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What Were Top Border-Related Stories Of 2010?


What are the top border-related stories of 2010? We speak to KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson about the discovery of two large drug tunnels along the border, and the story of alleged teenage assassin "El Ponchis." We'll also speak to Reporter Ruxandra Guidi and Social Media Editor Jose Luis Jimenez about the Fronteras project that KPBS is working on with several other public radio stations across the Southwest.

What are the top border-related stories of 2010? We speak to KPBS Border Reporter Amy Isackson about the discovery of two large drug tunnels along the border, and the story of alleged teenage assassin "El Ponchis." We'll also speak to Reporter Ruxandra Guidi and Social Media Editor Jose Luis Jimenez about the Fronteras project that KPBS is working on with several other public radio stations across the Southwest.


Amy Isackson, KPBS border reporter.

Ruxandra Guidi, KPBS Fronteras reporter.

Jose Luis Jimenez, KPBS Fronteras social media editor.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Good morning, I'm Dwane Brown in for Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. A quick reminder, we will not be taking any phone calls on today's program. We're looking back at what made news in 2010 in San Diego AND Mexico. Drug cartel violence has claimed more than 28,000 lives south of the border in the recent years. Police corruption also played a major role in contributing to the problem. But there are many other issues affecting the lives of people on both sides of the border. KPBS recently expanded our coverage of burdens and immigration issue. Senior news editor, Mark Sauer, Amy Isaacson, Ruxandra Guidi, and Jose Luis Jimenez.

SAUER: Amy, you've closely followed the drug war and drug violence in the drug war in Tijuana throughout this year. A year ago, one of the most wanted drug gang leaders was arrested in Tijuana. Tell us about the importance of this story.

ISAACSON: Just by way of background, his name was el Teo, that was his name, Teodoro Garcia Simental. And he was arrested in La Paz. And he was as our listeners will remember, of the AFL term coat, the Arellano Felix Organization. He worked for them. He was a lieutenant, and he broke away from them because he was -- the people in charge of the Arellano Felix cartel didn't like how he handled himself. He was kidnapping too much, he was causing too much violence, and bringing too much attention from the authority, he broke away in 2008, he launched our war with the Arellano Felix cartel with the backing of one of main rivals, the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful cartels in all of Mexico. Mexican police arrested him, they linked him to 300 murders during the year there was this big fight. There were 834 murders total in Tijuana, that's the most violence that the city has ever seen. Next near in 2009, there were 40 dead cops that were tied to -- most of these murders were tied to the drug war by el Teo, the police chief was threatened to death by el Teo's group, the state attorney general of Baja California was threatened to death, and after his arrest, two of his lutes were rated also in la Paz. And violence really calmed down. And it took on different characteristics in the city. There weren't as many high profile cases like shootouts, you know, in the streets and bodies dumped at schools, and that kind of thing. And this year we've seen the same continuation of that. However, back about a month and a half ago we saw a big shoot out at one of the drug rehab centers, 13 people killed.

SAUER: That was quite a shocking story after this kind of lull, as you describe it, in the violence.

ISAACSON: And it made people really question what's going on, if the authorities lost control, if there was a time that -- there was a transition time, a new mayor was coming into Tijuana, the old police chief, it wasn't clear if he was gonna stay. However, after that, the murders had groaned on, but not in that spectacular kind of way. And I think we're about more than 770 murders in Tijuana at this point.

SAUER: So where are we now regarding the drug war over all in Tijuana and in Mexico.

ISAACSON: Well, I think what we can say in Tijuana is that it's less high profile violence, list gruesome violence, less attacks on police. [CHECK AUDIO] how far, as we said, drug murders grind on in the city's outskirts, and it's, you know, broken last year's number, and I don't think we're gonna reach the historic number of 844 that we had in tweet. In terms of Tijuana, there's a new mayor, there's a new police chief. [CHECK AUDIO] controversial who we've talked about many times is now second in charge of state security for the state of Baja California, and with all these new players, it's not really clear how it's going to pan out. There has been less corruption in the police force, but can the new police chief, Gustavo Huerta, maintain this? That remains to be seen. In addition there are torture charges that do the new police chief, Huerta, as well as Lesaola. The state and the city have largely chosen to ignore them. They've promoted both of them. But meanwhile, international human rights organizations have picked up on these charges, and that's something that we also will need to watch. The next 18 months for Mexico are critical. It's the end of president Felipe Calderón's term, and he is the one who has begun this entire drug war, and he will really need to show some results and put the pressure on. Also the PRI Party, which is the party that once ruled Mexico for about 70 years, is gaining steam. And if there is a change of power in Mexico, not just the person but also the party in 2012, that raises questions as to the continuity of this fight against the drug war.

SAUER: Now, we're talking with Amy Isaacson of our Fronteras desk. In a year of standing headlines, at least a couple stand out, the drug tunnel along the border, which you reported on extensively. And the arrest of a 14-year-old assassin in Cuernavaca. This young man was born in San Diego. Can we put the story of el Ponchis, if I'm pronouncing that correctly, into context.

ISAACSON: It was an alarming case, and that's why it's getting so much attention and so many headlines. I think that it's really an extreme example of a broader trend that we've been see in Mexico over the years of people getting involved in the cartels getting younger and younger. And a lot of teenagers getting caught up in the drug gangs. A Tijuana Congress man recently estimated that there are 50000 children who work for the cartels. But they're not all Ponchises, they're not all allegedly decapitating people and killing people. They are normally kids who work as mules, who work at lookouts. And it's not just germane to Mexico, but also in San Diego as well we've seen that with drug cartels and drug gangs rerouting kids in San Diego to be smugglers and smuggle drugs and people across the border too. So I think that in terms of el Ponchis, he's a big story, he's an extreme story. But one has to put that into context as well. Of when you hear about teens that are caught up in the drug cartels in Mexico, this 50000 number, not everyone is an assassin. And I feel that the media has turned it a lot to say he's the prime example of what's happening. He's an extreme example.

SAUER: Okay. The drug tunnels. How unusual were those discoveries?

ISAACSON: The two within the space of just -- less than a month, were very unusual. And they were sophisticated tunnel, they had lights, electricity, ventilation, and both of them actually had tracks laid at the bottom that the smugglers used to ferry the drugs on these carts that they had made across the border. One cart was actually rigged up with six car batteries, you know, as far as they could.

SAUER: And didn't you wind up taking a ride on that cart for a story?

ISAACSON: We did. The Mexican army allowed us to go on the cart.

SAUER: Amy, let's listen to the report you did on that experience.

ISAACSON(AUDIO RECORDING): It happens like it often does. The Mexican army called a few Tijuana reporters to let them know they could tour the tunnel. Word spread like wildfire. By midday, ten reporters had lined up outside the cement block warehouse in Tijuana to wait their turn. Inside the building, the dirt the people who built the tunnel shovelled out is piled high. In the middle there's a big square opening bored out. There's a wig metal ladder that goes about 18 feet down into the ground. I climb down, so now I'm crawling into the tunnel, I'm on my hands and knees, and this part of the tunnel is nicely reinforced with wood. It's kind of like a basement out of the '70s.

ISAACSON: Us authorities discovered the drug smuggling tunnel earlier this week at a warehouse in San Diego. The building is about 300 yards from the border fence. Authorities say suspicious activity outside caught their attention. They eventually found ten tons of marijuana in a truck that had left the warehouse and another 20 tons inside. It wasn't cheer how transporters smuggled the drugs through the tunnel. Down in a narrow passageway on the Tijuana side, the army loaded us onto a motorized cart to demonstrate. A soldier told us to keep our elbows and knees tucked in title, and away we went. We sped down the tunnel at about 15 miles per hour, just like bails of marijuana. We passed underneath the border fence. Plant roots brushed our faces. It seemed like a ride out of an amusement park. But this is the work of a drug cartel, and tied to the drug war that's claimed nearly 30000 lives in Mexico. The two people arrested in connection with the tunnel in San Diego are scheduled to be arraigned in federal court this morning.

SAUER: Amy, that's pretty interesting. Now, tell us what's happening on the U.S. side of the border.

ISAACSON: The Otay Mesa area is an area that's traditionally been the hotbed, you could say, for tunnels, there was a huge one found in 2006. That was the longest tunnel of. Then there was another one that was found that was just short of completion in 2009 that was also a big tunnel. And it's to the point that it's -- federal authorities are so concerned with it being a hotbed for tunnels and the potential for kind of Swiss cheese under the border there that they're going around and warning businesses and knocking on doors and saying if you see anything strange, let us know, and also federal authorities asked to take a look around the warehouse, which you can only imagine they're looking for the products, they're also looking to see if there is anything suspicious there as well.

SAUER: We're talking with our reporters from the Fronteras desk. Ruxandra Guidi, can you explain to us, our listeners, what Fronteras is, when we launched it, and what this unique partnership is about?

GUIDI: Sure. Well, fronteras means borders in Spanish. And we are a collaborative, public radio stations, TV stations, public TV stations as well, that are in seven different bureaus all along the border, in Nevada as well. And the project is one of the local journalism centers that have popped up around the country that are funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to really go deeper on certain beats. Ours is obviously the border and immigration and the changing face of America that we started in September of this year.

SAUER: And just briefly, can you testimony us some of the main stories that you've covered here in the last couple of months since this has started?

GUIDI: Well, I've been doing stories about anything, as I feel that as long as we're here along the border and we're talking about immigration or demographics or culture, we're really addressing the main focus of our fronteras man date. But I've worked on a story about the high unemployment in El Centro, in the Imperial County. I've worked on a story about the deportation of mothers and how that separates families. I've also worked on stories about green energy development in the Imperial Valley. And so have my colleagues around the country, around the border.

SAUER: All right. We're talking today with Amy Isaacson, Ruxandra Guidi, and Jose Luis Jiminez of our fronteras desk. Jose you're the social editor of Fronteras Desk. Can you explain what that role means?

JIMINEZ: Yes, I was the social media editor for Fronteras. Basically, I was tasked with going out into the social media platforms and finding communities that already exist and trying to engage with them, finding out what's requesting on, hopefully cultivate story ideas and also hopefully report out of this. . We do this through two main platforms, the first is twitter, which is the microblogging platform that is gaining popularity throughout the country of and also through our Facebook page. Where we also post stories that our reporters are working on, and other stories that we find interesting that people who have an interest in the border, and the issues along it, will also be interested in.

SAUER: Okay. I'd like to go around now. And ask each of you what you expect as we move into 2011. I know that's a very broad question here, but one thing that will continue obviously is the drug war in Mexico, and we've got some political changes coming. Jose, you had something to observer.

JIMINEZ: Yeah, one of the topic areas that we are charged with is the census. And obviously the figures just came out which shows a big boon for the southwest. Our colleague, Ruxandra Guidi, is actually working on stories about that. But beyond that, we're gonna be delving deeply into the numbers, crunching the numbers, finding out exactly what they mean. And in the next couple of months our listeners and our readers on the web, we'll be getting stories kind of putting into context what these numbers mean, and how the area's changing and what will be coming forward.


GUIDI: Yes, one of the things we find just today since the new census numbers were released is that the southwest has experienced the most growth of any part of the country. And that's right in our backyard. So we want to take a look at what that means culturally, economically, and connect the thoughts between basically San Diego and Tucson or Las Vegas, and San Antonio Texas, which is where some of our bureaus are, so we really want to go deeper into some of the issues that we've been exploring so far.


ISAACSON: And I think in terms of Tijuana, it will be hooking at as you said, the drug war there, the drug violence there, how this plays out in terms of the administration change with the mayor, with the new police chief. And also just on a larger scale, looking at the next year of what Mexico is able to accomplish in terms of the drug war and U.S. collaboration, and how that plays out internationally with Mexico and the United States and how that plays out locally with San Diego and Tijuana. And I think also keeping an eye on immigration here in the United States and how the shift in Congress, it's a bit predictable in terms of how that has colored things, how that will color things in the four, looking at the dream act, if that comes back in any way, shape or form. And how the Obama administration handles immigration reform and people's calls for it.

SAUER: Thank you, I'd like to thank my colleagues for joining us today, and it's been a -- hopefully an enlightening discussion. Jose, if folks out there want to get ahold of our reporters and make comments and suggestions and observations, how would they go about that?

JIMINEZ: Sure, besides listening to us on the radio, you can follow our reporters through twitter, Amy Isaacson is rat KPBS border, Ruxandra is her name, Ruxandra Guidi, R-U-X-A-N-D-R-A, G-U-I-D-I, and then there's also the Fronteras Desk, which is @fronterasdesk. And through there you can send messages to all the reporters, and like I said earlier, we're also on Facebook. Just go ahead and like us on Facebook, and you can follow up on all the latest we'll be reporting on.

SAUER: And thanks again to Mark Sauer, Amy Isaacson, Ruxandra Guidi, and Jose Luis Jimenez for joining us today. As Jose mentioned, there are several ways to follow our border coverage on KPBS. You can listen on the radio or watch it on television, or go online,, and you can also get our Twitter updates. Coming up next on These Days, Maureen Cavanaugh talks about the human rights implications of Mexico's drug violence with Ken Roth from the group, human rights watch.

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