Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How To Vacation In A War Zone. Part one of a five part series..

By Posted in - North America & Travel Blog on January 25th, 2010
(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.

blood drugs sangria

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.

Map of Mexico

Map of Mexico - Baja is the part of Mexico directly below California. The main border crosing is Tijuana.

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.

Mexican slingshots

Tijuana police show off their slingshots. (photo courtesy dailymail.co.uk)

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.

big skysmaller

Mustard seed blowing in the Mexican breeze.

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.

Bridgette & Mike relaxing at Coyote Cal's Hostel in Erindira, Mexico.

Bridgette & Mike relaxing at Coyote Cal's Hostel in Erindira, Mexico.

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(10) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Larry French -

    January 25, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Bridgette & Mike,

    As an american living in the rosarito-ensenada corridor (alsong with 14,000 others) I can assure you that we do not live in a ware zone. Not sure where you live but in 2008 there were about 1500 drug related murders in southern california. That puts it right in the same per capita numbers you mentioend in your artical. Nice if you would put things in context of the mayhem of the US. Crime is down 22% over last year in Rosarito alone. We just ask that you don’t only focus on sensationaizing the bad but hightlight the good as well.

    Contrary to news reports we are not living in a war zone. Quite the opposite. In fact Baja has likely never been a safer or better place to visit.

    I completely understand how your friends could be concerned in light of some of the news articles. We continue to choose to live here for the tranquil lifestyle and the quality of life that it brings our family. We own a home on acreage, on a trout stream 5 minutes from downtown Boulder, CO but chose, a few years ago, to live here, on the ocean, after owning property in the area for 9 years. For those of us who live here life is “the same as it has always been” and we see no evidence of problems. Our family, including our 7yo daughter, who attends school in the area, feels totally safe here. We drive accross the border ever week and feel most threatened when we get to San Diego.

    The press has grossly mischaracterized the situation in Baja. Reality is that the incidents you read about are exclusively involving rival members of the drug business, much like gangs in Santa Ana, San Diego, Riverside and LA, none of which is anywhere near this area. As we say, bad people killing bad people. If you are not involved in the drug business your chances of being caught up in any crime is undoubtedly less than they would be in Southern California. Due to Mayor Torres’s retooling of the Rosarito police force you will find the authorities to be very accommodating, friendly and helpful. They cross train with the San Diego police and their service is exemplary.

    See what people who live and visit here are saying about the area:

    http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=RosaritoBeachVideos

  • beersandbeans -

    January 25, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Larry,

    Thank you for your reply. I appreciate it. My post (and the following posts) are about encouraging people to visit to Mexico. We love it there and know what a beautiful place it is. However I know people across the border here that are too afraid to visit because of the news. I try not to watch too much TV news regarding the issues. I get most of my information from the newspapers and online sites I subscribe to.

    As much as we love it there, we have had several very scary experiences ourselves in Baja – mainly my boyfriend who was once put into a sleeper hold and robbed in TJ and was also grabbed off the street by police in San Felipe as they tried to throw him in a cop car. I refused to let him go and fortunately we had a friend from the area who told them to screw off and go bother someone else. Had we been pushovers they would’ve hauled him off to jail for the serious crime of walking down the street. Last year we were in Ensenada and 2 people we knew were held up at knife point for an attempted robbery in broad daylight. They fled and were not chased. I have had other experiences as well but for all the bad we keep going back.

    Obviously there is something very special about Mexico and that is why I consider it my second home. I feel bad for people who are too afraid to experience the truly beautiful place it is and I want to help people get over the hump and see it for themselves.

    I know there are problems in Mexico and I know there are other problems in the U.S. as well. Unfortunately news of beheaded cops and drug shootouts in front of schools don’t sit well with tourists. And quite frankly people are nervous of driving in an area they don’t know esp. with military police sitting on the side of the road with machine guns loaded on the top of the car. You are used to it and I am used to it because we’ve done it many times but for some people this is a completely foreign and scary idea. I want to encourage people to realize that just because it is different from what they see daily in the U.S., it isn’t really a big deal.

    As for the statistics, I actually did search for specific drug death statistics for San Diego and couldn’t find anything online for the past couple of years because I did want to do a comparison and felt since the 2 cities are right across from one another it would be interesting.

    Unfortunately it is the locals who are paying the price because the tourism is so slow. When I was in Tijuana & Ensenada recently the cities felt like ghost towns. No one was there and all the shops were hurting. I can only imagine how all this drug nonsense is hurting the local people. It’s too bad the cartels don’t see/don’t care who they are really hurting here.

    My goal with the following posts is to invite people to visit, inform them of the laws and give them the confidence they need to embark on their own adventure. The reason I gave so much background in this post is because a lot of my readers are from other parts of the U.S. and don’t have much knowledge except what they see on the news, which typically focuses only on the negative. With this series I wanted to acknowledge things that have happened but also focus on the positive – that things are changing and that it is still a great and amazing place to visit.

  • Brooke vs. the World -

    January 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Wow, great article Beth! I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I think that’s awesome that you’ve got these special memories of a place that has been through some really rough times.
    .-= Brooke vs. the World´s last blog ..Silverton Cafe Sells S#!t =-.

    • beersandbeans -

      January 31, 2010 at 3:09 pm

      Thanks Brooke! I’m glad you like it 🙂

  • […] Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How to vacation in a war zone – Part 2 of a 5 part series.By beersandbeansPublished: January 26, 2010Posted in: UncategorizedTags:Comments [0]Digg it!Facebook In our previous post, we talked about the dangers of traveling in Baja, Mexico and also about how beautiful the country is and how it should not be overlooked just because of  the current media hype. It also happens to be a budget travelers wonderland with a variety of activities to partake in that are all easy on the wallet. To read the first part of the series  click here – Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How To Vacation In A War Zone. – Part 1 of a 5 part series. […]

  • Delbert Mckerchie -

    January 31, 2010 at 4:57 am

    Cool, found what i was looking for.

  • beersandbeans -

    January 31, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Great Delbert – I’m glad I could help you out!

  • […] Part 1 of a 5 part series. […]

  • […] in Cambodia. A new shirt could be 2 days in Thailand or Peru.”  Recommended posts: “Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How To Vacation In A War Zone. Part one of a five part series” and “90% of the Population Believes in Elves – Reykjavik, […]

  • Rod Rodriguez -

    July 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    It truly is such a shame that a lot of Mexico has succumbed to the intimidation of drug cartels. I’m quite amazed that you still find plenty to love about the place in spite of the situation. Most tourist would just pack up, cross it off on their map and go to the next interesting vacation spot. Given a chance, however, Mexico still has a chance to overcome the drug cartel problem. Though I won’t recommend going to Tijuana anytime soon, let us keep in mind that almost every place in the world has it’s good and bad spots. I share Brooke’s sentiments about your good memories of the place.