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Tijuana Doctors Caught in the Crossfire of Drug Cartel Violence

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Dozens of citizens groups in Tijuana plan to protest the rising drug cartel violence and lawlessness in the region today. One group that's been particularly emphatic in its pleas for a government crack down is doctors. At least 20 have been kidnapped during the last few months... and more extorted for money. As KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson explains, even those who haven't been directly affected are casualties of the regions drug war.

Dozens of doctors in Tijuana recently cancelled their morning rounds. Instead, of seeing patients, they gathered in their starched white coats on the steps of the city's general hospital. They called for government and law enforcement officials to restore the health of the city.

Doctor: They're incompetent.

This doctor, who was afraid to give her name, says she's yet to see an improvement in Tijuana, even though Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sent hundreds of soldiers and federal police to Tijuana to battle drug cartels during the last two years.

Doctor: The governor says take a karate class or something because the kidnapping swill keep on being.

Doctor: We are tired of being afraid to go out in the streets; tired of being afraid to go to restaurants; tired of friends and friends sons getting kidnapped and murdered. So this has to stop.

Doctors in Tijuana are accustomed to handling trauma.

Drug cartel violence has droned on for years. It's gotten to the point where dead bodies, dumped around the city, are cocktail party conversation. And People joke that Tijuana's weather forecasters should say, "Cloudy, with a chance of bullets."

But, last spring, that violence hit the city's general hospital itself.

Doctors and patients fled as drug cartel gunmen shot their way into the emergency room to rescue a wounded comrade. The gunmen killed two policemen as they blasted their way in. Then, they holed up inside the hospital for half the day.

This gynecologist, who was afraid to give her name, fled that day.

Doctor: When we saw how they shot up the emergency room without a care that women, children and sick people were there, that's when we realized the magnitude of the danger we are in, that we could die.

In the year since, drug cartel violence has only tightened its grip on Tijuana. Shootouts in city streets have sent people diving for cover. Mutilated cadavers are discovered almost daily.

Dozens of people have been snatched by drug cartel members who've increasingly turned to kidnapping to make money. A prominent Tijuana surgeon fell into kidnappers clutches about a month ago. His captors inexplicably cut him lose two days later.

But the incident shocked doctors into action…to pressure the government to crack down. Days later, a shootout between warring drug cartel members left 13 gunmen dead. The Red Cross rushed eight more to the general hospital.

Once again, the hospital went into lockdown for fear gunmen would try to break out the criminals. Doctors are still on tenterhooks.

Doctor: We know that at any moment, they could bring injured drug traffickers here. You can't concentrate when you're doing a consult. We're living in constant anguish.

This gynecologist says the fear follows her home.

Doctor: I was astonished the other day when my daughter told me that she and her little friends are practicing escape drills at recess in case gunmen come to the elementary school. Instead of thinking about playing, their thinking about where they'll hide. That's really difficult for me.

A pediatric cardiologist, who was also afraid to giver her name, tells the story of how a group of gunmen followed and robbed her and her husband one recent afternoon after they withdrew money from the ATM.

She told the story as if she was talking about going to the corner to buy milk.

Doctor: Everyone has a story. It’s everyday, everywhere you turn. Neighbors, relatives, at my son's school -- we're getting accustomed to being around soldiers and police who are heavily armed. But I don't like it. Going to work and seeing gigantic machine guns…I mean, if we were at war, then maybe.

In some ways, Tijuana has become a war zone.

Doctor: People are in the middle of bullets and uncertainty. If you go to Iraq right now, what do they do? They go to work and they run back home. That's what they're doing in Tijuana.

David Sotelo has practiced psychology in Tijuana for more than two decades. He says during the past few years, he's had to go back and study up on post traumatic stress and anxiety disorders to care for his clients. Sotelo says his sense is people are just waiting for something to change.

Back on the hospital steps, the pediatric cardiologist says she simply wants more security and more protection.

She says, unfortunately, she's not smart enough to say what the government's strategy should be.

Amy Isackson, KPBS News.

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