I don’t know who thinks up of these things, but it’s amazing the level of human ingenuity when it comes to transporting drugs across the border and through the United States.
Aside from the usual human “mules” who strap drugs to their body parts, I’ve read about drugs being transported in frozen sharks, stuffed into Elmo dolls, and even inside (live) puppies. I once talked to someone connected to the drug trade, when I was a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, who had heard of a scheme to fill fruit juice cartons with drugs.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported on another interesting mode of transporting drugs: Stuffing marijuana inside bike wheels. According to this February blog post, an 18-year-old man (a U.S. citizen) was crossing the pedestrian checkpoint in San Ysidro - with his bike – when a customer decided to squeeze the bike wheels. It became clear that there wasn’t just air inside.
But that’s really kind of old school when you consider the engineering efforts involved in bringing larger quantities of drugs across land and sea. Four years ago, a submarine stuffed with cocaine was found off the coast of Costa Rica. And before I forget, an under-construction drug tunnel was discovered in February along the Otay Mesa (San Diego) border crossing area. You can read more about that in this SDUT article.
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The U.S. media gets flack from some Mexicans for focusing so much attention on the drug violence that happens south of the border.
“Why doesn’t anyone write about the top-level drug traffickers in your own country?” was a question posed to me once by Jesus Blancornelas, the editor of Tijuana’s muckracking weekly Zeta newspaper when I first started working as a border reporter with The San Diego Union-Tribune nine years ago. Blancornelas, who regularly wrote about the Arellanos and other drug groups operating along the Mexican border, had almost been killed in an ambush in 1997 that was later tied to the Arellano-Felix drug cartel.
To him, it didn’t make sense that so much attention was placed on drug traffickers and violence south of the border when it appeared to him those drugs had to be distributed through a centralized system north of the border that would require some degree of institutional corruption. I replied that perhaps it was a question of the scope of the problem being much larger in Mexico – a valuable transit area with weaker institutions – than in the United States: Mexico had its capos, and the U.S. had smaller-scale dealers with lower profiles.
Still, his question lingered with me over the years as I occasionally wrote about the Arellano-Felix drug group’s activities in San Diego and Chula Vista. Recently, I read a story in the Los Angeles Times that explored a connection with the Arellano-Felix drug cartel in a 101-Freeway shooting in December, 2008, that left the the driver of a $100,000 Bentley dead. According to a search warrant affidavit obtained by the paper, the victim “might have been selling drugs here for the notorious Arellano Felix cartel.” (Read the article here)
I thought that when I took a job in Los Angeles last year I had left the Arellanos behind, but I guess not. They are, in a sense, everywhere.
Photo of car dealership in Los Angeles that has no known connection to the Arellano-Felix drug group whatsoever.
The fact that another suspected Arellano Felix drug cartel member had been arrested in Tijuana wasn’t as interesting to me as where he was found. Mexican media reported that Filiberto Parra Ramos was detained June 10 either inside or just outside the Total Fitness Gym, in the city’s Zona Rio business district.
That’s the same gym I used to go to when I lived in Tijuana, and to be honest I’m a little surprised he wasn’t going to the swankier Sports World Tijuana gym (the Arellanos’ recreation budget must have been cut). I remember visiting both gyms and deciding not to got to Sports World because the monthly membership was closer to $300 (someone correct me here, if needed…) and because it seemed to be the kind of place where people looked great but didn’t seem to be capable of sweating.
At Total Fitness the equipment area was a little more cramped but there was a lot of sweating going on. Both places had some similar details, such as rock scaling areas and lap pools. At Total Fitness, I had a membership for about $100 a month and a personal trainer who was preparing for a body building competition. At times he seemed more interested in his own physique, but he dutifully kept me from cutting corners with the weights and sneaking off the bikes too early.
Both mega-gyms opened sometime after the year 2000, providing an alternative for wealthier Tijuanenses whose exercise options had previously involved jogging at public park facilities or crossing the border to work out in Chula Vista. For me, the main impetus to work out was to stay fit in my jeans. The stakes are probably much higher for someone like Parra, who was reportedly part of the Arellanos’ killer squad.
Screenshot from Total Fitness website. They have some gym promo going for $35.
Posted in Musings, Travel
Tagged arellano felix, arellanos, Baja California, border, drug trafficking, drugs, el teo, filiberto parra, gym, gymnasium, la perra, mexico, sports world, Tijuana, total fitness
San Diego Magazine is publishing a series of stories about drug trafficking along the border. In the first installment, S.D. Liddick explores the case of the 2006 beheadings of the Rosarito Beach police officers, which was linked to the Arellano-Felix drug organization. It’s well worth the read. Liddick spent considerable time collecting information for this story. I know because at one point when I still worked at The San Diego Union-Tribune, he lost the cell phone number for the former Rosarito police chief Valente Montijo-Pompa - and I helped him get back in touch with the chief.
The story is skillfully written with powerful insights into the corruptible forces of drug trafficking, including some fascinating quotes by realist Montijo-Pompa, who freely admits “I’m not going to fight with somebody whose circumstances are 1,000 to my one. I’m not going to be a hero—to kill my people. I’m not going to sacrifice others or convert Rosarito into a battleground or put innocents in the middle.”
With Mexican drug trafficking violence the “hot” topic over the past year or so, many media groups are jostling for a chance to claim their stake in this story. Of course, the story has been going on for years but the degree of attention tends to correspond to body counts. It’s no surprise that San Diego Magazine would explore this issue in depth, and kudos to the magazine for investing the time and resources in doing so. I look forward to reading the upcoming installments. My only issue with the first article is that I think it takes an unwarranted and unsubstantiated swipe at the quality of border coverage by other media groups in a curious attempt to elevate the article’s authority. You can read my opinion in the story’s online comments section.
Read the first installment of “Blood of Their Brothers: The Border Trilogy” here.
Photo of car dealership in Los Angeles with no apparent link to the Arellano-Felix organization whatsoever.
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged arellano felix, arellanos, Baja California, border, drug trafficking, drug violence, drugs, mexico, police beheadings, rosarito, rosarito beach, rosarito beheadings, s.d. liddick, san diego reader, Tijuana
Almost overnight, Mexico has jumped to the top of the U.S. diplomatic agenda – at least momentarily overshadowing Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is visiting Mexico this week, paving the way for a scheduled visit next month by President Obama.
It appears that part of the attention comes from a heightened awareness of the cross-border threat of drug-related violence. The rhetoric got especially charged in recent months as Spring Breakers were warned to avoid Mexico (The ATF, in an odd move for an agency whose role seems mismatched for such statements, warned students to avoid Mexico – and then later softened their stance). The U.S. Joint Forces Command, meanwhile, identified Mexico as one of the two most critical states in danger of failing due to the havoc created by the region’s drug cartels.
To be sure, the violence appears to have taken a particularly savage turn over the past few years. Missing in some of these assessments, however, is that the backlash comes from the Mexican government’s own success in attacking the country’s drug cartels over the past eight years. Dismantling long-standing drug trafficking organizations, unfortunately, creates instability . Drug trafficking was a major problem during the 1990s but it may not have attracted this much attention because the drug groups operated with comparatively minimal meddling from the government. This created a false sense of order.
With so much attention on the violence in Mexico lately (I can’t seem to turn on the radio or read a news media source without hearing about it), Mexican authorities have lashed back. In recent weeks, they have pointed out that the U.S. demand for drugs is fueling the drug trade. They have accused the U.S. of not doing enough to curb the flow of firearms south of the border into the hands of drug traffickers. Mexican president Felipe Calderon also suggested that the U.S. do a better job of attacking drug corruption in its own agencies.
Things have gotten testy, and the visits by U.S. diplomats are clearly meant to soothe the bickering and focus on the cross-border collaboration efforts. Whether this actually translates to a reduction in the violence is unclear, especially when we consider the unabated demand for drugs in the United States. Instead, stability may be more dependent on the ability of Mexican drug groups to re-negotiate their roles in a way that gives us all the illusion that the underlying problem has been fixed.
Read a story here in The New York Times, about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitting that the U.S. shares a responsibility in Mexico’s problems. Here’s another one by The Washington Post.
Here is an essay by Mexican scholar Enrique Krauze who argues that Mexico is not a “failed state” at risk of “imminent collapse.”
Here is a story in The San Diego Union-Tribune about how Mexican drug trafficking groups get their guns from the U.S.
Blog essay by Anna Cearley, former border reporter
Posted in Crime & public security, Musings
Tagged barack obama, cross-border violence, demand for drugs, drug policy, drug trafficking, drug violence, drugs, hillary clinton, mexico, Mexico-U.S. diplomacy
There is a certain stigma attached to border cities where members of major drug trafficking groups regularly intimidate police, kill each other, and occasionally leave trails of dumped body parts.
In light of travel advisories like this one, cities like Tijuana have tried unsuccessfully over the past year to convince tourists that they aren’t likely to be the target of a narco shooting. In Mazatlan, meanwhile, some taxi drivers are finding a niche in taking tourists to (the outside of) places believed to be owned by drug traffickers and to the crime scenes of famous drug battles, according to this story by Marc Lacey of The New York Times.
While official tourism officials here might wince at the idea, other countries are employing narco tourism: In Colombia, you can visit a ranch used by now-deceased drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. It has been converted into a theme park.
Capitalizing on the narco phenomenom can be controversial, but a fair number of tourists would probably enjoy visiting the sites of one of Tijuana’s infamous drug tunnels (or others in Tecate and Mexicali). The art museum known as Casa del Tunel – the origin of one the city’s famous cross-border tunnels – provides only passing recognition of its past incarnation.
Tijuana Tunnel Tours could be a mobile event, or it could become an actual museum. There is a warehouse east of the Tijuana airport that was the origin of a massive and incomplete tunnel said to have been built for Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman in the 1990s. This tunnel museum could include photos of other tunnels, explanations of how tunnels are found, and shovels and religious icons found at tunnel sites. Guzman, who remains at large, might be appeased with a VIP pass.
Photo of warehouse that was the entrance of a massive tunnel discovered in 1993, said to have been built by suspected trafficker Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman. The last time I visited the building, it was being used by Mexican federal authorities to hold confiscated cars.
Posted in Crime & public security, Musings
Tagged Baja California, border, chapo, cross-border tunnels, drug trafficking, drug tunnels, drug violence, drugs, joaquin guzman, marc lacey, mexico, narco tourism, Tijuana, tourism, tours, tunnels
There’s something both intimidating and reassuring about being greeted at the Tijuana border by a masked soldier with a very large rifle. They started showing up here en masse last year in response to a notable uptick of drug-related violence. Now the camouflaged greeters seem to have become the city’s unofficial mascot to city visitors, along the lines of the bomb-sniffing dogs I once encountered at a Bogota, Colombia mall.
Once you get behind their ski masks, though, the ones I’ve met appear to be quite polite. I had the opportunity to watch them up close during two recent visits to Tijuana when my car was pulled over for an inspection at the border. In the most recent case, a lanky soldier leaned down to my eye level and asked me for permission to inspect the car. Then he then asked politely if I would please exit the car while he searched behind the car seats, along the door interiors and in the trunk.
Finally, finding nothing of note, he thanked me.
The San Diego Union-Tribune has a story by Sandra Dibble about the military’s increased presence in the border region.
Not everyone is pleased with the soldiers. The New York Times writes about how some Mexicans – some of whom may have questionable motives – have been protesting the military’s presence in certain drug trafficking hot spots. Read the story by Marc Lacey here.
Photo of soldiers at Tecate port of entry during an investigation in 2007.
Posted in Crime & public security, Musings
Tagged baja, Baja California, border, border inspections, drug trafficking, drug violence, mexican soldiers, mexico, public security, soldiers, Tijuana
Screenshot of Nautla photo gallery from SignOnSanDiego website
The tiny village of Nautla, Mexico, is an informal “sister city” for San Diego’s cocaine users. More than 100 Nautlans have been detained over the years after being linked to a loose confederation of drug-dealing franchises that sold cocaine to San Diego area residents. Many were caught during an undercover operation called Operation Veracruz.
In 2005, The San Diego Union-Tribune sent me and a photographer to Nautla to learn more about the unusual ties that bind these two communities and you can read the story on the paper’s SignOnSanDiego website. Nautla is in a beautiful part of Mexico - along the Veracruz coast – but I’m not sure I will be welcomed back anytime soon.
Inevitably, new entrepreneurs showed up to take the place of the ones that had been deported (For the record: Not every Nautlan is involved in this). In the most recent development, the San Diego division of the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that two more Nautlans - a father and son team this time – face time behind bars after authorities linked them to cocaine found in one of their homes. The duo apparently earned about $10,000 a month from their illicit enterprise, according to a DEA press release. Alejandro Olmedo-Castro, 29, was sentenced to six months in jail and Ruperto Olmedo-Zaletas, 52, was sentenced to three years in prison, but both face deportation upon their release. I am waiting for the press release to be posted online so that I can link to it (hint, hint).
Arrest photo of Sandra Avila from Mexican Attorney General’s office
”The Queen of the Pacific: It’s time to Talk” is the name of a book about suspected Mexican drug trafficker Sandra Avila Beltran. The title seems to suggest a confessional narrative. Instead, Avila claims to be a victim of a vengeful government that is no less corrupt than drug traffickers.
Avila’s reputation, of course, is far more intriguing. She is said to have seduced drug traffickers and police officials, to have been involved in cocaine shipments to Mexico, and to have coordinated an extensive money laundering operation for the Sinaloa cartel.
The (Spanish-language) book, which is narrated by Mexico’s prize-winning journalist Julio Scherer Garcia, allows Avila to tell her side of the story - perhaps a bit too liberally. Avila doesn’t deny that she comes from a world of drug trafficking but she asserts that associating with traffickers doesn’t make her one. Her explanation for having so many real estate properties seems somewhat simplistic: “I was good at property transactions and I dedicated a part of my time to this.”
Nonetheless, Avila (not to be confused with the Sinaloan beauty queen arrested last month) provides some interesting glimpses into the world she comes from. She talks about women in the narco world – “competitive and exhibitionists” – and shares her knowledge of some of the slang expressions used by drug traffickers – “hacer una vuelta” signifies a firmed-up business deal. She takes swipes at former Mexico first lady Marta Sahagun, says a few words about former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, and speaks about her love of jewels (A list of the jewelry that was confiscated from her takes up ten pages).
I couldn’t help wonder about a sister that Avila mentions who seems to have separated herself from the family. Avila’s choice to accept and embrace the drug world no doubt contributed to her ending up in prison, where she awaits a decision on her case. The tragedy for both sisters is that their separate paths both lead to pain and consequences.
Complicity is the lock and chain of the drug world, and that’s why I find this particular commentary from Avila both ominous and true: ”I have ties with the drug society, but that is not my complete world. I am part of the society in its totality.”
This YouTube video of a Tucanes de Tijuana song (from 666SiNaLoA666) details a narco party that Avila says she attended in real life and that was reconstructed with surprising accuracy: