Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How To Vacation In A War Zone. Part one of a five part series..(Editors note: This is part 1 of a 5 part series.)
To Read Part 2 click here: Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How To Vacation In A War Zone – Part 2 of a 5 part series.
To Read Part 3 click here: Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How to Vacation In A War Zone – Part 3 of a 5 part series.
To Read Part 4 click here: Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How to Vacation In A War Zone – Part 4 of a 5 part series.
To Read Part 5 click here: Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How to Vacation In a War Zone – Part 5 of a 5 part series.
Many readers of this blog already know that I have had an ongoing love affair with Mexico for a some time now. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Mexico. In fact it’s one reason it is hard to even think about leaving San Diego. It’s only 20 minutes to the border and it’s hard to imagine not being able to just go there on a whim.
Twenty minutes to the border.
Twenty minutes to the warm Mexican sunlight.
Twenty minutes to unending nights wandering Mexican streets.
Twenty minutes to another language, another way of life and amazing food.
Twenty minutes to $1 cervezas and 3/$1 tacos.
Twenty minutes to welcoming strangers and beautiful beaches.
It’s no wonder that I consider Mexico my second home. From the minute I drove across the border years ago I fell in love. I even managed to work down there for a bit through my old job here in the U.S. There was a point that I was probably crossing the border every 2 to 3 weeks and I loved it. On our second date Randy and I ended up in Mexico together and after 4 months of dating we were back apartment searching in Tijuana (known locally as TJ) because we wanted to move there. That dream never came to fruition and it was a good thing because a year later TJ turned into a war zone.
A lot of people in San Diego won’t go near Mexico – Baja in particular – because of the crime.
I’m not going to lie, things have changed there drastically. A once vibrant, exciting city, Tijuana is now a virtual ghost town with shop keepers and restaurant owners drained to their last penny without the tourist dollars. The main Tijuana drug cartel, the Arellano Felix gang, is slowly becoming dismantled after the arrest of the main king pin, Benjamin Arellano Felix, in 2007. The cartel is still doing business but has since weakened enough so that other cartels are now trying to fill the leadership void and gain the ever popular border city as it’s own. The war for turf has been going strong with the citizens paying the price – not only by losing the tourists dollars but also with their own lives.
In 2007, Presidente Caldron vowed war on the drug cartels and the bloodshed has continued ever since. In that time over 12,500 people have been killed due to the drug wars.
To put this into perspective:
That’s 4,167 people a year, 347 people a month, 12 people every day.
Every two hours for the past 3 years someone has been murdered because of drug violence.
Those are not good statistics. Far too many people are violently murdered on a daily basis. Another sad fact is that many bodies have been disintegrated in acid and their bodies were never found.
The drug wars are literally out of control and to make matters worse almost all the cops are crooked. Of course you probably would be as well if you were only making about $400 a month protecting the streets of an extremely dangerous city. In late 2007 Calderon actually took away all the guns from every cop in Tijuana. This was the only way they could test the guns to see which were involved in crimes. He couldn’t leave the cops completely defenseless so he hooked them up with sling shots. You think I’m kidding but I’m not. I’m dead serious.
The cops of Tijuana had sling shots instead of guns.
Fortunately along with the slingshots he also sent in the Mexican army to control the city. The truly unfortunate news is the fact that most Tijuana cops were fired after their guns showed they were involved in drug crimes. Almost every cop was on the drug cartels payroll. New cops have been hired, fired and new ones hired again over the past couple of years. I have no idea if their income has increased. I can only hope it has.
The drug lords simply won’t back down – they continue to fight for territory and to get the new cops on their payroll. Almost every new police chief is murdered shortly after taking the job. The police chief always has his own bodyguards that protect him 24/7. I’m not talking about 1 or 2 bodyguards either, try 20. It is obvious that a war is being waged when even the chief of police has so many bodyguards. The current police chief, Julian Leyzaola, travels everywhere with his bodyguards and lives alone. His family lives elsewhere in Mexico because it is just too dangerous for them to be in Tijuana. Taking on this type of position and facing the daily threat of death requires more than just passion, it requires enormous dedication. But dedication to what? With Mexico’s deep seeded history of government corruption we can only hope that he truly envisions a Tijuana free of the cartels cast iron grip.
It goes without saying that many, many cops are killed in Tijuana as well. To get the message across, the drug cartels usually leave their heads on the beaches outside of town with a threatening note screwed into their skulls.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Anyone opposing the cartels is kidnapped, tortured and/or murdered. The violence against journalists has risen drastically. Just less than a month ago on December 30, 2009 Jose Luis Romero, a radio station reporter, was forced at gunpoint out of a restaurant where he was eating. His body was discovered shortly after stuffed into a black bag with both of his hands broken & bound, one bullet wound in his shoulder and 2 more in his head.
Even popular Mexican music groups have to watch what they sing about. Numerous musicians have been murdered for anti-drug messages in their music. In 2007, Sergio Gómez, one of Mexico’s hottest singers, a headliner for the band, K-Paz de la Sierra,was kidnapped. Police found his body the next day. Also in late 2007 Zayda Pena Arjona, the lead singer of Zayda y Los Culpables was gruesomely shot dead in her hospital bed. She was recuperating from surgery after being shot the day before. The assailants entered the hospital, found her room and shot her 4 times in the chest, ensuring her death this time around. This past August, Mexican singer Carlos Ocaranza Rodriguez, (El Loco Elizalde) was shot dead on the street after leaving a bar in Guadalajara, Mexico. He had performed a concert earlier that night. These are just some of the stories, certainly not all of them.
The cartels don’t like anyone reporting or singing about them in negative ways. Death is their way of discouraging these actions.
However the people of Mexico are trying to change things and surprisingly there isn’t a shortage of someone else volunteering to be the next chief or penning the lyrics to the next revolution song.
The drug problems, illegal border crossings & the human trafficking have made Tijuana look like a very scary place to locals and outsiders. Truth be told, it can be – but not for the local tourist. However the danger of being caught in the crossfire is still scary enough for most people to even consider heading south of the border these days. Even with all the ongoing issues I still love Mexico and it will always hold a special place in my heart. Most people can’t see beyond the media hype but I have been fortunate enough to experience just some of the beauty this country holds.
I’ve made so many good memories in Baja and I have met some really outstanding people there.
One such person was Luis, an older man I befriended through my work visits. One day we took a walk through the desert while he identified all the flora that was at risk for extinction due to all the real estate development in the area. That walk was during a point in my life where I was constantly sick. He asked me why I hadn’t been around the past few weeks and I told him I had been under the weather. After hearing my ailments he said that he thought I had cancer. Of course I thought he was crazy. But it turned out that he was right. What all the U.S. doctors had missed for 2 years he picked up on after seeing me on a lazy Sunday afternoon. He turned to me during the same desert walk and randomly said “One day, you will walk in diamonds.”
For the past couple of years I’ve been hoping that he was right.
I’ve wondered what has become of him and I hope he is well. I will probably never see him again but I will never forget him and his role in my life during such a strange time. The people of Mexico and the landscape are equally beautiful and something that I wish everyone could experience.
Tijuana used to be such a fun place to pop into on a random night and I’m really looking forward to times like that again. But with all the crime you have to wonder:
Does Mexico have a bloodless road?
That being said we were in Tijuana briefly in October (on the way to Oaxaca) and it really seemed liked business as usual. It’s still an interesting place to visit although most people reading this won’t touch foot in the city until things are under control. Even if you’re not staying in town you still have to drive though TJ to get to the most beautiful areas of Baja. In most other areas of Baja the crime is low, the cervezas are cheap and the sun is warm. Most tourists in Cabo or La Paz now stay at fancy resorts and have no idea about the drug war being waged on the city streets.
But if you’re a budget backpacker with a quest for adventure an all expense paid resort vacation is not your thing. You’re in it for the journey and the local flavor. That’s why we are writing this series.
Having hung out in one of what is considered to be one of the most dangerous, dirtiest cities in the world for longer than even I care to remember we have learned a lot about having a great time and watching your back. You don’t want to be an outsider in Tijuana if you can help it and we can help you navigate the ins and outs of one of the busiest border cities in the world.
This post is just the beginning of a multi segment post that will elaborate on my top three tips that are listed below.
Tip #1 – Don’t look flashy
Tip #2 – Don’t drink the water
Tip # 3 – Don’t drive without protection, extra gas or at night.
We want to share our insider tips for hanging out in or just traveling through Tijuana and northern Baja. Stay tuned because following along with the posts will give you all the confidence you need to embark on a journey through any Mexican border town without being scared out of your mind.
Plus if you’re brave enough you might just have yourself a unforgettably good time while you’re there.