[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/americas/03/07/mexico.headless.bodies/art.tijuana.afp.gi.jpg caption="Mexican authorities discovered three headless bodies in Tijuana last week."]
When current Mexican President Felipe Calderon came into office in December 2006, he publicly declared a war on the drug cartels. Parts of the country have since spiraled into chaos.
In an attempt by the cartels to show their strength, a brutal campaign was carried out throughout the country, especially in places like Juarez, Sinaloa, Michoacán and Tijuana. Finding dead bodies in these cities soon became commonplace. The violence has become so gruesome that now Tijuana clinics are closing earlier on a regular basis, with more and more doctors shunning late-night medical care as too risky.
Tijuana, Mexico, sits far away from the central government on the United States-Mexico border, practically kissing the U.S. border town of San Ysidro, which is a mere 20-minute trolley ride from San Diego’s picturesque palm trees and sandy beaches. Tijuana is a complicated place where drug cartels operate in close proximity to Bohemian art galleries. Drug violence can be found everywhere in Tijuana, even in the same subdivision of the city that houses a Starbucks with valet parking.
“This city is alive with culture,” Merced, a young professional from Chihuahua who now lives in Tijuana, told me during a recent visit I made to Tijuana. “I know in the U.S. [they] think this place is synonymous with violence, but if you want to stay away from it you can.”
Merced has lived in the Tijuana area for the last eight years. Although she lives closer to Las Playas beach - located about 15 miles outside of Tijuana proper - she spends many of her nights out in the city. She told me she never feels unsafe, even as a young woman who usually travels alone.
“A lot of the killing down here isn’t even drug-related,” Merced said, alluding toward alleged corruption among the infamous Tijuana federales. “The police make mistakes, too, and justify their actions by calling it ‘drug-related’. The worst thing that happened to me living here is someone broke into my place and stole my TV. That kind of stuff happens anywhere.”
There is noticeable disorder and chaos in Tijuana, most visible in the way people drive their cars. Pothole-filled streets, ashy from pollution, provide the walking paths for pedestrians. Walking down the streets, one can hear the echoes of honking horns, sirens or - depending on the night - gunshots. Unmarked white pickup trucks cruise suburbs while carrying companies of federal police wearing Kevlar helmets and masks, holding assault rifles, fingers loosely hovering over their triggers.
“These narcos are pirates,” an unidentified man working at an outdoor taco stand said, referring to those involved in the drug trade. “They can come in here anytime and start shooting up the place … for no reason.”
There are conflicting reports about the number of people slain last year in Tijuana. The numbers range anywhere from 400 to close to 1,000.
Tijuaneans tell most visitors they feel safe, but one gets a sense that they are telling themselves that just as much as they are telling the tourist. Recently Arizona colleges issued travel advisories for students who are considering using their spring break to vacation in Mexico. Canada and the U.S. have also recommended their citizens not travel to the country.
Still, people continue to visit TJ - as it is endearingly referred to by Southern Californians.
“Yeah, we talked about [the drug violence], before coming here … but this isn’t Juarez,” an American student who studies in San Diego told me as she slipped through the revolving metal bars dividing the U.S. from its southern neighbor. “We’re not staying the night.”
But as cartels fight for territory, brazen attacks have occurred even in broad daylight. One Tijuanean, who didn’t want to be named for fear of reprisal from the cartels, told me he has been caught in as many as three gun battles while crossing the border during his morning commute.
Late last year Eduardo Arrellano-Felix, a top operative in the Arrellano-Felix drug cartel - the most well-known cartel in Tijuana - was arrested. He was the last remaining heir by name to the cartel his family inherited in the 1980s from another drug lord. Experts say his arrest has created a power vacuum in the Tijuana drug cartel scene - as a result, lesser-known rogue cartels are battling for authority.
“There is a sense of eeriness in the city that I feel, but I’m not scared,” one man who lives in Tijuana but works in San Diego told CNN. “Anywhere you go you’re never going to be 100 percent safe.”
During my visit to Tijuana, one day we parked our car right outside a club that was closed – shut down after drug cartels carried out a hit there.
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