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Crime Wave Hits Tijuana

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A bloody crime wave has hit Tijuana again. During the last few weeks narco-traffickers have turned restaurants and highways into battlegrounds in their fight to maintain control of the city. The unprecedented level of violence has also touched off a political war, with government officials all blaming each other for the chaos. KPBS Border reporter Amy Isackson brings us this story from Tijuana.

Police sirens and death are practically white noise in this city where the murder count now averages a body a day.

One morning last week, it was difficult to tell if the sirens’ constant wail was just the start of a normal day in Tijuana, or if it marked the city’s most notable murder of late -- that of assistant police chief Arturo Rivas Vaca.

Hundreds gathered at a memorial service for the slain commander in front of Tijuana’s city hall. Eight police officers loaded their fallen comrade’s plain wooden coffin into a hearse. City officials and family looked on as the officers shouted his name in the final role call.

A day earlier, gunmen ambushed assistant chief Rivas Vaca during morning rush hour on one of Tijuana's main thoroughfares. When the assailants opened fire with automatic machine guns, Rivas Vaca ran from his car. He weaved in and out of the eight a.m. traffic dodging bullets while returning fire with his handgun. In the end, 170 bullet casings littered the highway alongside Rivas Vaca’s bleeding body. Rivas' bodyguard and one civilian were injured. The gunmen escaped.

At the funeral, Rivas Vaca’s godmother Guadalupe Lopez Gomez clutched her heart. She says her soul hurts that they’ve taken her Arturo away.

Gomez: I always told him to slow down. Calm down. Be careful. But he’d tell me he had to help his Tijuana.

That goal proved to be his undoing.

Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon says the city has been under siege since the high profile arrests of top-ranking Arellano-Felix Drug Cartel members, including Francisco Javier Arellano-Felix who awaits trial in San Diego.

Rhon: It’s like the mythological character - the hydra. You cut off one head and others sprout. Unfortunately, violence in this city is out of control.

Glass still litters the sidewalk outside Mi Chante restaurant. It’s lunchtime, but construction crews have replaced the diners. The restaurant is closed for remodeling.

Jimenez: They shot up the whole place.

Waitress Veronica Jimenez says gunmen appeared out of nowhere during dinnertime two weeks ago and sprayed bullets through the windows and doors. They killed three people, another waitress, a federal police officer and a woman she was waiting on from El Cajon.

Jimenez says by the grace of God, she was washing a plate in the kitchen when the shooting began.

Jimenez: Things in Tijuana have really changed. There didn’t used to be so much killing and you were safe if you didn’t go out late. Now, the rules have changed. Anytime, anywhere, it doesn’t matter. They don’t even care if kids or old people are around.

A few days after that shootout, gunmen kidnapped a man having dinner at a downtown Tijuana sushi bar. And during one recent weekend, seven bodies were discovered around the city stuffed in car trunks and dumped in trash heaps. 

Victor Clark who directs the Center for Bi-National Human Rights in Tijuana says the violence reminds him of the mid-'90s, when the Arellanos were struggling to maintain control of the city. Clark says this time the violence is more widespread and more brutal. 

Clark: A few months ago, they decapitated three policemen and one civilian. More recently, a federal agent was found with his police ID pinned to his head. Another had his ID stuffed in his mouth. All of this is calculated to raise the level of fear among citizens and the authorities.

The rash of killings has lead to nothing more that political finger pointing, says Tijuana's top public security official Javier Algorri.

Algorri says he doesn’t know what else needs to happen in Tijuana for the federal police to come help like they promised they would months ago. However, federal officials counter the real fault lies with the local government that is riddled with corruption from the police chief right up to the mayor.

That didn’t sit well with Mayor Hank Rhon who invited federal police to investigate his long rumored ties to drug trafficking.

Meanwhile, the City's Chamber of Commerce is urging its members not to pay taxes until crime in Tijuana is under control.

Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

(Cell phone photo: Memorial service for Assistant Police Chief Arturo Rivas Vaca, who was gunned down on September 21, 2006. Amy Isackson / KPBS . )

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