As San Diego struggles to help its homeless population, Tijuana faces its own challenges with people living on the street. It’s a population that’s just as often linked to the U.S. as it is to Mexico — deported by American officials, displaced by Mexican police. They face a choice in Tijuana if they get picked up by police: jail or drug rehab. KPBS found a number of human rights issues with this strategy under the last city administration. But the current administration says it’s made the process more humane. KPBS Fronteras reporter Jean Guerrero investigates.
Tijuana’s homeless migrants have long been seen by many locals as a nuisance: bad for business, protagonists of petty crime, drug addicts.
In March 2015, Tijuana took unprecedented action, evacuating a large encampment in the Tijuana River canal and rounding up homeless across the city, sending more than a thousand of them to drug rehab centers — some against their will. KPBS documented a number of problems with the mass relocation. Some people were reported missing. Not everyone placed in rehab was on drugs. Others were hit by cars while running away from police during raids of the canal. The rehab centers in Tijuana are often the subject of human rights complaints, requiring abstinence and relying on chains, ropes and other tools to restrict the mobility of recovering addicts.
“What they do is a kidnapping. It’s a violation of human rights,” said Jose Alberto Zavala, one of the homeless migrants who was sent to rehab.
It’s a story that may seem foreign and far away, especially as San Diego struggles with its own issues surrounding homelessness. But those living on the streets in Tijuana are also in part a U.S. problem. Most of those who are homeless are migrants with dreams of one day reaching the U.S. Many have been deported, but they stay in Tijuana because they have family north of the border, including U.S.-citizen children.
There is no official census of Tijuana’s homeless population, but city’s public safety ministry estimates about 1,800 people live on the street — roughly the same as there were in 2015, and far less than San Diego’s homeless population of 9,160. But Tijuana’s count doesn’t include thousands of people who live in makeshift homes on canyons, often without running water or electricity.
A 2014 survey by Mexico’s border research institute, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, found that nearly half of the people who rely on the migrant shelter called Desayunador Salesiano for daily meals say they’re in Tijuana because they were deported. Another 20 percent say they have plans to cross into the U.S.
Among the homeless who were removed from the U.S., some had pre-existing mental health and addiction problems. Others turned to drugs like heroin after their deportation.
“They’re the most vulnerable part of the population,” said Jaime Arredondo, a global health researcher at UC San Diego who studies Tijuana’s homeless. “It’s kind of unfair to deal on them the stigma of criminals.”
In 2009, Mexican federal law decriminalized the possession of small amounts of heroin, marijuana and other drugs. But Tijuana’s city code allows its police to arrest people for consuming drugs in public, as well as things as wide-ranging as “inciting vice” or “bothering people in public.”
Tijuana’s current police chief, Marco Antonio Sotomayor, says the city arrests homeless migrants for a number of such crimes. “About 70 percent of the people we detain are homeless people who commit minor crimes,” he said.
But now, instead of being taken straight to rehab without a diagnosis, the homeless migrants are evaluated by health professionals from the city’s Anti-Addiction Institute at the jail. If diagnosed, they’re offered a choice: rehab or jail-time. Sotomayor said this is different from the previous administration’s strategy, which did not always involve diagnoses or consent.
Social development minister Mario Osuna said the city and police have collaborated to place more than 750 homeless migrants in rehab.
“We’re completely changing our approach. Because it’s not about locking people up to keep an area clean. It’s about giving them an opportunity to change their lives,” he said.
When asked to clarify how this approach differs, given that the last administration’s strategy also involved rehabilitation, Osuna said the difference is accountability. The government now tracks the people it puts into treatment.
“The rehab process couldn’t be quantified before, because there was not a list of the people put there,” he said. “There were also human rights issues, allegations of people disappearing, which we don’t have anymore because we have an account of everyone.”
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Both officials said they believe sending homeless migrants with drug addictions to rehab will help decrease crime in the city.
“The problem of violence can be resolved simply if we resolve the problem of addiction,” Sotomayor said. “That’s the key.”
But since Tijuana started clearing homeless off the streets in 2015, violent crime has increased, with homicides hitting a record high last year.
While Tijuana police continue to patrol the canal, so does the Mexican army.
Arredondo of UC San Diego said the city should be using these resources to combat serious cartel crimes instead.
“The army is not trained to deal with drug use problems or even deportee attention. It’s like using a machete to do a surgery,” Arredondo said. “You’re using a blunt tool for something that is extremely delicate.”
Arredondo said alternatively, the city should offer safe consumption rooms and free methadone to wean users off heroin.
Two years ago, Arredondo led a Tijuana police training project with UC San Diego and the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission. The project surveyed 800 Tijuana police officers about their attitudes toward homeless migrants and drug users. After the survey found that many of the officers had negative views of these groups, the project offered training about how to avoid confrontations with this population to decrease their own risk of exposure to Hepatitis C and HIV. The program also educated officers about the 2009 federal law decriminalizing drug possession.
In subsequent surveys, Arredondo said, “we have seen some improvement in attitudes towards drug users and also some reduction in harmful behaviors, but we still have a lot to do.”
One nonprofit in Tijuana, Prevencasa, is also trying to help homeless migrants by offering clean syringes to drug users, to prevent the spread of disease.
They also offer medical treatment for wounds. Joanna Castañeda, a health promoter at Prevencasa, said homeless migrants often come to the facility for help because at the public hospital, they’re forced to wait longer than everyone else.
“They are suffering discrimination not just with society but even with healthcare providers,” Castañeda said.
One visitor, Yolanda Meza, entered the clinic in a hot pink shirt and jeans, her hair dyed auburn, to pick up a syringe and some condoms. Her eye makeup was smudged and her hands were marred by red marks.
Meza said she was deported from the U.S. a decade ago for a drug offense. She said she has three children in Southern California who she hasn’t seen since she was removed. She said she still hasn’t met her grandson, except through Skype.
She said the police arrest her less frequently these days. But she thinks it has less to do with a new strategy toward homeless migrants, and more to do with the fact that police know what she’s going to do if they pick her up — she’s going to self-mutilate. The police won’t place people in jail if they have open wounds that might spread disease.
“Every time they take me and I don’t wanna go, I cut myself a little … and they let me go,” she said.
Meza said she feels rejected by two countries. In addition to the way she’s viewed for her struggle with homelessness, her English also arouses suspicion among the locals. In the U.S., where she lived since she was a little girl, she didn’t fit in until she learned English. She said she has always felt like an outsider.
“I experience discrimination over there and over here. It’s like they don’t want me over there, and they don’t want me over here. I’m right in the middle,” she said.