La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Tijuana

Film: Mexico's 'Miss Bala' is a vision of hopelessness

Miss Bala Stephanie Sigman Canana

Tonight, Mexicans around the world will celebrate 201 years of their country's independence from Spain with "The Shout," the mythologized call for an uprising against foreign rule made by Father Miguel Hidalgo on Sept. 16, 1810.

Unlike last year's big Independence Day bicentennial, which saw a gargantuan carnival take hold in the center of Mexico City, this year's run-up to the biggest Mexican holiday on the calendar has been rather lackluster.

Traditional decorations on government buildings appeared gradually or not at all. It was the same for street-corner vendors selling red-white-and-green flags. Troublingly, several news reports from various regions of the country said some cities and towns -- as many did last year -- will not celebrate "El Grito" tonight for fear of violence or due to extortion threats (link in Spanish). 

The country's ever-violent drug war has left at least 40,000 dead and produced a persistent sense of dread among people here over what the next year might bring. The Mexican and U.S. governments have vowed to maintain their combat strategy against ruthless transnational drug cartels despite the spiraling violence and horrific massacres, such as last month's Casino Royale tragedy.

In other words, enthusiasm is low this Independence Day.

In this context, watching a film like the new Canana release "Miss Bala" becomes an exercise in helplessness, and ultimately, hopelessness. "Miss Bala," which arrived at theaters in Mexico last week, follows the story of an aspiring beauty queen in Tijuana who gets caught up with a drug lord after a violent shootout at a night club.

Continue reading »

WikiLeaks on Latin America: A cache on Mexico

WikiLeaks has amassed 2,836 classified or secret records relating to Mexico, but the website has made no announcement on when or if any of those records will be released.

The Mexico records were discussed briefly in an online chat on Monday with the editor of the Spanish daily El Pais, which has been publishing some of the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables (link in Spanish). The editor, Javier Moreno, says the Mexico records are related to "the war against drug trafficking." Moreno defended El Pais' decision to publish leaked U.S. cables, saying  his newspaper's job is "not to protect governments."

He did not say whether El Pais will be publishing any records on Mexico.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the leaking of the diplomatic cables "an attack on America's foreign policy interests" and said her office would not be commenting on the contents of any specific leaked documents.

The Mexico records obtained by WikiLeaks originate mostly from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, but also come from consulates in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Monterrey, Guadalajara and other cities, reports El Universal (link in Spanish).

The United States has a deep diplomatic and intelligence infrastructure in Mexico, with field offices inside the country for the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, FBI and other agencies. As reported previously by La Plaza, the United States and Mexico opened a joint office in Mexico City in August to oversee the implementation of the Merida Initiative, the multiyear aid package to help Mexico confront powerful narcotrafficking groups in a conflict that has left 30,000 dead over four years.

"Neither officials from Mexico or the United States working in the Bilateral Implementation Office will engage in intelligence or operational activities," the State Department said in its August statement announcing the office.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photos explore the 'surreal' side of Tijuana

Tijuanalandia Jason Fritz clown blog

"It's never a dull day in Tijuana," photographer Jason Fritz says of his adopted city. It is, in his view, "one of the West Coast's great cultural centers, only most people aren't in on the secret."

Fritz is author of a photo-blog called Tijuanalandia, featuring large snapshots of the more surreal and surprising aspects of Mexico's far northwestern border city. The photos range from tijuanenses celebrating a Mexico win in the 2010 World Cup to the vibrant new nightlife scene on downtown's Sixth Street.

Fritz, a graduate student at San Diego State University and a former photographer at several medium-sized newspapers, said Tijuanalandia was born out of a necessity to record -- and prove -- his experiences.

"It's like when you see something so extraordinary, then tell the story at a cocktail party, and people look at you funny, because in their hearts, they think you made the whole thing up," the blogger said in an e-mail interview with La Plaza. "The photos posted on Tijuanalandia are evidence of the surreal-ness, absurdity and beauty I experience everyday."

Continue reading »

Report: The Salvadoran ex-guerrilla advising Mexico's drug-war leaders

Salinas villalobos la jornada

Nearly 30,000 people, the latest figure being used, have died in Mexico's drug war in the nearly four years since President Felipe Calderon dispatched the military to disrupt the country's drug-trafficking organizations.

Calderon's administration has consistently claimed that the high casualty rate is a sign of success. The Mexican president might have a former guerrilla commander to thanks for that approach.

As The Times' Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson reports, the most influential mind behind Calderon's drug-war strategy is a man named Joaquin Villalobos, an ex-rebel leader from El Salvador who has rebranded himself as an Oxford-educated security consultant. In recent speeches, op-eds and interviews, Calderon's rhetoric on the drug war is almost indistinguishable from that of Villalobos, Wilkinson writes. They both claim that rising numbers of dead are a sign that Mexico's cartels are eliminating one another, and that Mexican society must be prepared to absorb more violence in the overall effort against drugs.

Read the whole story here.

The reach of Villalobos' influence in recent security policy in Mexico is apparent in the image above, published in January in the daily La Jornada (link in Spanish). Villalobos, right, is handing over a weapon to Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the controversial president of Mexico between 1988 and 1994. The gun was given personally to Villalobos as a gift by none other than Fidel Castro, the paper says, and the photo was taken inside Los Pinos, Mexico's presidential residence.

Villalobos has worked as a consultant off and on for years in Mexico, as well as for Colombia's right-wing former president Alvaro Uribe. From his guerrilla days with the FMLN and EPR movements in El Salvador, Villalobos remains implicated to this day in the execution of poet Roque Dalton.

Today, Villalobos is a seen as a "guru" among Calderon's advisors in Mexico. The ex-guerrilla, who may be mulling a future run for the presidency of El Salvador, laid out his security advice for Mexico's drug war in an essay published in the magazine Nexos on Jan. 1. Here's the link in Spanish for "Twelve Myths of the Narco War." His "myths" are:

1. "We should not have confronted organized crime."

2. "Mexico is Colombian-izing and is in danger of becoming a failed state."

3. "The intense debate over insecurity is a sign of its worsening."

4. "Deaths and violence is a sign that we are losing the war."

5. "Three years is a long time, the plan has failed."

6. "Attacks by narcos prove they are powerful."

7. "Let's first do away with corruption and poverty."

8. "There are powerful politicians and businessmen behind narco-trafficking."

9. "The only way out is to negotiate with the narco-traffickers."

10. "The strategy should guide itself to the legalization of drugs."

11. "The military's participation is negative and should be drawn back."

12. "The fastest and most effective end to crime is the pursuit of justice by its own account."

Here's an automated translation of the piece into English, alternating between sentences. La Jornada offers a rebuttal of the piece here, in Spanish, and here, in automated translation to English.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, left, receives a weapon as a gift from former Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos, in Los Pinos in Mexico on April 7, 1993. Credit: La Jornada

Mexico's drug war: Massacres continue unabated

Tepito shooting death mexico drug war

Four mass shootings have left 48 dead in a week across Mexico, signaling an unabated pace for drug-related violence in the country's four-year drug wars, which has claimed more than 28,000 lives overall.

The 28,000 figure was reported by federal authorities in August, and since then hundreds more have been slain, disappeared, or turned up dead. The carnage has extended from the southern state of Guerrero to the border city of Ciudad Juarez, by far the deadliest in Mexico and sometimes called the deadliest city in the world. More than 2,600 people have died in Ciudad Juarez this year alone, and "very close to 7,000" people have been killed since intense daily violence began there in January 2008, according to independent researcher Molly Molloy, who keeps a tally of deaths in Juarez.

Here is a breakdown of this week's worst killings, following the coverage of The Times, wire services, and Mexican news sources:

* On Friday, Oct. 22, gunmen stormed a house party in Ciudad Juarez and began shooting, leaving 14 people dead after one of the victims died the next day. The shooters were reportedly looking for a man identified as "The Mouse," but it was unclear whether the man was at the house or if anyone there knew him (link in Spanish). Several of the victims were identified as teenagers, recalling a similar massacre in Juarez in January that left 15 mostly young people dead at a party.

* On Sunday, Oct. 24, 13 people were killed inside a drug rehabilitation clinic in Tijuana after gunmen stormed the building, lined up the victims, and executed them. The mass killing was the worst seen in recent memory in Tijuana, where only days previously the government trumpeted the seizure and destruction of 134 tons of marijuana bound for the United States. A state investigator initially said the clinic massacre could be related to the drug bust, but officials have not elaborated on the possibility since.

* On Wednesday, gunmen approached a carwash in the city of Tepic, Nayarit, and opened fire, killing 13 men. The gunmen, arriving in SUVs and carrying rifles, shot at workers and managers but gunfire erupted first from inside, witnesses and authorities said. The carwash was tied to a drug treatment center.

* This morning, six young men died after a shooting before dawn in Mexico City's gritty Tepito neighborhood. Despite Tepito's notoriety as a hub of black market trade in drugs and contraband, mass shootings are not common within the neighborhood. Mexico City's attorney general said at least two of the victims had criminal records, while the city's government secretary warned that the Tepito incident should not be tied to the massacres in Juarez, Tijuana or Tepic (links in Spanish).

There are numerous cases in recent months of mass kidnappings or discoveries of mass graves, to say nothing of isolated killings or kidnappings in cities and towns up and down Mexico. Early this morning, four people outside Ciudad Juarez died after gunmen opened fire on a bus taking them home from work at a border factory.

In late August, the case of 72 migrants executed in the state of Tamaulipas shocked Mexico and left several Latin American nations in mourning. The discovery of mass graves -- called "narcofosas," or "narco-graves" -- is now common in Mexico. Four bodies were found in a grave days ago in Oaxaca state and six to eight were found near the city of Monterrey earlier this month (links in Spanish).

Late last month, 20 Mexican tourists were kidnapped in a mass "levanton," or "lifting," near the resort port of Acapulco. The men were traveling together from the state of Michoacan, and their whereabouts remain unknown. As the Times' Ken Ellingwood reported last week, the case is a complete mystery.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A man places a candle near the body of a shooting victim in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, October 28, 2010. Credit: Agence France-Presse

Official: Tijuana massacre may be related to pot bust

Tijuana marijuana pot bust seizure latimes

The execution-style killing of 13 people at a drug rehabilitation center in Tijuana on Sunday night might be related to a record-breaking bust last week of 134 tons of marijuana in the same city, Baja California state Atty. Gen. Rommel Moreno said, according to reports (link in Spanish).

"That is also one of the elements we are following," Moreno said.

The attorney general provided no other details on a possible link as the investigation into the massacre continued in the northern border city across from San Diego. (Here's coverage in The Times on the burning of the seized marijuana on Wednesday.)

In recent weeks, Tijuana has been heralded as a success story in Mexico's drug war for its drop in violence over previous years, resulting in a slow return to more tourist-friendly days. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore spoke at a conference and festival in Tijuana earlier this month, but in the days after the event opened, "as if on cue," reported Richard Marosi in The Times, three headless bodies were hung from overpasses, among other killings.

The marijuana seized last week was bound for the United States, authorities said. Voters in California will decide next month whether to legalize the production and possession of small amounts of marijuana under Proposition 19, a proposal strongly opposed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Soldiers stand before the burning of 134 tons of marijuana last week in Tijuana. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Morelia Film Festival: A dancer in Tijuana tells her own tale

Aidee gonzalez tierra madre

In real life and on screen, Aidee Gonzalez is a dancer at a strip joint in Tijuana. She's raising kids in the town of Tecate, east of the city, working to make them a better home and supporting her girlfriend, who wishes to become pregnant. Suffering a betrayal, Gonzalez descends into depression but eventually picks herself up.

Her story is depicted in "Tierra Madre," a feature film in competition at the Morelia International Film Festival.

"Tierra Madre" blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction in a rare case of storytelling where the subject appears to have complete control and agency over how her story is told. Gonzalez plays herself in the film and also co-directed and co-wrote it with New York-based filmmaker Dylan Verrechia. It was made on a true shoestring budget -- $2,000 and a "crew of one" -- and features all non-actors, mostly Gonzalez's friends and family.

Here's the trailer.

The filmmakers were on hand at the premiere screening in Morelia. Gonzalez was received with cheers and applause, with several audience members congratulating her for "bravely" demonstrating her truth as a woman, lesbian, stripper and native of the Tijuana border region.

"People only hear about the bad side of Tijuana," she said. "I wanted to show there is beauty there, hard-working people, who are concerned about their children."

Gonzalez, dressed elegantly in a black dress and pearls, said she was moved by the experience of watching herself on screen. "I have no words, I come to the movie theater, and see myself up there, and I can't believe it, honestly."

The filmmakers said "Tierra Madre" will be screened at future festivals in Europe and the United States (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Morelia, Mexico

Photo: Aidee Gonzalez in the film 'Tierra Madre.' Credit: Verrechia Films

Los Tucanes de Tijuana: Banned in their namesake border city

Mario moreno los tucanes tijuana

It's like the Beatles being banned from returning to Liverpool, the Red Hot Chili Peppers being yanked from stages in Los Angeles, or Jay-Z's music stopped in a source of his inspiration, New York. Since last November, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, one of the most recognizable bands in the Mexican norteño regional genre, are banned from playing in their hometown and namesake, the border city of Tijuana.

The ban is a result of a 2008 concert in which the band's lead singer sent his regards from the stage to the city's most notorious and wanted men, "El Teo and his compadre, El Muletas." The city's get-tough police chief, Julian Leyzaola, was outraged.

Leyzaola pulled the plug on shows by Los Tucanes as they prepared to perform at the city's storied Agua Caliente racetrack in November. Leyzaola said the band's polka-driven narcocorrido songs glorify drug lords and their exploits and are therefore inappropriate to play in a city that has suffered soaring drug-related violence in recent years. The band, with millions of record sales and a fan base as broad as the international border, hasn't been allowed to play in Tijuana since.

In an interview with Richard Marosi of The Times as they prepared for a show in San Diego (as close to Tijuana as they can currently get), Los Tucanes said they don't intend to glorify narco bosses but instead merely write songs about the realities around them.

"I'm not justifying them, or approving of what they do," singer Mario Quintero told Marosi. "The señor [Leyzaola] shouldn't fault us for the corridos as if we're responsible for the killing of his police."

Authorities in Mexico widely disapprove of norteño bands that sing about the drug trade, banning their songs from radio airwaves and even threatening jail time for narcocorrido producers (link in Spanish). The effort is especially vigilant in Tijuana, as Marosi reported in a story in 2008.

Continue reading »

Bridge planned to link San Diego with Tijuana airport

Border Bridge San Diego Tijuana Airport

Development is underway for a border-crossing pedestrian bridge linking San Diego and the Tijuana airport, a plan that could potentially alter the landscape of travel options in the busy binational region.

Equity Group Investments, a major private company headed by billionaire investor Sam Zell (who took Tribune Company, the parent of the Los Angeles Times, private), recently acquired key federal approval to develop the plan. With a U.S. State Department's Presidential Permit, the company has the go-ahead to seek approvals for the project from  U.S. Customs and Border Protection and from the city of San Diego.

Cost for the bridge is estimated at $77.9 million. The for-profit venture would include private Tijuana investors with ties to the Pacific regional airport authority in Mexico, Equity executives said. "There's just been overwhelming support for the project," Terry Holt, a company official, told La Plaza. "Usually you'd expect some kind of concerns."

The Rodriguez International Airport sits on the Tijuana side of Otay Mesa, just across the street from the U.S.-Mexico border fence in a flat and sparsely developed area of southeast San Diego. The planned 525-foot pedestrian bridge would go over the border fence and into a U.S. customs building on the San Diego side of Otay Mesa, about 1 mile from the 905 highway.

There probably would be a toll to use the bridge, but the fee has not been set, Holt said. The facility could open as soon as 2012.

U.S. travelers have been using the Tijuana airport for years for flights into Mexico and connections to other Latin American destinations, seeking lower fares and the ease of access to Tijuana's terminal compared to the relatively congested San Diego airport, which is squeezed in by the city's dense harbor and downtown. San Diego's airport also has restrictions on overnight departures for noise control.

Tijuana's airport, however, has room to grow. The Mexican airline AeroMexico has inaugurated direct flights from Tijuana to Tokyo and Shanghai, building significant new links between Mexico and East Asia. U.S. travelers heading to or from Tijuana's airport currently cross the border with regular traffic at either the San Ysidro or Otay Mesa international crossings.

San Diego's Regional Airport Authority has no direct relationship with the current cross-border terminal plan, but has long identified a growing demand for access to the Tijuana airport among U.S. travelers, said spokesman Steve Schultz.

According a feasibility study on such a project, as many as 2 million U.S. travelers are expected to use the Tijuana airport annually by 2020, even without a pedestrian bridge into San Diego. Such travelers are not limited to San Diegans, the study found. U.S. passengers head to Tijuana's airport from as far away as Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, and Imperial counties.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: Rendering of the proposed pedestrian bridge and customs facility. Credit: Equity Group Investments.

Baja state official allegedly worked on both sides of the law

Laura duffy san diego attorney tijuana

A high-ranking law enforcement official in Baja California state was among 43 people charged last week in a sting against Tijuana drug traffickers operating in the San Diego area. Jesus Quinones Marques, arrested during a traffic stop in San Diego last Thursday, had been director of the international liaison office for the Baja California attorney general's office. The charges mean Quinones was allegedly working for the traffickers while he was supposed to be providing information to U.S. investigators.

Richard Marosi has more in The Times here and here. "Quinones seemed like a cooperative and professional liaison officer, according to U.S. liaison officers, but some said they are never surprised when their counterparts turn out to be corrupt," Marosi writes.

"Liaison officers usually limit conversations related to sensitive investigations."

-- Daniel Hernandez in San Diego

Photo: Laura Duffy, U.S. attorney for San Diego, holding the unsealed indictment against Tijuana drug traffickers working in San Diego. Credit: Associated Press via San Diego Union-Tribune


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson