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Tijuana kidnappings causing mass exodus to San Diego

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

A new public safety problem has Tijuana, Mexico in its grip. Kidnappings have hit an all time high, causing an exodus with families fleeing north to San Diego for safety. KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson has the story.

Javier Plascencia says the first time it happened to his little brother, he had just closed his restaurant in Tijuana and was driving home. He noticed one Chevy Suburban in front of him. Another was right behind.

And as he was getting close to home, the car in front of him stopped. And the one in back hit him. So these guys came out with guns and rifles, and he got out and started running. He jumped the fence of someone's home and started screaming and knocking on windows. They opened the door and he got in and the guys just left. But it was just really scary.

The Plascencias are a well-known Tijuana family and are pioneers of the city's culinary history. They opened the first pizza parlor there nearly 40 years ago. Now they have ten restaurants that offer European style fine dining.

Javier says it's that legacy and their current success that makes the whole family a target.

Javier: "They study you. They follow you for months. They know which school your children go to. What your wives do. They might even talk to you. Try to become friendly In the restaurant you are in the public eye. You are in magazines, newspapers. And that's a bad thing."

Javier says after his brother escaped, his family hired a bodyguard to drive them to and from work. And for a year, life went back to normal.

But then one night Javier got a call from a woman whose son had been kidnapped. The kidnappers had mistaken her son for Javier's little brother.

Javier: "Three days after. We just said no, no way. We not gonna spend more time here."

They sold their houses in Tijuana and bought new ones in Chula Vista's Eastlake neighborhood.

Javier: "It is pretty safe, the police are not corrupt. And we will be safer."

About a month ago, they opened a restaurant down the road in Bonita where Javier sits at a table and tells this story.

The Plascencias still run their restaurants in Tijuana. These days, they do most of their business over the Internet and have installed web-cams in each restaurant so they can monitor operations.

An estimated 350 to 400 families have recently moved from Tijuana to San Diego seeking safety.

I'll go show you some of the houses.

Driving down a tree lined street, Chula Vista real estate agent John Fleming says his business has never been better. He estimates 60 to 70-percent of his clients are from Tijuana.

Fleming: "This is a neighborhood where I've had two or three clients move in the last six months. Looking at the homes, one doesn't stand out above the rest. They're all just quaint, quiet homes with nice landscaping you'd never be able to pick out one house over the other."

Fleming says that's a big selling point because the last thing people who are seeking safety want to do is stand out.

Across the border in Tijuana, Fleming is placing real estate ads in the Tijuana Country Club's glossy monthly magazine. He plays golf at the club. Many of the patrons fit the profile kidnappers are after. Though, Fleming says no one talks about it.

The same is true in Tijuana on an official level. Law enforcement officials count 18 kidnappings since the start of this year.

But Alberto Capella, President of the Citizens Public Safety Board for the State of Baja California says he knows of 18 people who are missing right now.

He says more than 50 people have been kidnapped this year. And there were more than 100 last year.

But even those numbers may be low. The majority of kidnappings in Tijuana go unreported.

Capella says kidnapping used to be confined to people involved in illicit business. But now organized crime groups see it as a money making opportunity and everyone is their market.

Capella says the government has failed to combat the problem. He says local, state and federal officials all blame each other.

The Mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon, says people should be angry.

Mayor Rhon: "The thing is with federal offenses, which is kidnapping and drugs, I can't really do anything. That keeps my hands pretty crossed."

Meanwhile, the Governor of Baja California has urged people to remain calm. He had a historic meeting last week with local and federal authorities. They plan to debut an anti-kidnapping plan soon.

But the plan comes too late for many in Tijuana.

Business is booming at an auto shop there that armors cars against A-K 47s, kidnappers' weapon of choice.

The municipal police are selling pager-sized global positioning devices. The idea is if someone wearing one is kidnapped, the police will be able pinpoint the victim's exact location for a speedy rescue.

Back across the border, not all San Diego residents are welcoming their new neighbors.

Some longtime residents worry Tijuana's transplants will bring that city's crime with them.

Law enforcement authorities say they haven't seen any increase recently. They say crime flowing in both directions is the reality of the region.

For years, people involved in illicit business have sought safety in many of the same communities where the most recent wave of Tijuana residents are settling.

One morning last April, a Mexican man who is believed to be tied to a Tijuana drug cartel was kidnapped out of his Bonita driveway a few miles from Javier Plascencia's new restaurant.

Last week, federal officials identified three properties in Chula Vista they say are connected to a ranking member of Tijuana's drug cartel.

Over at Javier Plascencia's restaurant, the coming week is already booking up. Javier says business is so good they may open another San Diego location.

But he hasn't turned his back on his first home.

Plascencia: "I want to keep fighting for Tijuana. I love Tijuana. It has given me so much. It is just sad. And it makes me really mad. But I cannot be living there right now. It's not safe."

Meanwhile, Javier's little brother has moved to Cuba. Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

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