Tag Archives: violence

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.

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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From Baghdad to Tijuana: A photographer’s perspective



Photographer Eros Hoagland has been crossing borders as long as I’ve known him, documenting conflict hotspots around the globe in places like Iraq. He has been spending the last few weeks in Tijuana, where I recently caught up with him.

I asked him how Baghdad compares to Tijuana, and here’s what Eros said:

“Many areas of the U.S.- Mexico border are indeed engulfed in a war.  Homicide statics are flying off the charts in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez as rival organized crime groups fight for strategic positioning. But it is largely a war of assassination, much different from Iraq or Afghanistan where protracted insurgencies and terrorist groups are fighting a large, well-equipped military machine.” 

A bit of background: I met Eros while I was freelancing in Nicaragua during that country’s 1996 presidential elections, and we  teamed up a few months later in El Salvador to work on a story about deported Los Angeles gang members. Since then, Eros has spent significant time in Iraq, Colombia, Eritrea, Guatemala, Peru and El Salvador, which is where his photographer father was gunned down  in the 1980s while covering the conflict for Newsweek.

In between the freelance gigs with organizations such as The New York Times, Eros has been working on a project that involves documenting border “lines.” Beyond the obvious one – the border fence – Eros sees lines, angles and intersections in less conspicuous places: The glass shards from a violent attack, for example, or in the creases of worry etched in a forehead. In doing so, he captures the fine lines that separate us while revealing our shared humanity. 

To see more of Eros’ work, go here.

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Tijuana safety tips

picture-3This month, many government agencies and businesses in the Southern California area are educating people to “drop, cover and hold on” when they feel the first tremors of an earthquake. It’s all leading up to an earthquake preparedness drill on Nov 13 dubbed The Great Southern California Shakeout.

South of the border, where earthquakes are the least of the region’s concerns these days,  the Baja California State Preventive Police force is sharing some tips with residents in the event they get caught in the middle of a shooting.

It’s been a particularly violent October in the Tijuana/Rosarito Beach area with reportedly an unprecedented number of dumped bodies and shootings, and in a few cases  the attacks have claimed the lives of  innocent bystanders (a Zeta article profiles four of them). This, of course, isn’t scaring me from going there.  In fact, I feel safer traveling there now than I did when I wrote about the drug cartels as a reporter. Still,  it never hurts to be prepared – for an earthquake or a shootout. Here are some recommendations printed in Tijuana’s Frontera newspaper about what to do if you hear gunfire:

1) Keep at least 100 meters (330 feet) away from police operations and seek out alternative routes.

2) If you are in a car, “duck down, stay calm…and avoid escaping at a high speed,” presumably to prevent losing control of your own car.

3) If you are in the street, “throw yourself on the floor and hide behind trees, posts or cars.”

4) If you are inside a house, “hide behind furniture” and “stay away from the windows” (just like in an earthquake).


Screenshot from Frontera newspaper.

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Tijuana’s broken heart

This pamphlet – with bullet holes piercing a heart –  was distributed inside a program for the recent San Diego trolley dances.  In addition to calling for cross-border artistic collaboration,  it expresses succinctly the mood of the city these days.

Mexican media report that close to 60 people were killed this past week in the city, most of them presumably the result of feuding drug groups. Based on my previous experience reporting about crime south of the border, it was a bad month when 60 people were killed (the numbers usually ranged between 20 and 35).

Tijuana’s Frontera newspaper also reported that the city’s Secretary of Public Security, Alberto Capella, recommended residents sit tight  – inside their homes – and have faith that law enforcement will restore the peace. An article this weekend in The San Diego Union-Tribune isn’t so optimistic.

To be sure, most of the cases involved dumped bodies. That has become somewhat more acceptable here since the killings are seen as a settling of scores among criminals and done behind closed doors. But this weekend,  Frontera reported that three innocent bystanders were killed in a shootout.

As others have explained to me over the years, there will always be a certain level of drug-related violence here (as long as there is a demand for drugs in the U.S.),  but in normal circumstances the outbreaks are controlled by the most powerful groups. When those traffickers are weakened, as has been the case in a prolonged government push against certain long-standing groups, a different level of violence is touched off by the entry of newer groups and internal rifts. That is the case for the region’s  Arellano Felix drug cartel, which has been in a slow but steady downhill spiral since 2000.

This kind of violence targets people involved in drug cartel activities – not tourists. This is why you don’t hear about cartel-related shootings or dumped bodies on the popular tourist strip of Avenida Revolucion or near the cultural arts center.  I’ve also found that moments of extreme violence can be followed by months of relative calm. This blog will continue to include noteworthy developments but postings like this one aren’t meant to be alarmist  – unless you are involved in illicit activities. Tijuana may be going through some rough times, but she still has grit and pluck and I’ve learned from my experiences travelling in troubled countries that the rewards usually far outweigh the risks. For an example of that, read this story about Tijuana’s vibrant cultural scene.

For another analysis of the recent wave of drug violence, see this Los Angeles Time report.

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Mother Antonia talks about Tijuana prison riot


As Tijuana’s La Mesa prison erupted in riots last week, a question on some people’s minds was the well-being of Mother Antonia, the U.S.  nun who made it her mission to provide spiritual support to the prisoners over the past three decades.

Mother Antonia, who lives in the prison and is now in her 80s, emerged this past weekend safe and sound. She spoke at a San Diego area church about what it was like to hear gunshots and to tend to frightened prisoners in the middle of the second wave of prison violence. You can read more about what she said in this week’s San Diego Weekly Reader.

I once tried to do an indepth story about Mother (also called Sister) Antonia when I was a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, but she gently rebuffed my requests. I think she was already busy working with two Washington Post reporters on a  book about her life. “The Prison Angel” was published in 2005. 

Her remarkable access  to people in both high and low places in Baja California makes the Mother Antonia story a fascinating one. Add to that the fact that Mary Brenner Clarke came from a wealthy background, was twice-divorced and set off on her mission with her own private vows (She was formally recognized by a bishop in 1978, according to one news report). 

Explaining her decision to work with prisoners to a Catholic news agency, she once said “I do not judge them for their actions.” That philosophy of refraining from openly challenging the questionable dealings around her has also probably served as a necessary and useful stance to ensure her survival both within and outside the prison walls.

Screenshot from Eudist Servants of the 11th Hour webpage

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