Category Archives: Crime & public security

Results from my survey on police bribery of tourists in Mexico

During my master’s program at the University of Southern California (specialty on online communities), I designed a survey as part of my research practices class on the topic of police bribery in Mexico. It was inspired by a story I wrote once when I was a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune about how the tourist shakedowns were hard to quantify because so few are actually reported.

I finally got around to releasing the survey on SurveyMonkey and collecting the data a few months ago when 113 had filled it out.  

First of all, some context: The majority of the people who completed  the survey (78.7 percent) were between the ages of 31 and 65, with most of these skewing towards the older age range of 46-65. They were predominantly male (85.8 percent), and predominantly white (85.8 percent).  Eighty percent had crossed the border 20 times or more over their lifetimes.

Here are some survey highlights:

Of the total surveyed, 40.2 percent said they had never paid an officer in Mexico a bribe.

However, 46.4 percent said they had paid a bribe at least once or as much as three times.  12.5 percent said they had paid such a bribe between 4-10 times.

for 62 percent of those who paid bribes, the total amount paid was between $1 and $25.

32.4 percent of those who paid bribes paid between $26 and $50.

14.7 percent of those who paid bribes paid between $51 and $100.

Only 4.3 percent of survey respondents said they had ever filed a complaint to report the incident.

When evaluating the perception of bribery as a problem for  tourists in Mexico, 20.2 percent of respondents considered it to be a “huge problem” but 16.5 percent of respondents didn’t consider it to be a problem at all. The majority of respondents – 27.5 percent – considered policy bribery to be a moderate problem.

Thank you to all who participated in the survey. I will release additional highlights in future blog posts.

More unusual drug trafficking tricks

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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Mexico’s police show their dance moves

A video of this lap-dancing police officer was forwarded to me in recent months from my Mexico contacts. I’m posting an abridged (and Rated G version) above, but there is another video mash-up of this called “Policia de TJ” that is is all the rage.

The “Policia de TJ” version frames the video in terms of how these days the Tijuana police officers may not be earning enough money to go to the strip clubs and so they are having to find new ways to collect some cash.  Then the video of the gyrating officer begins. It’s followed by a video ending with clown music of an apparent robber escaping in front of a squad of officers.

The videos are a little grainy and you can’t actually make out the word Tijuana on the insignias, so who is to say they are even officers. Still, if true, I wonder what happened to this officer after he became a YouTube star. I dug around for videos of dancing police officers in the United States and came up with just a few – traffic cops –  who were profiled on the news. Other countries’ police forces seem to have a greater propensity to swish their hips in front of a camera. Judge for yourself who is the better dancer.

Policia de TJ” video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpDJH1VAli0

Mexican officer dancing with his rifle in Sinaloa: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GafpIkKYhac

U.S. traffic officer (now retired) in Providence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDK9Afnwchw

A U.S. traffic officer in New York City: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMGPRmFjd04

Posted YouTube video – “humor policia bailando –  from OOseasjonathan

Mexico’s drug trafficking violence gets U.S. attention

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

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Revisiting Miguel Felix Gallardo

 

picture-1I feel an odd sort of connection with Miguel Felix Gallardo, who was reputedly the precursor to the  Baja California area’s Arellano Felix drug trafficking organization. A blog post I filed last year about a web site set up by the reputed drug trafficker’s family – continues to generate a lot of traffic to my own site  from people apparently curious about Felix Gallardo’s savvy use of the Internet.

Felix Gallardo, according to Mexican and U.S. reports, is an older relative of the Arellano Felix brothers (a family member says this is not true), and he was said to be a major Mexican drug trafficker in the 1980s. He has been locked up in a Mexican prison since 1989. Family members started a web site to document his health needs in prison as well as a forum for people to ask questions and send greetings to Felix Gallardo. You can check out the site here.

Here are a couple of media updates on Felix Gallardo:

McClatchy News Service wrote a story about the Felix Gallardo website and about the use of the Internet by Mexican drug traffickers in general.  Reporter Marisa Taylor interviewed Felix Gallardo’s son, who started the website. You can read the story here.

In February of this year, Mexican media ran a story about Felix Gallardo writing a 32-page letter to La Jornada newspaper detailing his experiences with certain Mexican law enforcement officials, as well as other juicy details of his own arrest. You can read the La Jornada story here.

Screenshot of the Miguel Felix Gallardo web page.

Narco tourism possibilities in Tijuana: Tijuana drug tunnel tours?

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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.

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Soldier at the Mexican border: “May I please inspect your car?”

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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.

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

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                   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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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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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.