Tag Archives: drugs

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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The Los Angeles connection to Mexico’s Arellano-Felix cartel

felixThe 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.

How drug traffickers stay fit in Mexico

Picture 10The 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.

Los Angeles event June 3: Blogging the drug wars in Mexico

Being a former border reporter, I have a lot of respect for those who continue to cover the impacts of the drug trade on Mexico. I am posting here a press release for a Wednesday forum about “blogging the narco wars” that is  sponsored by the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. I know reporters Amy Isackson and Vicente Calderon  from my time in Tijuana –  and I am personally grateful for Tijuana based human-rights activist  Victor Clark, one of the few people in that city who reporters can go to for a “tell it as it is” quote about drugs and corruption.

Join the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Los Angeles Public Library for an in-depth talk with journalists from San Diegoand Tijuana, as well as a long-time watchdog of border violence, to discuss how reporters are covering outbreaks of violence in connection to drug-smuggling in Tijuana.

The panelists will be:


  • Victor Clark Alfaro, Founder, Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana
  • Vicente Calderon, Tijuana television reporter
  • Amy Isackson, reporter, KPBS San Diego

The event will be moderated by SPJ/LA board member Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, a reporter with KPCC 89.3 FM. 

WHAT: Blogging the Narco-Wars

WHO: Victor Clark Alfaro, Founder, Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana; Vicente Calderon, Tijuana TV reporter; Amy Isackson, border reporter, KPBS San Diego. Moderated by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, reporter, KPCC 89.3FM, SPJ/LA board member.

WHEN: 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 3, 2009

WHERE: The Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium630 W 5th St., Los Angeles, CA 90071http://www.lfla.org/aloud/visit.php

COST: Free, but reservations are highly recommended through the L.A. Public Library’s ALOUD Lecture Series.http://www.lfla.org/aloud/registration/

For more information, check out the SPJ/LA Web site athttp://spjla.wordpress.com/ or log onto the library’s site athttp://www.lfla.org/aloud/calendar/?month=06&year=2009&day=03.


The Society of Professional Journalists is the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to promoting high standards of ethical behavior and encouraging the free practice of journalism. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

San Diego Magazine revisits 2006 Rosarito beheadings


felixSan 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.

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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Defying a Spring Break travel warning


People often ask me whether Tijuana is really dangerous. Well, the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives apparently thinks the drug violence is dangerous enough to warn university students about visiting Tijuana and Rosarito Beach during the popular Spring Break period. Some universities have also taken up the “don’t go south” mantra. I have mixed feelings about these advisories from my experience living and working in Tijuana as a reporter.  I wrote about some of the region’s most gruesome crimes – but I never got caught in the crossfire. Here is a recap of a recent, non-newsworthy Saturday evening spent in Tijuana.



I arrived at Tijuana’s main cultural center, the CECUT, at 6 p.m. to attend a presentation by Mexican scholar Marco Antonio Samaniego on his new book, “Nationalism and Revolution: The events of 1911 in Baja California.” The presentation had a late start (Mexican time frames are typically looser than ours) so I wandered outside and bought some warm cooked corn, called elote or esquite. I like mine plain, but most Mexicans prefer the works: Chile, butter, cheese, lime, salt, you name it.


Samaniego talked about the significance of the Mexican Revolution along the Baja border and how chaos basically created a volatile mix of interests that collided and intersected, and that some of this was fueled by the perceived or real threat of a U.S. invasion. More of that in a future blog posting…


Afterwards, I went to the restaurant Tabule to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Tabule is located along the main entrance to the Beverly Hills of Tijuana, a neighborhood called Chapultepec. There is also a Tabule in San Diego. I munched on assorted cheese, duck tacos and a tasty mushroom appetizer. By the time we left at 11 p.m., the place was just starting to get busy (Night life starts late here).


I think I saw some police sirens at one point during the evening – but they were way in the distance.


To get another glimpse of life in Tijuana during a typical weekend, check out Derrik Chinn’s blog where he recently posted an entry on what he did on a Saturday in Tijuana.

The blogger over at Tijuana Bible, Lynn DeWeese-Parkinson, recently went to a soccer game in Tijuana.

And Masa Assassin, an unidentified San Diego-based blogger, dishes about eating some birria tacos in Tijuana before heading to Ensenada this past weekend.

Narco tourism possibilities in Tijuana: Tijuana drug tunnel tours?



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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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.

Homeland Security show debuts on ABC

borderfence1The border figures prominently in the new ABC series, “Homeland Security USA”. From the grassy edges of Canada to the scrubby Arizona desert, the border serves as a framework for a series of vignettes that demonstrate the persistence and ingenuity of smugglers and the equal persistence and ingenuity of border and immigration officials.

Search dogs sniff for contraband along the ports of entry as radiation meters check for dangerous chemicals. Cocaine is found stashed in a car trying to enter from Canada while packets of marijuana are found in a car trying to enter from Tijuana into San Diego (I appreciate the producers’ efforts to show that bad things aren’t exclusively coming from our southern neighbor). A group of migrants don’t get far in their trek before being captured in the Arizona desert.

What’s amazing is that Homeland Security, an agency preoccupied with security on all levels, even considered doing a reality-style show. I suspect, however, that this may not be the best format to get a realistic point of view of border security. If the producers’ aim is to provide a sense of the sweeping role of DHS  – from airports to borders and mail sorting centers –  then the show does hit its mark. Personally, I want to know what makes these people tick and the human  stories behind the intersections at the border where “good” and “bad” can get a little blurry. 

To be fair, there are intrinsic limitations to how much information an agency like this can share on camera without creating damage to people and investigations. Yet without more context of the border as a character in its own right, the show becomes more about entertaining viewers with nuggets of information of what is allowed or not allowed to enter the country.

I know people who work for DHS who are intelligent and thoughtful in their approach to their jobs, but I couldn’t connect with the rotating agents in the show’s Tuesday night debut, especially when they used bureaucratic jargon (the use of “illegal alien” is also sure to offend some people). That may change as the series continues, but for now I continue to wait the DHS equivalent of “Traffic,” the movie that to me encapsulated the truth of drug trafficking along the border in a way that could only be done in fiction.

Listen to and read a story about Homeland Security USA  by NPR’s Carrie Kahn, who used to be based along the border.

Read a New York Times review of the series here.

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