Drug Deaths, Violence Plague Border In Tijuana

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The first of a five-part series.

Western end of U.S.-Mexico border fence i

The western end of the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. runs into the ocean between Tijuana and San Diego. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Western end of U.S.-Mexico border fence

The western end of the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. runs into the ocean between Tijuana and San Diego.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

About The Series

The border emphasizes how much the U.S. and Mexico rely on each other and, like siblings, it also illustrates the tension between them. As the U.S. builds new fences and heightens patrols, a drug war on the Mexican side has killed thousands of people this year alone. Meanwhile, trade across the border continues to grow.

Border fence in Tijuana i

People come to the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. in Tijuana to speak with relatives. Many are waiting for immigration paperwork to be approved. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Border fence in Tijuana

People come to the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. in Tijuana to speak with relatives. Many are waiting for immigration paperwork to be approved.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
San Diego, across border fence i

San Diego, seen from across the border fence in Tijuana. A Tijuana police officer says the U.S. practice of deporting felons straight out of U.S. prisons and into Tijuana was fueling gang violence in the city. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
San Diego, across border fence

San Diego, seen from across the border fence in Tijuana. A Tijuana police officer says the U.S. practice of deporting felons straight out of U.S. prisons and into Tijuana was fueling gang violence in the city.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Candles mark spot of 12 bodies i

Candles mark the spot where bodies of 12 people were found. Across Mexico, more than 4,500 people have been killed this year in drug-related violence. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Candles mark spot of 12 bodies

Candles mark the spot where bodies of 12 people were found. Across Mexico, more than 4,500 people have been killed this year in drug-related violence.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Drug bust in Tijuana i

Mexican federal police officers capture several suspects in a drug bust in Tijuana. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Drug bust in Tijuana

Mexican federal police officers capture several suspects in a drug bust in Tijuana.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

At the very northern edge of Tijuana, a row of rusty girders jutting up from the sand stretches out into the Pacific. These steel beams mark the beginning of a 2,000-mile line dividing the richest economy in the world from its impoverished neighbor.

From the posts, a 15-foot-high metal fence extends inland up the hill. On the Mexican side, two little girls are playing with dolls. Their father and 10-year-old uncle are on U.S. soil in Friendship Park talking to them through the mesh.

The uncle, who is in fifth grade, leans toward the barrier as he talks. He says he and his brother are waiting for their immigration papers to come through. And until they do, they can't leave the U.S. Given their immigration status, they don't want to give their names.

In the distance behind them are the office towers of downtown San Diego. The fifth-grader says this is the only place where his family can get together.

"We go one week — and then two weeks no — and then one week we come back," he says.

Other couples hold hands through gaps in the fence. An ice cream vendor in Mexico sells Popsicles to customers on both sides, and once a week, a minister from California offers communion through the mesh.

Patrolling The Border Fence

The economic, social and political changes that are occurring along the U.S.-Mexican border are particularly prominent in Tijuana.

As the Department of Homeland Security installs hundreds of miles of new border fence, some of it is going up in Tijuana. Recently, the department put up a secondary barrier along most of the southern edge of Friendship Park, creating a no man's land between the park and Tijuana. Now, only a small section of the fence is approachable from both sides.

Border Patrol officials say the double fence is needed to secure the boundary, in part because Mexican authorities have done little to keep people from crossing.

"We are not against the immigration," says Capt. Javier Cardenas, with the Tijuana police department. "So if I see a group of 10 or 20 people up there trying to cross the border, I'm not going to stop them. Our officers are not going to stop them."

And in the urban sprawl of Tijuana, which pushes right up against the border, there are plenty of places for people to gather before attempting to go over, under or through the wall.

"To be honest, the border — it's a federal zone," Cardenas says. He says federal police from Mexico City are responsible for patrolling it, which they don't.

The heavily fortified fence divides two sharply different cities. In parts of San Diego, barefoot, shirtless surfers pedal one-speed bikes to the beach. In Tijuana, barefoot, headless bodies turn up jammed into garbage cans.

Nationwide, more than 4,500 people have been killed this year in drug-related violence. The majority of those killings have been along the border, as the nation's drug cartels battle each other and the authorities for control of smuggling routes.

Cardenas, who is the Tijuana police department's liaison with U.S. law enforcement on border issues, says the American practice of deporting felons straight out of U.S. prisons and into Tijuana was fueling gang violence.

"Most of the people who are ending up dead on the streets — a lot of those people have backgrounds in the States," Cardenas says. "You can see the tattoos, you can see different things. Those are deported felons."

Several weeks after speaking with Cardenas, he, along with 18 other Tijuana police officers, was arrested. Federal prosecutors accuse them of being on the payroll of the drug cartels.

Welcome to Tijuana, where criminals, migrants, smugglers and police all mix together in a confusing, volatile and, at times, deadly stew.

Running Out Of Space In The Morgue

On this particular day, white vans from the coroner's office converge on what will be their fourth murder scene of the day. At a strip mall on the south side of Tijuana, five bodies have been found in a stolen Ford Explorer with California plates.

In October, the city ran out of space at its morgue as the coroner picked up more than 100 murder victims in two weeks.

"It's totally out of control right now," says Roberto Quijano Sosa, president of Coparmex Tijuana, an employers group in the city. "We have to recognize that. Right now, it's totally out of control in Mexico."

Business As Usual

Despite the drug war, Quijano says life and business carry on here.

"The most important activity in our city is maquiladoras," or factories for exported products, Quijano says. "Maquiladoras have not really been affected by security."

But in a sign of how closely Mexican border communities are tied to the American economy, assembly plants all along the border started laying people off just weeks after the U.S. stock market's October collapse.

The border checkpoint between Tijuana and San Ysidro is the busiest land port into the U.S. and one of the busiest in the world. Up to 65,000 vehicles and 35,000 pedestrians cross in each direction each day.

Tightened security at the checkpoints has increased wait times at the border to as much as three hours, and Quijano says this is a huge burden on businesses.

The lush putting greens and the palm trees behind Quijano, sitting in front of the Tijuana Country Club, contrast sharply with the gritty Tijuana streets just outside the club's walls. Quijano says Tijuana should be a paradise — it has beaches and great weather. It's practically a low-cost Southern California, but the raging drug war is threatening all that.

"If things are not controlled, it's going to be hell," he says. "We have seen people thrown out on the streets, literally — five or six people — and that's really affecting our community and really affecting our standard of living."

Behind him, two bulletproof SUVs are parked on a putting green. They're display models for a company promising to stop everything from small arms fire to shrapnel from a grenade.

Shuttered Nightlife

At 10:30 p.m. on Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana, music is pumping from nightclubs and barkers are positioned outside "gentlemen's clubs," but there is hardly anyone on the street. Restaurants are empty, and many storefronts on what used to be the main tourist strip are shuttered.

"We hurt when something happens to the U.S. — immediately people don't come, and that affects us," says Andres Mendez Martinez, who runs a knickknack shop on the Avenida next to a tourist mall where only three of the 35 stores are still in business.

Mendez says the Avenida used to be where Americans came across to stock up at the Mexican pharmacies, grab some enchiladas, get their picture taken with a donkey or dance into the wee hours of the morning.

But the drug war and the long waits at the border are making people all along the international boundary think twice about crossing. Mendez says Avenida Revolucion will reinvent itself, but the focus will be inward — offering art galleries and nightclubs that cater not to tourists, but to Mexicans.

And he thinks this is the future — with the two communities that push up against either side of the border drifting apart.

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