Monthly Archives: January 2009

Seniors find cheaper assisted living facilities in Mexico


                                       Click screenshot for ABC webpage and video

It’s not just the sun, sand and cultural offerings of Mexico that draw people here. ABC World News ran a spot this week about elderly Americans who are moving south of the border to stay in affordable “assisted living” homes. The program profiled a couple called Margie and Homer, who have moved to such a place in the town of  San Miguel de Allende.

The issue is timely since many retirees are being forced to modify their future plans as their retirement portfolios take a heavy hit from the economic downturn. The report notes that in Sayulita (of Nayarit state), 10 projects for assisted living homes are being built. One place in Ensenada, Residencia Lourdes, serves patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Costs for assisted living programs in Mexico seem to range between $500 and $1,500 a month. 

I couldn’t find any recent independent media reports on retirement communities in Baja California, though there are plenty that are put out by realtors. A 2007 article by Chris Hawley in USAToday noted that Tijuana’s Economic Development Council was at that time seeking funding from the Mexican government to build more retirement homes for U.S. baby boomers

As these news reports note, however, there are no systemic regulations in place to monitor the newly-developing  industry. Hawley also writes that Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Veterans Affairs and most U.S. insurance companies won’t cover health costs for patients outside the United States.

Marg(i)e and Homer seem to be pleased with their place, though I had to wonder what it must be like to go through life with the same name as The Simpsons couple.

The Dallas Morning News ran an article by Laurence Iliff about the growth of assisted living homes in Mexico that was published November, 2008.

 David Warner, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas has also studied the issue.

Screenshot of retirees living in Mexico from ABC World News

USD guest speaker on religion and immigration

loretomissionUniversity of San Diego invites the public to attend a presentation on religion, migration and national identity. The event starts at  7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009:

The Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies and the Trans-Border Institute welcomes His Excellency, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, J.C.D. Apostolic Nuncio. Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants

The Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies and the Trans-Border Institute will sponsor a major international conference on April 15-16, 2009, to consider the connections between migration, religious experience, and national identification. This conference will provide a unique opportunity to examine migration, religion, an national identity in historical and comparative perspective, as well as the efforts of different faith communities to grapple with the challenges of contemporary immigration and assimilation. In advance of the conference, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto will offer his reflections on these important issues.”

The event is free and open to the public at USD’s Joan Kroc Theatre

For directions, visit

Read the event flyer here.

Photo of Mision Nuestra Senora de Loreto, in Loreto.

**Disclosure: I am a contributing writer for the monthly Justice in Mexico news report, which is produced by USD’s Trans-Border Institute**

Suspected drug trafficker Sandra Avila: “I am part of the society.”


                   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:

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Carlos Slim’s investment in The New York Times

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve never met Mexican Carlos Slim, but he’s ubiquitous in Mexico through his numerous businesses that have made him one of the richest men in the world. He’s also obtaining a larger stake in what is arguably the symbolic heart and soul of U.S. journalism, The New York Times (read a BBC story about it here).

Depending on which side of the spectrum you sit on, Slim is either a shrewd opportunist who obtained his fortune south of the border largely from the kind of political connections that aren’t available to most Mexicans or he’s an astute businessman who exemplifies Mexico’s democratic principles. I assume the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Traditional media isn’t the best investment these days. Just ask real estate magnate Sam Zell who attempted to resuscitate the Tribune Company and then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. So what’s in it for Slim?

This could be a case of Slim seeing a business opportunity. There are other potential payoffs: His investment in The New York Times might recast him as a savior. It also – frankly – makes the paper somewhat indebted to him. Regardless of the motive, Slim’s interest in the Times highlights the troubles of traditional news media and the opportunities for global investors in the United States while raising questions over who will control the news in the future.

To read a business story about Carlos Slim, here is a story in Fortune Magazine by my former Northwestern classmate Stephanie Mehta.

You can also read an opinion piece that ran in The New York Times in 2007 that alludes to Slim as a “robber baron.”

This story posted Jan. 20 on Slate’s website – “Slim’s Pickings” – is a thoughtful piece that handles this tricky subject deftly. It was written by Andres Martinez.

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Obama and Mexico

senatorbarackobamaaIn the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001, I got a lot of sympathetic reactions from Mexicans in Tijuana. That concern turned into confusion as the U.S. foreign policy evolved in an arguably unilateral fashion. Many Mexicans I talked to were perplexed that the U.S. public would re-elect president George W. Bush in 2004. Those same Mexicans, as may be the case with other global residents, are now hopeful the U.S. is heading back on track.

In the spirit of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, here are some links to stories that explore Obama’s relationship with Mexico:

Obama met with Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon Jan. 12 – his first meeting with a foreign leader since the election. You can read more about that visit in this The Dallas Morning News article.

In an opinion piece  published in The Dallas Morning News, Obama acknowledges that 6.5 million Americans live in border communities and that “too often we neglect the unique needs of these communities, which are integrated with their cities across the border.”  He calls for greater cross-border partnerships while also noting he will “seek enforceable labor and environmental standards” as amendments to the free trade agreement, NAFTA.

Jeremy Schwartz, of Cox News Service, wrote in 2008 about how Obama’s candidacy serves as a subject of reflection on racial matters in Mexico, where the Afro-Mexican community is largely ignored. You can read the article here.

CBS quoted Obama when he visited Brownsville during a campaign stop, where he bought a torta from a taquito stand and mused on his first encounter with the border: “This is the first time I’ve been this close, here in Texas. I’ve been in Mexico when I was in college and going to school in Southern California. I can’t entirely talk about it.”

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Tijuana security


                KPBS video (via YouTube) of Car Armoring Service’s Tijuana plant

As the border region enters its second year of what I would describe as sustained drug warfare, some people have decided to simply stop going to border cities like Tijuana.

Other people – who have reasons to take extra-precautions for their safety because they own a business in Mexico or are part of a criminal group – make sure they go there as if prepared for battle. I don’t have any statistics on the numbers of armored vehicles being used in these border cities, but I recently noticed full-page newspaper advertisements for several Tijuana region services so there must be a demand for the extra protection that can cost upwards of $50,000.

One of them, Car Armoring Service, is a company I profiled in 2006 for The San Diego Union-Tribune when the business was using its original name of Total Shield-Blindado Seguro. You can read the story here. Amy Isackson of KPBS-San Diego radio did a more recent story in December about armored cars that you can access here. It has an interesting video of Car Armoring’s Tijuana factory that has also been posted on YouTube

 Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security has a listing of 45  car armoring services, according to this online document, but it isn’t broken down by region. One of them, Blindajes Goldman, opened up shop in Tijuana recently. Carlos Guerrero, who runs Car Armoring Service, told me that more competitors have tried to nose their way into the border region. Despite that, he said, business is brisk and his company – which already has offices in Mexicali and San Diego –  will be soon opening another branch in the city of El Paso, Texas.

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The border is everywhere



There’s a tendency for us to get somewhat myopic about immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. We forget that these complex issues are playing out in other parts of the world in different yet equally-dramatic fashions.  NPR ran a three-part series this week about race and politics in Europe (access it here) that looks at how immigrants are changing the demographics of countries like Italy, Germany and France.  Over there, immigrants from Africa have to cross the sea to get to Europe. Closer to home, we have the border fence. I drove out to Playas de Tijuana this week to see how fortification there is changing the landscape. The photo at the top of this post shows older and newer fence sections. The photo below is of “Smuggler’s Gulch” where truckloads of dirt have created the equivalent of the Great Wall of China in what was once a hollow section of the border:




Construction has started along Friendship Park, a part of the border that overlooks the ocean where families on both sides of the border have traditionally gathered to have picnics and converse through gaps in the older section of the fence. Here is a photo of what I saw looking into the United States park from the Mexican side. I’m not seeing so many amigos there:


To read a recent story about the construction going on along the San Diego border, you can read this story by Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi.  To learn more about the fate of Friendship Park, here is an Associated Press article by Elliot Spagat and another piece by San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Leslie Berenstein. Also, fellow blogger  Kinsee Morlan shares a video of the fence in her blog, Stairs to Nowhere.

***Update: Randal Archibold of The New York Times has a story about a border plan to address environmental harm along the border fence area. You can read it here. ***
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Tijuana at night


                                                Photo by Nathan Gibbs

There’s something I find remarkably peaceful about Tijuana at night when you look at it from the nearby hills. The effect is particularly strong as you drive from the plateau of Otay Mesa downhill towards the city’s center, a sensation that is comparable to coming in for landing by plane. From around a curve in the road, the sparkle of city lights becomes a glittery sea. It’s as if millions of stars have fallen from the sky to rest on the ground. Perhaps I find it so stunning because I am aware the calm is illusionary, interrupted by the evil deeds of drug traffickers and other criminals who operate in the city. For a brief moment, however, the lights snuff out the darkness and bring a sheen of magic to the city’s doorstep.

My own photography efforts have failed to capture this mood, so I’m posting a beautiful Tijuana night photo by Nathan Gibbs, per the stipulations of his creative commons license.  Go to this page for the full effect of a street time-lapse that can also be found directly on his blog,

Spending the night in a Mexican motel

motelaTijuana is full of motels like this one, but you might want to think twice about checking in.  

Motels south of the border serve a quite different purpose than motels in the U.S., which are still an option for budget-conscious families and travelers. Motels in Mexico – and throughout Latin America – are for people to hook up in. This explains why they are built with large walls, and sometimes have paying areas set up as booths with reflective glass. The upper-end ones offer garages and private entries while the lower-scale ones use curtains to cover up your car. Once you realize what they are, you start to see them all over the place. The more extravagant ones take on themes:  There’s one in the outskirts of the city inspired by the  Taj Majal.

How do I know this? As a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, I once had to go to a crime scene near one of these “love motels” and tried – unsuccessfully – to get some information from the voices behind a tinted glass booth. Another time, also while on assignment for the Union-Tribune, I stayed at a motel in Veracruz out of absolute desperation. A photographer and I had arrived there during some national holiday and the city’s hotels were filled to capacity. A hotel worker suggested a motel. My room was decorated in surreal shades of blue. A plastic black couch faced a television and mini-bar. Inside a glass nook, fake flowers and arranged stones created a kitschy fantasy ambiance. The pillows were flat, the bed was hard, and napkin dispensers clung to the walls.

The motels are used by prostitutes and their clients. They are sometimes used by married people who are having affairs. But they are also used  by people who just need a little space away from prying eyes. In Latin America, privacy can be sorely lacking when you are living with your parents, in-laws, kids, and other assorted family members. Some of these motels are designed to be quick – really quick – get-aways. That night in Veracruz, it became quite clear to me that this one wasn’t made for sleeping in as the sound of nearby garage doors opening and closing kept me up all night.

Here’s an interesting El Universal story (in Spanish) of how these love-nooks are offering free car washes or extra time due to tougher economic times.

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Counting the border tunnels of 2008

drugtunnellistaOne of the things I miss about my old job as a border reporter is the opportunity to chase after border tunnels. This happened regularly, and you can read what that was like in this previous post. Before I left the The San Diego Union-Tribune in late 2007,  I pulled together a comprehensive list of cross-border tunnels found since 1999 that was posted here in this interactive map.

Curious to see what kind of tunnel activity took place in 2008, I started digging around news reports. It appears that Arizona was a hotspot for tunnels last year (where they tend to be connected to the drainage system). For more information, read this Arizona Republic report. Here is my (in?) complete list:

Jan. 16, 2008: This National Drug Intelligence Center report refers to a passageway that consisted of three short tunnel segments and a drainage system that was found in Nogales, Arizona.

April 1/2, 2008: A small,  incomplete tunnel was found that entered 14 feet into the United States near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in the San Diego area, according to this report in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

From May-August, 2008: Trying to confirm information of additional tunnels found along the Arizona border???

Sept. 1?, 2008: Mexican authorities found an incomplete tunnel equipped with air conditioning, lights and en elevator along the Mexicali-Calexio border in California.Eight men were arrested after being found with digging tools, according to this report by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

October 25,2008: Tunnel found two miles west of  Calexico, California that started in a house on the Mexican side of the border, according to this reprinted weekly Border Patrol blotter list. 

December 10, 2008: An incomplete tunnel was found that stretched about 10 feet into the United States. The small tunnel was found near the San Ysidro port of entry. It was discovered when a vehicle drove over a weak spot in the pavement, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

December, 2008: Various news reports refer to nine tunnels being found along the Arizona-Mexico border from October through December. This AP story refers to one found Dec. 29 near the Nogales port of entry. In November, U.S. authorities were investigating a possible cross-border tunnel, according to this article by the Yuma Sun that also refers to a Mexican report that confirmed a tunnel find in Arizona.

As you can see, the list isn’t complete (sorry – this isn’t my full time job anymore!)  and I don’t feel comfortable yet saying X tunnels were found along the border in 2008, but it’s a starting point.

****NOTE: Due to possible incomplete and uncorroborated information, this list should not be used as a reference tool at this time****

Photo of a tunnel found in 2007 in Tecate.