is precisely that the state is asserting itself, trying to end the cozy and corrupt arrangements that allowed drug cartels to buy all the pols and cops they needed to conduct their business unmolested,” Krikorian wrote.

President Filipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006 and deployed more than 40,000 federal troops to fight drug gangs after it became clear that many local police had been co-opted by the gangs.

Mexican drug suspect Santiago Meza, known as "El pozolero" (The Stew Maker), is surrounded by heavily armed soldiers in Tijuana earlier this year.
Mexican drug suspect Santiago Meza, known as “El pozolero” (The Stew Maker), is surrounded by heavily armed soldiers in Tijuana earlier this year.

In the article loaded with caveats, Krikorian says “the bulk of the violence is taking place in only three states,” and “there is as yet no mass emigration of the kind we saw from El Salvador, 25 percent of whose population fled during the civil war there in the 1980s.”

(The U.S. State Department agrees that the bulk of the violence is near the U.S. border, but in an alert last month it urged it travelers to exercise caution throughout Mexico, noting that violent attacks and kidnappings have been on the rise in other places too.)

A business perspective
Moody’s Investors Services weighed in this week with a declaration that “talk of Mexico becoming a ‘failed state’ is far-fetched.” Moody’s said the general foundations of Mexico’s investment-grade rating “remain solid,” but added that Mexico, like the rest of the world, is struggling with the economic crisis and could suffer as well from investor worries about public safety.

“Despite heightened anxiety about the escalation of violence and organized crime activity, Mexico does not fit the general profile of countries identified as failed states,” Moody’s Vice President Mauro Leos concluded.

Record of stability
Mexico has long been the most stable of the Latin American countries with a solid middle class, nearly universal education and a literacy rate above 90 percent.

For almost a century, it has maintained overall order through stormy political transitions, most recently from the 71-year dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

“Our national institutions function,” Enrique Krauze, editor of Mexico’s Letras Libres magazine wrote in an opinion article published by the New York Times.

“The army is (and long has been) subject to the civilian control of the president; the church continues to be a cohesive force; a powerful business class shows no desire to move to Miami,” Krauze wrote. “We have strong labor unions, good universities, important public enterprises and social programs that provide reasonable results.”

Krauze noted that for all of its present-day violence Mexico is free of the underlying tensions that have brought down other countries:

“Mexico is a tolerant and secular state, without the religious tensions of Pakistan or Iraq. It is an inclusive society, without the racial hatreds of the Balkans. It has no serious prospects of regional secession or disputed territories, unlike the Middle East. Guerrilla movements have never been a real threat to the state, in stark contrast to Colombia. . . . And with all its defects, the domination of the party, known as the P.R.I., never even approached the same level of virtually absolute dictatorship as that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, or even of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.”

Deadly serious nonetheless
Maybe it’s because I care so much about Mexico that I want to believe the rebuttal. But I also see this crisis as deadly serious on both sides of the border. 

For years, my family and I shrugged over hints of danger in Mexico. You watched your wallet in gritty border cities, you steered clear of shakedowns from crooked cops further south, and you stayed off the roads late at night. So what?

Sure, narcotrafficking lurked in the background. One morning we were jolted awake by the roar of military helicopters staging a drug bust just down the beach from our condo. During long walks on remote jungle beaches, we always quickened our pace as we passed sinister-looking compounds guarded by vicious dogs.

Still, we trusted that the traffickers weren’t interested in us. Stay out of their way, and they didn’t seem to bother you.

That complacency was shaken, though, in 2005 when drug violence exploded near my late mother’s winter home south of Laredo, Texas. Across the Rio Grande, more than 150 people were slaughtered in Neuvo Laredo that year, including two journalists and a police chief who survived less than seven hours in office.

I went to Neuvo Laredo to report the story for the Star Tribune. Here’s what scared me the most: Mexican authorities were finding evidence that guerrilla fighters had come from Guatemala and other countries further south to help Mexican drug cartels.

This was all-out regional war over control of some $10 billion a year in profits from drug sales in the United States. And the marketing system clearly was much bigger than Mexico. Was it realistic to hope that Mexico could contain it? 

The escalation of violence that year — in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana as well as Nuevo Laredo — was the impetus for Calderón’s bid to take on the challenge. So far, the costs have been cruel. In Mexico, 6,290 killings were blamed on the drug cartels in 2008 alone, more than all of the U.S. casualties in the Iraq war since 2003.

In Mexico on Thursday, Clinton said the United States must share the blame for the drug violence because it is a key supplier of weapons smuggled to cartel hit men as well as a major consumer of illicit drugs, the Los Angeles Times reported.

An estimated 2,000 weapons a day are smuggled into Mexico from the United States.

“We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States,” Clinton said at a news conference. “We see this as a responsibility to assist the Mexican government and people.”

Earlier this week Obama’s administration announced it was rushing hundreds of federal agents and intelligence analysts to the border as well as extra equipment. Among other equipment, Clinton said Washington hopes to provide $80 million worth of Black Hawk helicopters and five Bell helicopters to Mexico.

Many critics on both sides of the border say that what’s promised so far is a necessary start but not sufficient to stabilize Mexico and ensure that more of the violence doesn’t cross into our country.

President Obama suggested in his news conference this week that this is just a beginning: “If the steps that we’ve taken do not get the job done, then we will do more . . . this is something that we take very seriously, and we’re going to continue to work on diligently in the months to come.”

Not a gun
We didn’t flee Tijuana that day last December. Instead, we ducked into a government office and got assistance hiring a ride around the city as well as recommendations for a relatively safe restaurant.

As we wheeled past colorful plazas and empty tequila bars, a loud crack sounded.

“Not a gun …. Not a gun,” our driver shouted. “Truck backfired.”

We hadn’t asked. But he knew what we were thinking. Fear had flickered through his mind too.

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