Having been to Tijuana myself, the brutal attacks did not surprise me – just days before I left for my trip, six people were brutally executed; three of them were found beheaded. What did surprise me was the overwhelming coverage of the swine flu outbreak that originated in Mexico City and brought the world to the brink of a “pandemic” just a couple weeks ago. I’m not one to compare tragedies and argue which is worse, but after a week of fear-mongering from media outlets all over the world, swine flu turned out to be far less threatening than we thought.
Meanwhile, the thousands of ruthless drug cartel fighters threatening Americans and Mexicans alike continue to run back and forth across the border, killing people and terrorizing entire cities to the point where mayors and police chiefs are afraid to go to work. In fact, more Americans died in the recent Tijuana attack than in the nationwide outbreak of the H1N1 virus.
Just two months earlier, I was in Tijuana, walking the streets of Avenida Revolucion and the city’s financial district. Common sense kept me away from the most dangerous parts of the city, like Zona Norte, which is arguably the most dangerous place imaginable for a lone traveler to mill about late at night.
I visited the city because I wanted to get an understanding of Mexico’s bloody and lengthy drug war, casualties of which are comparable to Iraq or Afghanistan. During my trip, I got to visit a police station in the center of the city and talk with some of the officers about Mexico’s progress in confronting the increasingly violent drug cartels. I had originally planned to have a solid interview, but the weekend, with its need for more men on the streets, made that very difficult.
Much like the consular official– Press attaché Jessica Lopez from Mexico’s San Francisco Consulate – with whom I had spoken over the phone, who acknowledged that Northern Mexico in general and the city in particular have problems. But Lopez did her best to assure me that Americans should not be discouraged from coming to Mexico despite the travel advisory that was issued.
Most officers were very friendly and I trust that they are doing their best to serve their city, but many were wary when I asked to take a few photos – something that required the consent of a higher-ranking officer at the scene. I assured him I only wanted to show my community how much courage and hard work is being done at the hands of police officers south of the border, which pleased him.
The Army soldiers who patrolled a government office not far from my hotel weren’t too anxious to have their photos taken either, a request I politely asked in my progressing Spanish. Four men occupied a Humvee, one of them sitting behind a .50 caliber machine gun and all of covering their faces in balaclava – I suspected this was out of fear that they would be identified by passersby associated with local cartels, who in turn would come after their families. Unfortunately, this is all too common in Mexico and I was quick to thank the soldiers for their service and apologize for inconveniencing them.
Police and soldiers walking the streets of a city wielding assault rifles sounds like a picture you would see on the news – from another part of the world, far away from our zone of comfort and safety in the bustling Bay Area. I don’t know if most people are oblivious to it or if they would prefer not to think about it, but some of the biggest kidnapping capitals and most violent cities in the world are just a few hundred miles away, Tijuana being one of them.
The violence taking place is more than just organized crime – it’s not like Oakland gang fights or drug dealing in Richmond. Beheadings, mutilations, staged assaults involving machine guns, and even grenade attacks – this stuff is more like Jihadi or Al-Qaeda violence, something that even citizens in the roughest neighborhoods of our regional community would have trouble grasping.
If the four Americans who were murdered in Tijuana last week had been abducted and killed by home-grown Muslim extremists here in the U.S., I have little doubt that it would draw outrage all over the world and be tied to the War on Terrorism. The question is, should a drug kingpin like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – whose hit men are responsible for much of the cross-border carnage in towns along the border – be put on the same level as someone like the late Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda’s murderous leader in Iraq? Maybe he should. The disappearance and killings of dozens of American civilians in Northern Mexico over the last five years far outnumber those who have been kidnapped in Iraq – or any country in the world, for that matter.
The biggest indicator of the trouble Tijuana is facing is in the city’s tourist sector – Avenida Revolucion, or “Revolution Street.” Bartenders, waiters, club owners and an assortment of others anxious to sell or offer something will come running out into the middle of the street to greet a foreign tourist who is armed with a wallet and some cash.
Being a 6-foot tall American, I found myself being ushered into a bar just a few blocks from the police station I had left and had a couple drinks, chatting with the bartender. Business is hard today – there’s no question about that with today’s economy – but the bartender told me there had been a significant drop in the number of Americans visiting Tijuana’s many nightclubs and shops that have made it renowned throughout the world. This was obvious, given the lack of fellow Americans I saw in the bars and restaurants along the street.
Despite everything happened in Tijuana, I left it feeling it’s a city that could have so much potential if only Americans and Mexicans could find a way to coordinate and effectively eliminate the drug trade. The recent attacks in Tijuana are disturbing because up until now, the city had been enjoying relative calm, thanks to the strong leadership of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has made the drug war one of the defining moments in his presidency.
Tijuana has spectacular culture, a warm climate, and palm trees that give an illusion of paradise – I felt this way from the safety of my hotel. I don’t think it has to be an illusion if all of us on both sides of the border recognize the horror that is happening and confront it together.
Corey Hunt is a regular blogger at www.betternowthannever.wordpress.com and can be reached at his e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.