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Troubles in Baja California

Troubles in Baja California
We look in on Baja California for an update on the drug wars, border crossings and the rising toll of earthquake damage in the Mexicali area

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In recent months, arrests of major drug cartel leaders have been made in Baja California, and during the same time, the California State University system has placed a ban on student travel to Mexico. We'll hear about those major stories and about the recent visit to San Diego of the new Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Alan Bersin. That and more, coming up on our Baja Update. I’d like to welcome my guests. Amy Isackson is KPBS News border reporter. Good morning, Amy.

AMY ISACKSON (KPBS News Border Reporter): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Vicente Calderon is editor of Vicente, good morning.


VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, Good morning. Thank you for the invitation as always.

CAVANAUGH: Amy, let’s start with the ongoing drug war between the various cartels. Earlier this year, several notorious gang leaders were captured. One known as El Teo, his brother, another cartel leader known as El Muletas. Who were these guys and what did they do?

ISACKSON: El Teo, who we’ve talked about quite a bit on this show, was the renegade member of the Arellano Felix cartel who broke away and then came back and unleashed war to try to take over and supposedly with the backing of the Sinaloa cartel. When he was arrested, federal authorities said that he was working for the Sinaloa cartel. He was tied to hundreds of murders in Tijuana. He had people, hundreds of people, supposedly dissolved in acid. He financed his operations by kidnapping businessmen. He threatened to kill Baja’s attorney general, the police chief, and El Muletas was under El Teo. El Teo was arrested in January in La Paz in a luxury apartment complex. El Muletas was arrested in La Paz in a luxury area a month afterwards, and Muletas had supposedly taken over for El Teo and he also tied to hundreds of murders. He is – among his most gruesome crimes, he supposedly decapitated a model, he castrated a public official, hung him from an overpass, kidnapped businessmen, he cloned police cars and killed police officers as well.

CAVANAUGH: So you have two, at least two, leaders of ultraviolent cartel crime now behind bars, and I’m wondering has there been any measurable difference in the violence in Baja because of that, Vicente?

CALDERON: I think there’s a decrease in what they call the high profile cases. These type of killings that Amy was mention as the resume of El Teo, which is not only his property because the other gang also, it has a lot of decapitations and very gruesome killings. But we’ve seen an increase on the number of homicides, violent homicides linked to the drug cartel and the – so far this year. Things are getting – unfortunately, during May, at the beginning of May, we also saw another spike up on the numbers. So far, the last three months, the average is two killings per day, which is – I mean, it’s very serious, it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as we saw, for example, in 2008 when we reach 844 at the end of the year or 2009 when we saw also a decrease with about 664 killings. So we have a steady decrease. Things look a little bit better but we still have a big problem of organized crime and drug trafficking at the border.



ISACKSON: And the murder rate, as Vicente had said, has dropped considerably from 2009 and especially from 2008 when it was a record 834 or ’43, I can’t…

CALDERON: Forty-four.

ISACKSON: Yeah, more than 830. Also one – another interesting thing is that the streets feel calmer in Tijuana, I would say, and there aren’t the spectacular shootouts that we had been seeing before. And there’s a different flavor of the violence now. With these murders, they’re more discreet, I think, they’re more on the outskirts of the city, and some police investigators, law enforcement in Tijuana, say that they’ve changed their tactics a bit and they’re not using the big huge machine guns that they had been using but have switched to smaller arms to commit these crimes.

CALDERON: There’s a lot of .45 caliber handgun pistols used in these recent killings and that – that is – this has given the impression to the authorities that these people are more well-trained to shoot. They are killing less innocents or there’s less people injured as a result of these attacks. And they think they are more discreet. We haven’t seen these multiple bodies thrown at the same place at the same time. And even when we average as, we mentioned, too, during the last three months, it’s still – there’s also other aspects of their impunity – there’s probably less impunity on the part of these criminal organizations.

CAVANAUGH: And so the nature of the violence is changing and the level of the violence is continuing to go down even though it – there’s still too much of it. I’m wondering, we talked earlier in the year, too, I think about the Mexican government’s crackdown on drug cartel violence and that crackdown perhaps threatening human rights. Is it beginning to feel like a police state in Mexico, Vicente?

CALDERON: No, I think the country, we see less and the kids – We have to just keep in mind first that the situation in Tijuana, it’s very different than the rest of the country. I will admit that in the other cities where we were not used to see these kind of killings or these problems, we are seeing a big increase in the numbers and the spectacularity, as we can call it, and it’s like Monterrey, for example, where they are putting roadblocks through to the drug cartels. But in the case of Tijuana, even when we recognize there’s a big problem, I think, for example, there’s less presence on the streets of the military right now. The patrol is no longer – the police not patrolling in groups of five as they were doing it as a protection for themselves, they have this main problem in 2009 before the arrest of El Teo and later, one month later of El Muletas. I think things are going back little by little, back to the way it should be, and even before, better than the situation they were facing – we were facing before 2007 when the police was practically took over from the organized crime groups. So we’re…


CALDERON: …we are seeing better. We have to keep in mind that this is no longer just a border town. And many people thinks of Tijuana as just this border town as the one they see in the movies. It’s a city with two million people with a big development so the level of crime, it’s – it will be there high as a big city and also being at the border with a serious trafficking problem, will be—I’m not justifying this but I’m just trying to explain the…

CAVANAUGH: But you’re saying the level of violence may always be a bit higher than people would like.

CALDERON: Exactly.


CALDERON: That’s correct.


ISACKSON: I was just going to add, and I don’t mean to be the downer in terms of this…


ISACKSON: …because there has been a lot of improvement in Tijuana. Analysts that I’ve talked to on this side of the border and also in Tijuana still question how much authority law enforcement really has. That if the cartels decided to ratchet it up again and someone came in and decided to unleash themselves and declare war, what would happen. I think that impunity – impunity is down, and that’s been controlled a bit but still there’s the question of who really has the power.

CAVANAUGH: Vicente, I want to pick up on something that you mentioned just a little while ago, the fact that Baja and Tijuana is different from what’s going on in many other areas of Mexico. The State Department updated its warning about people traveling to or Americans in Mexico, saying that they could evacuate their families if they felt they needed to. They warned that Americans are being followed in border towns. How much of that actually is applicable to Tijuana?

CALDERON: I’m really surprised for this latest update, travel warning to travelers, because I don’t think that is reflecting the situation that we are seeing unless they are hiding very well these killings of Americans, what I would be very surprised that we wouldn’t know or if they are just not updating correctly their information. We have, for example, that’s one of the important things mentioned in this travel alert, that they are seeing cases of Americans being followed or harassed on border towns. And they – when they list the towns, they mention Tijuana. We haven’t seen this. I remember cases like this in 2007, for example, a very well publicized case of a couple from North County that was – they were kidnapped and I understand that they were raped – she was raped…

ISACKSON: I believe that the woman was raped and they were robbed.

CALDERON: She was sexually assaulted, yes.

ISACKSON: They were camping and surfing.

CALDERON: A terrible case…


CALDERON: …in between Ensenada and Rosarito. But we haven’t seen this. I mean, the police made a big effort to try to put more police there. I’m not saying that they are completely honest and everything is rose in Tijuana but we haven’t seen these cases. And also, this travel alert mentioned that half of the killings of U.S. citizens that occur during the last years in the northern bor – on the border area with Mexico and the United States happened in Tijuana and Cuidad Juarez. Obviously, this case in Cuidad Juarez is terrible. We are not happy for that. We are very sad for it because they haven’t seen an improvement but we don’t have the data backing up those assessment from the State Department.

CAVANAUGH: Amy, you used a analogy awhile ago in one of your reports that, you know, the distance between a place like Cuidad Juarez and Tijuana doesn’t seem to make a difference to these State Department warnings that go out.

ISACKSON: Yeah, there’s 700 miles between El Paso/Cuidad Juarez and San Diego/Tijuana but it seems that people see things in Cuidad Juarez, see things happening there, and I’m talking U.S. officials, see things happening in Cuidad Juarez, and then that’s generalized to Tijuana. Some of the tours and people and some of the authorities that I spoke with in Tijuana said it would be, you know, it would be like something happening 700 miles away—I’m not sure exactly where that would land us in the U.S. but Kansas, and then saying, okay, you shouldn’t go to San Diego because that happened in Kansas.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you about the California State University system and what kind of warnings that it’s put out to its students and so forth because of these State Department warnings.

ISACKSON: So the Cal State Chancellor saw this warning and he was actually going off the first warning. The first travel warning, when it was upped to a warning by the State Department, came out the day after three people from the consulate, tied to the consulate in Cuidad Juarez, 700 miles away from Tijuana, were killed. And they had been at a consulate party, both left within minutes of a – within minutes, they were both shot and murdered. It was gruesome, it was horrible. However, the U.S. government officials say the travel warning actually was already in the works because of events also even further east along the Texas/Mexico border in – on the Mexican side. So the Cal State Chancellor, the day after these killings in March, saw the State Department alert and said, okay, no one from the Cal State system can now go to Mexico because there’s an executive order within the Cal State system that no students can travel somewhere where there is a travel warning in place for the country. So the chancellor said, well, this alert includes Tijuana, it says that people from Tijuana, U.S. government employees at the consulate in Tijuana, just like in six other border cities, can evacuate their families if they feel they’re in danger and so, therefore, our students, because there’s danger in Tijuana supposedly, cannot travel to Tijuana.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.

ISACKSON: However, the travel warning actually didn’t say avoid Tijuana, it said use extreme caution when traveling all along the border and, interestingly, CSU has said that students can go to Mexicali, they can go to Rosarito, they can go to Tecate and they can go to Ensenada but they just can’t travel through Tijuana to get there. So they have to cross the border in Tecate if they’re going to go to Ensenada to avoid Tijuana.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Did SDSU appeal this decision to Cal State?

ISACKSON: SDSU did appeal and they said that the conversations that they’d had with consular officials in Tijuana and other sources in Tijuana say that security, as we’ve been talking about, has actually improved in Tijuana during the last few months. But the chancellor denied the appeal.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what does this actually mean for students who regularly travel to Mexico and—Tijuana—and have research going on? Isn’t there a big back and forth between academic institutions in Tijuana and SDSU?

ISACKSON: SDSU actually has a dual degree program so that students can go study for two years in Tijuana and then study for two years in San Diego State and vice versa. That’s now on hold. There’s numerous research projects that go on across the border that have to do with everything from religion to environment to cross-border security, business, there’s internships that San Diego State students do for credit down in Tijuana and there’s actually two – there are actually two classes that meet, San Diego State classes that meet in Tijuana, but that’s all been put on hold indefinitely until this changes. So students are back in the classroom here in San Diego State who were – who had been in that class. People who were doing the dual degree program, it’s sort of unclear what’s happening with them. And I heard that many students who are doing internships or had summer plans to go down there are still doing that, and they’re going to kind of see if they can work it out with their professors to see if they get credit but they’re trying to fly under the radar.

CAVANAUGH: Vicente, what other areas are affected by the State Department’s travel warning?

CALDERON: The rest of the country in general?

CAVANAUGH: No, no, no. What other areas of travel, back and forth…

CALDERON: Oh, there’s – Amy did a very interesting piece on the governmental works joint project that they have to do that has to do with the quality of the water, the sewage system that ended up from the Mexican side in the coast of the San Diego area.

ISACKSON: So the International Boundary and Water Commission is required by law to go and test water at three sites in Tijuana to make sure that sewage that’s being pumped from the waste water treatment plant in San Ysidro off San Diego’s coast, goes about four and a half miles out, that that sewage isn’t causing contamination in Tijuana, and they have to test a bunch of sites in San Diego as well. Well, the travel warning came out and they stopped testing in Tijuana, and they stopped for about a month and a half because it was deemed too dangerous for their people to go down there to do the testing but they’ve worked out a system whereby their counterparts in Tijuana are now doing the testing and they’re actually taking the jars of water and putting them in a cooler and passing it through the border fence at the International Waste Water Treatment system to the International Boundary and Water Commission folks who then take it to a lab in San Diego to analyze it. Also, we know that people locally in the EPA in San Diego who do a huge amount of cross border work with Border 2012, a huge environmental program, aren’t crossing to Tijuana; they’re prohibited basically for all intents and purposes, prohibited from crossing.


ISACKSON: The car theft teams aren’t doing the investigations that they used to – joint investigations in Tijuana that they used to do.

CALDERON: I think it has to do a lot with prejudice, ignorance and politically correctness. I think there’s – The people who really has an interest in to go, they’re still going in many ways. I mean, there’s projects that there’s this big company from this side of the border trying to get a contract to clean about 15,000 used tires and they have a big project that goes to both sides of the border. They are still going. The mayor of San Diego participated in Rosarito recently, earlier at the beginning of this month, in this gathering of mayors from border towns and Alan Bersin was there. I’m sure they have a big entourage of security but that was more because they have to comply with the protocols. But I think they were not really on high risk. And that’s a big problem because if you see the city closely, you will see that there’s a lot of changes going on. I mean, from a distance, it looks really bad but, for example, I went yesterday to the book fair in Tijuana, the 28th book fair, and they move it to a shopping mall and I spent about 10 minutes looking for a parking space because there’s so – there’s a lot of people just with their normal activities.


CALDERON: And even I saw some Americans in the book fair, which is, I think’s a good sign.


CALDERON: I mean, if you are not familiar with the city, if you are seeing it from a distance, you will be very scared for all what you hear on the media. We have a big – a lot of problems. We do have a lot of problems. We do have a lot of problems with organized crime. I’m thinking of this – the main winner of this – the triumphant group of this results of this crackdown and…


CALDERON: …internal fight, it’s the – traditionally a based in Tijuana of the Arellano Felix drug cartel and their successors. And seems to me that they are still operating, they’re moving a lot of drugs. Just the military authorities, so far this year have confiscated more than 80 tons of marijuana…


CALDERON: …which is the bulk of the…

CAVANAUGH: Which goes on. Let me ask you, Amy. I know that you sat down and had a conversation with the new Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, Alan Bersin. Do we know his take on what’s happening – Did he address what’s happening specifically in Baja and Tijuana when it comes to border enforcement?

ISACKSON: We didn’t actually get a chance on this talk to discuss that. We had ten minutes. But previously, he and the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico have said Tijuana is a success story and what’s going on there is a model for the rest of the country. Alan Bersin actually praised the police chief of Tijuana, Julian Leyzaola, for the work that he’s trying to do. And Alan Bersin says that he believes that the border is as safe as it’s ever been. He says we’re not seeing the spillover violence that many people predicted. There was actually a really interesting LA Times article recently that surveyed crime in border towns all along the border and came to the conclusion that crime in border towns is actually down. Bersin says we’re also not seeing immigrants crossing in great numbers, which is true, but that begs the question how much does the economy play into that versus border enforcement. Also, as Vicente said, the drug seizures are up in Tijuana, drug seizures except for cocaine are up here along the U.S./Mexico border. And Bersin really says that it’s a – co-responsibility is the big term that he used. That it’s the U.S. and Mexico and that they need to work on this together, and he says it’s going to take generations like it did in Chicago, building up courts in Mexico, managing the problems.

CAVANAUGH: And so that is his different take on the war on drugs, I would imagine, the idea that this is a longterm, mutual problem between the U.S. and Mexico rather than simply something that’s going to be solved by more border patrol officers.

ISACKSON: Right, that enforcement is a big part of it at the border…


ISACKSON: …but there also needs to be other things that are done like the courts in Mexico, like, you know, looking at the drug problem here as a treatment problem and putting in treatment and prevention in terms of that and really working together to…


ISACKSON: …to figure this out.

CAVANAUGH: Let me change the subject, if I may, because we’re almost out of time and I know, Amy, you reported on the earthquake, the Easter earthquake in – near Mexicali last month. Tell us, if you would, give us an update on the kind of damage that occurred in that area that people are coming back from now.

ISACKSON: There were – the total tally, I think, as of last week, was about 2100 homes that were damaged in Mexicali and the Mexicali Valley, about 950 of which are just total losses. A really interesting thing that happened in Mexicali in the valley there, which is about 30 miles south of the border, is that it’s a huge agricultural area and the earthquake did all sorts of catastrophic damage to crops in the Mexicali Valley. So there are more than 100,000 acres of crops that were damaged, wheat, cotton, alfalfa, and in some cases it just sunk the fields. In some cases, these geysers popped up in the middle of the fields that put salty water all over the fields and have made the soil too salty to grow crops. The way that the fields are watered in Mexicali is by flooding, so there are canals which also hundreds of miles of canals are just totally damaged but the canals flood the fields. So if the fields are not level, all the water drains to one area and it doesn’t get watered and that’s what’s happened, is that these canals now, if they could give water to the fields, it would all drain to one area of the field and they wouldn’t get watered. So the government is trying to figure out how to deal with this. They’re trying to work out temporary loans to farmers and trying to – working actually with U.S. authorities to figure out how to repair these damages.

CAVANAUGH: We heard of just a couple of aftershocks this morning. I heard a report on the news. They must be continuing in that area. Vicente, finally, let me ask you, from what Amy said, it sounds as if this earthquake that did minimal damage on this side of the border may have changed agriculture in this area for a long time to come.

CALDERON: Yes, definitely. And they’re going to reestablish some of these communities out of the place where they are – where they were for the last 10, 20 years because they think that they’re going to still be seeing more of these earthquakes in the coming years. So they are trying to come up with some solutions for these people. They’re going to attempt to keep their properties there but they’re going to be relocated to other communities. There’s a lot of people still living in tents and things are getting worse because the temperatures right now will increase to levels that are difficult to deal with, especially in those conditions. And there’s some areas, some communities, that are still not – still without electricity power. They are – the government’s making some progress but not enough yet, and they are getting desperate in many areas in el Valle Mexicali.

ISACKSON: I think Vicente raises a really good point in terms of moving people out of the area, a few miles away, what – how do they work? And the agricultural industry is a huge employment – offers huge employment…

CALDERON: The major employer.

ISACKSON: …for the Mexicali Valley so in addition to people being out of their homes and not having homes for the moment, the question is what do these people do in order to earn money now that the jobs aren’t there?

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both. Thank you so much for updating us on these major stories in Baja. Thank you.

CALDERON: Thank you and thank you to the people of this side of the border who was a big help for the people of Mexicali, really, in many cases, government and community groups from this side of the border who helped the people of Mexicali.

CAVANAUGH: Good point, Vicente. Vicente Calderon, editor,, and Amy Isackson, KPBS News border reporter. If you would like to comment on anything that you’ve heard on this update, please go online, Coming up, we’ll take the pulse of the job market for this year’s college graduates. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.