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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 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 TijuanaPress.com: “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

Traffic stop + YouTube fame leads to “I’m afraid” website

Mexicans have been laughing about this video of a man pulled over by police in the Ciudad Juarez area who can’t stop saying he’s afraid. Over and over and over again.

Last year,  Juan Pablo Carrasco was stopped for speeding, and news crews happened to be there. The video shows him surrounded by Mexican officers who are trying to get him to take an alcohol test (which later determined he wasn’t sufficiently inebriated to merit a trip to jail). Before succumbing to the test, Carrasco responds with an endless stream of “tengo miedos,” which means “I am afraid” in English. Then it got posted on YouTube and attracted more than 6 million viewers.

The outburst appears to be a combination of emotions running high and an unfortunate fear of dishonest cops in Mexico. While I find the video oddly amusing, I would love to hear from  Mexicans as to why they think it’s so funny. I’ve been told that a man who admits he is afraid is considered “funny” in Mexico’s still-somewhat-macho society. Or maybe Mexicans see themselves in Carrasco’s shoes facing a lot of scary things these days  – drug violence and kidnapping – and laughing is one way of dealing with it.

Either way, Carrasco realizes he’s tapped into something. Since the incident, he’s started a Halloween-esque website called tengomiedo.com.mx that offers “Tengo Miedo”  t-shirts for sale. The site is billed as a space for people to share and let go of their own fears. He also has a blog, also called Tengo Miedo  (One commenter shares his fear of clowns. Another  shares their fear of being kidnapped).

“We want for people to express themselves and their fears since sometimes they don’t have a way to express this ,” he said in an interview with a Mexican news station after the incident.

YouTube video from JuarezTV

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Breakfast with ex-President Vicente Fox


When Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico in 2000, the streets of Tijuana erupted in celebratory screams and shouts to mark the end of more than seventy years of rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party

During his six-year term, Fox returned regularly to Tijuana and  Baja California, a state that has historically been a stronghold of his National Action Party. As a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, I caught up with him at the San Ysidro border where he announced a program to ensure a safe passage for Mexican-Americans heading south for the Christmas holidays. Another time, during a visit to a poor colonia, I trotted up to him to ask a question but he brushed me off. With all the bodyguards, convoys and the media mash of microphones and cameras, there were plenty of barriers between the president and me. 

This week, I had my chance to chat with the ex-president in Los Angeles during breakfast with a small group of USC (University of Southern California) deans and faculty. The meeting was held to discuss potential collaborations with Fox’s latest project, Centro Fox, a research and cultural center in his home state of Guanajuato. Afterwards, Fox mentioned to me his concern about Tijuana. We chatted a bit about his recent visit to Baja’s wine country, Valle de Guadalupe, and about his friendship with ex-Baja Governor Eugenio Elorduy.

He’s not the only high-ranking official I’ve run into again up here. Just last week, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who also once held a press conference at the San Ysidro border, visited the university. In a funny sort of come-full-circle of my past and present, I ended up writing short stories as a media rep about both recent events:

“Homeland Security Secretary Visits USC”

“Vicente Fox Meets USC Leaders”

Photo of Fox identified by Wikimedia Commons as available for public use