Monthly Archives: December 2008

Happy New Year from Across the Border

I am taking a one-week break from writing, but in the meantime I want to thank those of you who have dropped by to visit – once, or regularly – since this blog started seven months ago. Across the border continues to attract more and more readers even as I continue to experiment with topics and styles. There are times when I really miss the extra eyes of a good editor but in this new media world I have found the collective intelligence  of  readers to be a powerful force. I would like to invite you to fill out a short poll (below) while I’m gone.  To keep you entertained, I leave you links to a few blog postings that may not have gotten the most views but that are interesting in their own right:

Brozo journalism

Tijuana makes me happy, too

A Tijuana talent plays in a taco shop


Thanks, again, for your readership and I wish you a Happy New Year! I will be back here blogging the week of Jan. 5.

Best, Anna

What do you prefer reading about on Across the Border?
( polls)

Faith across the border


                                     Click on image to be directed to CurrentTV video 

Years ago, while traveling in Guatemala, I stumbled upon a procession of people singing religious songs. The were carrying a shoebox with a tiny plastic baby doll inside. The doll, which represented Jesus, was being brought to a house where the village members filed in to pray before the thumb-sized effigy.

Since then, I’ve often been struck by the amount of faith that people place in God, Jesus and assorted saints in certain Latin American communities. The Catholic religion was imposed on the local indigenous population during the Spanish conquest, but faith existed long before then in different forms. As a result, the Catholic tradition was also expropriated by the local population in unique ways.  For example, the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most revered religious icon, is seen by some as a synthesis of the Virgin Mary. 

Here are a couple of videos that caught my eye over the past month that provide some visual reference points to religion and faith in Mexico:

In December, an estimated 7 million Mexicans make a pilgrimage to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe, some of them crawling on their knees. The video is by Deborah Bonello of the Los Angeles Times and you can see it here.

The Saint of Death has come to be a figure referred by drug traffickers and others who live life on the edge. The reporting, hosted on CurrentTV, is done by former Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Weekly reporter Daniel Hernandez who is working on a book about youth culture in Mexico’s interior. You can see the video here.

Screen shot of CurrentTV video, reported by Daniel Hernandez

Actor Matthew McConaughey, Sinaloan beauty queen make news south of border

What do actor Matthew McConaughey and a Sinaloan beauty queen have in common?

They both recently got in a fix south of the border.

In the case of McConaughey, who likes to sprinkle his prose with the phrase “just keep living,” there is a happy ending. The actor writes in his blog that he and a friend went on a road trip and their car broke down somewhere in the middle of the desert in southern Baja California. He thanks an 82-year-old local woman called “Matty” who helped them out. Read more on McConaughey’s blog here.

The story of how Laura Elena Zuniga Huizar, “Our Beauty Sinaloa 2008,” was caught with a stash of firearms and thousands of dollars seems straight out of a Hollywood movie. Zuniga, from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, was detained along with seven men (the exact number seems to vary in news reports) at a military checkpoint in Guadalajara, according to this story in Vanguardia that also has a picture of her.

Zuniga’s reported explanation: They were going to go shopping in Bolivia and Colombia.

**UPDATED INFORMATION on Zuniga’s arrest in  this Associated Press story. Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson also  writes about Sinaloa’s drug trafficking connections in this story published Dec. 28:  “In Sinaloa, the drug trade has infiltrated ‘every corner of life.’ **


YouTube video of Laura Elena Zuniga Huizar – the woman in the yellow dress –  from NoroesteTV

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‘Tis the season – for long waits at the Tijuana border


syportentry1This is the time of year when street vendors in Tijuana sell mini Santa hats that people stick on their car windshields. It’s also the time of year when border waits turn the city’s streets into a tangled pretzel of cars trying to get out of Mexico and into San Diego County so that Mexicans can do some holiday shopping.

The waits can suck the ho-ho-ho out of even the most seasoned border veteran. Heading back north from Tijuana this weekend, I realized belatedly that I was going to have to join the seasonal exodus. Oh, if only Rudolph could have guided my way! Instead, I got in the “fast track” SENTRI lanes along with hundreds of other cars and nosed my way slowly to the border. Waiting an hour in SENTRI is no fun, but I couldn’t help but feel grateful towards the other north-bound travelers willing to endure this long wait to spend money in our sputtering economy. So, instead of being glum I cranked up some Christmas carols on the radio and wondered how much of this money was going to end up in cash registers north of the border.

A figure that’s frequently quoted is that an estimated $1.6 billion in goods and services were purchased by Baja California residents in San Diego County in 2002. This is attributed to Kenn Morris of Crossborder Business Associates in the insightful Blurred Borders report put out by the International Community Foundation. Even though it’s unclear to me how much of that money is spent during the holiday season, it illustrates the ties that bind our cross-border communities.

Photo taken during normal traffic – not seasonal holiday traffic.

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Profiling the drug wars

The Los Angeles Times’ Richard Marosi writes about one of the people believed to be responsible for a whole lot of killings in Tijuana: Teodoro Garcia Simental. You can read and learn more here about the suspected drug trafficker, who is also known as “El Teo.” 

These guys don’t like being placed in the spotlight, speaking from personal experience from my days of covering this sort of thing for The San Diego Union-Tribune. But perhaps “Teo” feels a little better with the attention since he was overlooked on  Detail magazine’s blog of “Most Influential” people of the year. (His nemesis –  suspected trafficker Francisco Sanchez Arellano  – made the list).

If you are looking for more information on the personalities behind the big guns, you can read this story by Tracy Wilkinson, also of the Los Angeles Times, about Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the suspected head of a drug group that is battling the Tijuana region’s once-dominant Arellano-Felix cartel.

I wish I could link to an indepth profile of the former head of the Arellano cartel – the now-imprisoned Benjamin Arellano-Felix –  that was written by S. Lynne Walker. She wrote it when she was based out of Mexico City for Copley News Service, but it doesn’t seem to be available online. If anyone finds that story, or any other noteworthy profiles, let me know.

Weekend shopping in new Tijuana center

ghandiaWhile living briefly in Mexico City, I visited palatial stores with names like Palacio de Hierro and Liverpool and regularly did my homework at a cafe-bookstore called Gandhi. This past weekend, feeling the shopping spirit,  I visited a newly-opened Gandhi and Liverpool in Tijuana that are part of a small commercial center near the San Ysidro border. 

The Liverpool here is not a full-blown department store like the ones I’ve visited in other parts of  Mexico. Instead, it is a “duty free” store and merchandise consists primarily of designer purses, watches and cosmetics/perfumes. An employee there told me that it’s part of a new concept in places like Cancun and Tijuana to attract tourists and, in particular, Mexican-Americans who are familiar with the Liverpool name. 


Tijuana, despite being a city of roughly 1.5 million people, is really a small-town kind of place when it comes to bumping into people. I had just read in the Tijuana weekly Zeta that the city’s former head of public security, Alberto Capella, was seen shopping at  Liverpool, where some watches go for about $3,000. The city’s mayor, Jorge Ramos, had also reportedly been spotted buying much-cheaper candy.

ghandisergioaI didn’t see anyone I knew at Liverpool, but I did run into Frontera reporter Sergio Ortiz at the Gandhi bookstore. He and a colleague were browsing through the CD racks with their camera gear slung over their shoulders, waiting for the radio call that would  take them to the next crime scene.

The Gandhi store is much smaller than the ones I’ve been to in other parts of Mexico but it seems to be drawing a crowd. My only gripe, which is apparently shared by some Mexicans, is that it doesn’t have a cafe.  I have fond memories of sipping tea and  savoring tres leches cake at the Gandhi bookstore-cafe in Mexico City’s Coayacan neighborhood. Nostalgia aside, the new stores have brought a shiny new sheen to the Tijuana commercial scene, though I don’t expect to be buying any $800 purses there anytime soon.

* Directions to commercial center: Enter Tijuana at San Ysidro port of entry. Take exit to Paseo de los Heroes/Zona Rio. The Pavilion Plaza Tijuana center is at the first intersection you hit, on your right and across from Costco. Underground parking is available.


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NYTimes: A deported American and other strange tales

picture-1I like this story by The New York Times for two reasons. First, it takes a concept – deportation – and flips it on its head. We commonly associate deportation along the border with undocumented Mexicans and other Latin Americans being returned forcefully to their homeland, but what about wandering Americans who wear out their welcome?

Mexico correspondent Marc Lacey finds a guy called “Crash” who has been bumming or strumming around Mexico until being deported to the United States. Lacey apparently met “Crash” during a recent trip to Tijuana, where the vagabond managed to sneak back into Mexico. The result is a concise and interesting postcard of the other side of deportation.

The second reason I like this story – and I’ll admit to some personal bias here – is that the photo was taken by my friend, Eros Hoagland, who is a freelancer and traveler-to-places-in-conflict. I planned on posting this link sooner, but finals got in the way. You can read it here.

Lacey seems to have a good eye for the unusual, in addition to the enviable resources of a large newspaper . Last month, he wrote about visiting a private drug museum run by the Mexican military. For a more recent story by Lacey, you can read this article about an American kidnap negotiator who has apparently been kidnapped himself  in Mexico. 

Screenshot of New York Times page

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Tijuana border posada this weekend


YouTube video of a posada in Ciudad Juarez (Mexico) area from YsletaLM

Throughout Mexico this time of year residents re-enact the story of how Joseph and Mary seek shelter on Christmas Eve. The recreated journey – which can be repeated over several nights – ends with a celebratory fiesta at an appointed house.

The border has appropriated this tradition with its own Posada Sin Fronteras (Posada Without Boundaries) at the border fence. La Prensa San Diego reports that the 15th annual event will take place this Saturday from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the fence area along  Border Field State Park, .

The Tijuana border posadas create a parallel between the plight of immigrants and how Mary and Joseph seek hospitality in a foreign and unfriendly land, according to a recently-published  book by USC professor Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo called “God’s Heart Has No Borders. How Religious Activists are Working for Immigrant Rights.” 

I came across the book on a USC colleague’s desk and read the section in which Hondagneu-Sotelo  discusses the meaning of border posadas and shares her own observations from attending one. Hondagneu-Sotelo calls the Tijuana tradition an example of how “symbols and rituals from distinctively Mexican and Catholic traditions mesh with interdenominational Christian beliefs to galvanize moral voice against U.S. border policy.” 

This year’s border posada takes place as U.S. authorities  move forward with plans to fortify this section of the fence.

For more information on this year’s border posada go here. 

For a short and quick explanation of posadas, go here.

Disclosure:  My job as a media representative at the University of Southern California includes bringing attention to books authored by USC professors and this particular book seemed relevant to this particular blog posting.

Tijuana arts and crafts this weekend


A reader sent me this flyer for an arts and crafts holiday sale in Tijuana this weekend that is billed as an opportunity to purchase  “gifts and novelties – but not by your grandmother,” It’s being held in my old neighborhood of La Cacho, and I’m intrigued to learn that Tijuana seems to be a base for a brigade of serious knitters and sewing guerrillas with sassy names like “Stitch and Bitch” and “The Magic Mushroom.”

I’ve always been fascinated by sub-cultures within Tijuana – Mixtec Indians, street vendors and bicyclists, to name a few –  because they represent the dynamics that make this city tick in ways that often elude the outside world’s attention. Whether they are pushing for change, leaving an artistic mark or just trying to scrape by, their stories help explain what it is to be Mexican while at the same time reflecting our globalization in small but significant ways.  

To view a larger version of the flyer, click here or click on the images.  The event takes place on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m and the flyer has more specific information. For a general idea of where this is taking place you can search “Guanajuato Avenida Tijuana” on  Google maps.


Screenshot from the blog of Elylu

More border coverage

picture-8KPBS San Diego released a multi-media project on border drug violence in collaboration with “Border Battle. Bringing the Drug War Home.” It includes a Google map mash-up that details suspected drug-related killings, statistics and trends  along the Tijuana-San Diego border in recent months. It also includes videos,  a glossary of lexicon inspired by drug violence, and explanations of some of the drug trafficking world’s players.  The site has links to topical KPBS articles and the multi-media component is done in both Spanish and English. I’m assuming that Amy Isackson, the KPBS San Diego border reporter, was actively involved in this impressive project. The Los Angeles Times has also created a multi-media website  to highlight its own impressive coverage of drug violence in Mexico,  though its site doesn’t have the same Tijuana focus.

Driving home from USC this evening,  I listened to more talk about the border on the radio show  “To the Point.” The topic: “Mexico’s Drug War: Mi Guerra es Tu Guerra.” The panel included Mexico specialists in academia as well as Newsweek’s Miami Bureau Chief Arian Campo-Flores and Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Ellingwood.  A few points brought up: Mexico’s development as a democracy has disrupted certain authoritarian tendencies that may have kept the violence in check in the past. The carnage can also be seen as the consequence of Mexico’s success in disrupting long-standing drug cartel groups.

To hear the discussion, as well as another report on “Is Mexico Losing Its War on Drugs?” you can go to KCRW’s web page

Screenshot of KPBS San Diego’s border violence map project