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Baja California: Guns, Tourism, Safety


Current conditions in the border region, including the influx of guns from the U.S. and elsewhere; the City of Juarez's hiring of former Tijuana Police Chief Julian Leyzaola, the effect of media coverage of the drug wars on Tijuana tourism and its economy and the upcoming visit of former Mexican President Vicente Fox to San Diego in April.

We update conditions in the border region, including the loss of guns during an ATF sting; Tijuana's new police chief and the hiring of its former chief by the City of Juarez; how media coverage of the drug wars is affecting Tijuana and border cities and the upcoming visit of former Mexican President Vicente Fox to San Diego in April.


Jose Luis Jimenez, KPBS Fronteras reporter

Amy Isackson, KPBS Fronteras Reporter

Ruxandra Guidi, KPBS fronteras reporter

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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Less than a month ago, the U.S. issued another warning about travel to Mexico. This one was specifically about an area in central Mexico, but these warnings tend to have a widespread effect on travel and tourism. We're getting close to spring break, which is typically a big time for Baja California. But if this year is like last year, and the year before, there may be quite a few empty beaches and clubs. We'll talk about tourism in Baja and several other very big stories out of region with three reporters form the KPBS Fronteras Desk. KPBS border reporter, Amy Isackson is with us this morning. Good morning, Amy.

ISACKSON: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ruxandra Guidi from our Fronteras desk is there. Good morning, Rux.

GUIDI: Hi, good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Jose Luis Jimenez, Fronteras Social media reporter is here. Good morning Jose.

JIMENEZ: Good morning Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now we'll start with a story who some will claim is an ATF operation gone for wrong inside Mexico. It's the US bureau of alcohol tobacco and firearms apparently tried to track guns sold here in the U.S. to people they knew would smuggle them across the border into Mexico. First of all, Jose, why would U.S. federal agents be involved in an operation like this?

JIMENEZ: Well, like you said, Maureen, this was part of a law enforcement operation. It's actually part of a typical tactic used by law enforcement that basically they let small -- what they consider to be smaller criminals to basically perform the crime in order to find out who is behind the larger organization, basically moving up the chain, organizational chain within the organization. So these agents in Phoenix tracked large numbers of sales of rifles and automatic weapons and basically allowed them to go down into Mexico.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So if they were tracking them, there doesn't seem on the surface of it there to be a problem. So where does the problem come in?

JIMENEZ: Correct, the pressure is that they lost track of many of the weapons once they entered into Mexico. We some accounts, more than fellowship hundred weapons went south during this operation. And like I said earlier, the ATF is accused of losing track of many of the weapons in Mexico. Critics say that what happened was due to a lack of manpower south of the border. They didn't have enough agents down there to keep track of all these weapons of also there's a lack of coordination with Mexican authorities to also keep track of these weapons.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Amy Isackson, this place was called fast and furious, as Jose tells us, it's an operation out of Phoenix. And now it's just BLOWN up into this huge controversy. Why do the agents feel that they needed to do this in the first place?

ISACKSON: Well, it's really difficult from the agents over the time that I've been reporting on this that I've talked to, it's very difficult to track these guns. One, when people buy AK47s in states other than California 'cause California's gun laws are a lot bit different, there's no reporting for them. And that's one thing that ATF is trying to do, if someone buys multiple AK 47s, which is one of the cartels' guns of choice, then there's a reporting requirement that ATF need to be notified. Also this idea of just watching guns go over the border that I've seen reported so many times, it's difficult to -- it's not that agents were looking at the border watching the guns cross. They take a circuitous route, guns do, when they go across the border. So someone goes into a gun shop in Arizona, and mind you, it's perfectly legal for that person to buy a gun if they pass the FBI background check. And then the gun changes hands. Maybe that person is just the purchaser, they give it to someone else, that person stores it in their homes for a number of months, and then somehow at some time the gun makes its way across the board every. So it's enormously difficult, as I've been told, by agents to track those guns from the store down to the border, across the border to Mexico.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And it's my understanding that the ark TF agents were trying to provide some evidence to prosecutors so that they could actually make a case against these gun smugglers. Was that --

ISACKSON: And from what I've heard, the U.S. attorney's office, this again is from an ATF person is not authorized to speak to the media, so they asked for anonymity, that it was very difficult to get the U.S. attorney in the United States interested in these cases, because as we said, it's legal for someone to go into a store in Arizona and buy this gun, and there was no crime that was committed in buying the sun. And so it was difficult for the U.S. attorney to take the case and authorize wire taps because they weren't seeing a crime being committed here in the U.S.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So Jose, I imagine all of this with the lost guns does not go down very well in Mexico. What are people saying there about this operation and.

JIMENEZ: Well, members of Congress in Mexico claim that there have been a hundred and 50 cases of injuries and homicides directly related to these arms that were smuggled across into Mexico. And they are now calling for investigations on both sides of the border to get to the bottom of what happened of and also here on the U.S. side, Republican senator Charles grassy of Iowa basically was the one that kind of got this out into the public by claiming that he received a letter from an insider at the ATM laying out what happened, and that he is calling for hearings to have further investigations into this, and with all the -- basically with this news getting out into the public now, attorney general Eric Holder has said that the justice department is now beginning to look into it also.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the beginning, you mentioned that one of the reasons that ATF might lost track of these guns is that they're understaffed, especially in Mexico. Why is that?

JIMENEZ: Well, one of the issues that they have in Mexico is that they have trouble getting enough agents who speak Spanish, who are fluent enough to be able to work down there and relate with their counterparts down there. Another issue is because they are in this Mexico, a foreign country, they're not allowed to have weapons. And many agents have an issue with this, that they feel they will not be able to defend themselves if they come under attack down there. Of so that's another reason why they have terrible getting agents to be posted down there. And a third is the budget, right now according to the justice department, they only have positions for 21 agents in foreign countries. And obviously there's a lot of crime out there in other countries. For the 2011 budget, they're looking to more than double that, add 28 more agents, but of course we know the budget battles going on with that in Washington, who knows if they'll be able to get that extra staffing?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to pose this last question about this to both of you, Jose, and Amy, since this is now a scandal, one would imagine that this operation is at least over. Do we know of any prosecutions that have resulted from tracking these weapons that have been smuggled into Mexico? Amy?

ISACKSON: I don't personally know of any prosecutions, I must say that I have not been following the case in that kind of detail because it is in Arizona. But Jose, I'll yield to you.

JIMENEZ: Yeah, my understanding is that as of this moment, so far there are no prosecutions that come E have come forward. But of course that does not mean that something could not come forward in the future.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Got it. Let me move on, now, Amy, because American guns can't make the job of Tijuana's police chief any easier, no matter who the police chief is. The story is that the former police chief in Tijuana, Julian Leyzaola, has taken a new job. Now, when and where did he lose his old job? Tijuana.

ISACKSON: Last December, a new mayor came in, Carlos Bustamante, and he changed the police chief in Tijuana. So he let Leyzaola go, and put in the man, Gustavo Huerta, who had been Leyzaola 's second in command is now police chief in Tijuana. Leyzaola at that point had -- there was a lot of controversy swirling around him. And there were really two camps in Tijuana. People who loved him and thought he was Tijuana's saviour, and people who also thought that he was a torturer, there are international -- the international -- inter-American commission on human rites, sorry, has pending torture charges against him from many dozen of his own officers. So with this trove, Bustamante switched out the police chief, and Leyzaola then became second in charge of state police in Baja California. Where [CHECK AUDIO] and incidentally there are some torture charges against Huerta as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So I remember United States talking about the police chief, Leyzaola, here in studio. We were talking about it when there were stories about these terrible deaths, these drug cartel related deaths were coming out of Tijuana on a daily, weekly basis. And he was given a lot of credit for bringing some sort of stability to Tijuana. What is it that he did?

ISACKSON: He really wanted to root out corruption within the police force. Of Tijuana's police was notoriously corrupt and he told stories -- Leyzaola told stories about when he came in, police had a couple cellphones on their belt, and one was for their official police business, and another went to whoever they were working for with the cartel. So he really wanted to crack down on that, and to that end, he showed police that he was gonna rule them with an iron fist, Leyzaola himself was out in the street, confronting cartels members and criminals as he said to show police that they're human and can be confronted as well. He would go out to the precincts and basically administer or evangelize to his police force that they would sleep so much better if they weren't taking bribes from the cartel. And he -- Leyzaola showed himself to be incorruptible as well. He talked about how he received offers from the cartel -- for a lot of money. And how he says he turned them down, he received death threats, but he mad it out alive. So he also, I think it's important to point out that it wasn't just Leyzaola in Tijuana, but it was also -- he was part of a team with the army, the federal police, as well as the state attorney general's office, and state police, who had some success in calming down the horrible violence that had been taking place in Tijuana.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, now, former police chief Leyzaola is going to Ciudad Juarez. It seems like a good fit since Ciudad Juarez is just plagued by drug cartel violence and murders, but tell us a little bit more what it is like in Juarez.

ISACKSON: Juarez is probably one of the most violate places in the world right now, more than I've seen tabulations of more than 6000 people have been killed there in the drug war since 2006. I've seen statistics as high as about 8000. And it's two-car dells, like in Tijuana, but different players in Juarez who are playing out -- who are fighting for control of the local drug market as well as the international drug market, like San Diego, Ciudad Juarez has the border -- there's a large border crossing with El Paso, and that's a strategic point to get drugs to the rest of U.S. so there's a massive, bloody, terrible fight that's playing out there. I think that it's important to point out that many people in Leyzaola -- or sorry, in Ciudad Juarez are really placing their hopes on Leyzaola, and giving him a loan credit for what was done in Tijuana. And Leyzaola had a long history in Baja California, and in Tijuana. He was with the director of the prison, he was the director of the state police for some time, so he really knew the landscape and knew the layers in Tijuana before he came police chief and had some success in cleaning up corruption and cracking down on crime. And he doesn't have that history in Ciudad Juarez, and he also doesn't have his team player, the same people on his team that he had in Tijuana in Ciudad Juarez. And it's interesting, many of the analysts say that not only was it the authorities who had done a good job in approximate cracking down in crime in Tijuana, but the cartels themselves had also made a decision to cool things off. And that same decision doesn't seem to be made in Ciudad Juarez between the cartels who are engage indeed this bloody fight.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Finally to bring it back to Tijuana, how is the new Tijuana police chief, Gustavo Huerta doing?

ISACKSON: Well, people were concerned when Leyzaola left that Leyzaola ruled with such an iron first that maybe Huerta wouldn't be able to do the same thing. It appears that he is doing well, though violence has sneaked up again on the city, and there have been as many murders in March so far as there were in the entire month of February. It's hard to measure success by the murder rate, but that's one statistic.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Amy, thank you very much. And I started out this segment of the show talking about spring break. Let me move on to Ruxandra Guidi about spring break. It's coming up soon. So what is the story with Baja California's beach cities? Are they safe? Are college students gonna start returning to Baja as a spring break destination? Do you know?

GUIDI: I'm not so sure there will be a returning as they had in years past. You know, the situation is pretty safe as far as the beaches are concerned, and the areas where there's a lot of tourism. A lot of beach front areas along Baja have tourism police that speaks English and are specifically watching out for the situation regarding American and Mexican tourists. But you know, the bad rep that Mexico as a whole has gotten because of the drug violence, and whatever episodes of violence there have been over the last five years have really harmed that reputation, have really harmed tourism in the area. So right now there's a lot of offers, there's a lot of sales for the remaining cruises and for resorts along the beaches, but I'm not so sure the tourism's coming back any time soon.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Give us a sense of how much tourism has been damaged in Baja.

GUIDI: It's pretty remarkable. I was just there a couple of weeks ago. I drove from Tijuana down to Ensenada and then San Felipe, and then back to Tecate and San Diego. And what I saw in every single community were hotel towers, apartment towers, you know, 200 to half a million dollar homes which are very large homes for that price in that part of Mexico, that were sitting completely empty or half finished. Trump had invested in a tower down there, and that's sitting halfway done. And that's a lot of restaurants that were built for a capacity of 200, 300 people that were sitting completely empty. So a lot of the Baja governments are desperately trying to draw foreign investment, American visitors, tourists, but they're hurting.

CAVANAUGH: We have just heard that some cruise lines basically have canceled some cruises to Mexico. Why have they done that?

GUIDI: That's right. Carnival and Holiday America have both -- they're planning to canceling those soon to the Ensenada PORT. And you know it's a couple of things. And this is what I've heard both from the cruise companies and travel specialists. Of that it's both that they feel that that route from LA or San Diego to Baja. This doesn't really offer that much that's new to tourists, there's not a lot that's new to see, and also the tourism development is slow right now. It's not very appealing for tourists. But they're also afraid that, you know, they talk about violence, that violence may return, could return at any point to some of these areas. Really harms their efforts to do business in that area.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ruxandra, did you get a sense of how the locals, the people in Baja are reacting to drug cartel violence? I mean, are they going out to clubs? Are they going out to restaurants? Do they feel it's safe to get out of the house?

GUIDI: Definitely. All the folks I spoke to on the trip to Baja, I found that everyone's living very normal lives. As far as the officials go, they really want us to know that there's no violence going on, but terror in some of the peripheries, some of these communities there, there's still some attacks or death threats that they get now and then, and they're really building up their police forces, so that makes you feel that they're either expecting something or they're aware that there's that possible threat. But I think locals are going about their lives in regular ways.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us about the economic conditions in places like Rosarito and Ensenada and Tijuana? Because it's my understanding that tourism is a big part of that local economy.

GUIDI: Of course, those economies are incredibly tied to tourism and to investment from north of the border. And you know, I saw rows of vendors that were just -- that were telling me that they have been, you know, without doing a single sale in 2, 3 days of things are very slow. And I think people are hoping that either the economy improves north of the border and that will translate to a better economy for Baja, or that their mayors and city officials will do more to attract foreign investment or that the, you know, for example that the U.S. will make more of an effort to really specify that the areas in Mexico that are greater or lesser threats to tourists. Right now, that's a State Department warning for many parts of Mexico, and I think for a lot of tourists, they tend to think of all of Mexico as safe for them. And a lot of folks I spoke to in Baja felt like they deserve to be seen as a safe part in the country. And one that very much welcomes and needs Americans and American dollars.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering as the local officials try to encourage people to come to Baja as a vacation place, are there any tips that they're giving out to visitors? You know, so that they can stay on the safe side, on the mainstream of what's going on in Baja?

GUIDI: Yeah, I spoke to the folks at Rosarito beach hotel, which as we know, is only half an hour away from here in San Diego. And it's been a major spot both for people in Baja in the U.S., and they are very aware that people afraid of driving down there. Of even crossing the border. So even they say that things are really safe, and you would encounter no problems driving down from Rosarito to San Diego, they've offered a service at no extra cost where they can pick you up, literally, in San Diego, and take you to their hotel. And they have these incredible sales, I think it's something like $40 for two people over a weekend -- sorry, $40 a day per person at their hotel with spa facilities, meals included. They're trying very hard. But also that local officials in the tourism boards are offering a lot of tips on their website, they're designing something that's called a pass port to Baja that's gonna be a little pas port sized little brochure that includes all the emergency numbers and all the facilities and all the amenities for tourists. And they have this tourism police, which is bilingual, which is, you know, been boosted in numbers, and they very much feel like, you know, even though there's -- they say there's no real danger enforce tourists, they would at least have that presence, and will give peace of mind to a lot of visitors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Very interesting. I want to close this out with just a quick note from Jose about a flout that developed over former Mexican president, Vicente Fox' visit. He's coming here next month. What was the controversy that is -- surrounded his first attempt at visiting a school here in San Diego?

JIMENEZ: Yes, alumni at Point Loma Nazarene university invited President Fox to speak at the university. But then university administrators rescinded that invitation, essentially, to the Christian campus. Of and that created a somewhat minor controversy. But people at the university of San Diego, specifically the transborder institute stepped up and now President Fox will be speaking on April 7th. Some alumni say they're embarrassed by the way their Alma Mater handled the issue, especially because the university claims on their website that they're known for being forward thinking, and apparently the nexus of this is something that Vicente Fox wrote on a blog, basically advocating for the legalization of drugs in Mexico as a potential solution to a lot of the problems down there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So do we know that what he's going to talk about now at USD? When he does visit in April?

JIMENEZ: Well, I'm sure part of it is going to be his proposal to legalize drugs. His main argument about that is that prohibition of vices like alcohol here in the United States , really has never worked. Instead when you prohibit something you create an economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits, and with those profits, it leads to corruptions and it leads to the gangs basically taking over society. And his argument is by legalizing and regulating drugs, you can take back control of society. But again, he says that would not be tantamount to the government approving the use of drugs. He still would have anti-drug programs and rehabilitation centers. And of course, being along the border, I'm sure he's going to talk about some issues dear to us, like border economics and immigration.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We might get a taste of that because we are working to get Perez do not fox on These Days in early April, so we're hoping to be able to bring that interview to you. I want to thank you so much for this Baja update. Amy Isackson, thank you. I guess she went away. Ruxandra Guidi.

GUIDI: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Jose Luis Jimenez, thank you so much.

JIMENEZ: That you are Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Now, coming up, letting the sunshine on San Diego government. Of that's as These Days continues right here on KPBS.

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