By Vince Vasquez
The raging Mexican drug war has churned a devastating toll in the city of Tijuana. As 2008 drew to a close, there had been a record 843 known homicides. As the recent wake of violence and corruption fails to roll back at the border’s edge, our municipal leaders are compelled to seek solutions to both protect the interests of San Diegans and help our neighbors in need.
The graphic news reports from Baja has left many Americans with a sense of frustration, fear, and despair. Dramatic day-time shootings, beheadings, and the assassination of police officers paint a bleak image of the Tijuana region. Violence has escalated with the uprooting of the Arellano Felix cartel and the efforts by rival criminal organizations to seize control. Negative public perceptions about safety in the south have resulted in many San Diegans staying away from popular Baja markets and vacation resorts. This blow comes on top of the downturn in tourism caused by the global recession.
The violence in Baja is also having impacts on this side of the border. According to KPBS reports last month, two of the most feared lieutenants in the Arellano Felix cartel were found late last year in San Diego one dying in a city hospital, the other picked up by local authorities for drunk driving. They also told journalists that the ring leader of the Arellano Felix cartel himself, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, crossed into the United States in November 2008 to restructure his criminal organization and gain more support from rival groups. But border crossings are not limited to Mexican drug lords; the Los Angeles Times informed its readers last summer that more than 1,000 Tijuana families have sought refuge from kidnapping threats and drug-related violence by relocating to San Diego County.
Given the sensitive nature of this information, and ongoing operations by law enforcement to crack down on drug violence on both sides of the border, these reports have not been validated by U.S. authorities, but they should nonetheless give San Diegans pause about the seriousness and pervasiveness of the current crisis in Tijuana. The drug war may not be new, but it has exacted a growing and ghastly toll that does not discriminate by nationality or ethnicity. The unbridled U.S. demand for marijuana and cocaine has destroyed countless Latin American families and riddled the upper echelons of the Mexican government with greed and corruption, shaking the public trust and the very foundation of democracy. Dozens of U.S. border officials in San Diego County have also been under investigation for taking bribes from cartel members, and thousands of young Americans fall victim to drug addiction every year.
Brave elected officials in Baja California and the national Mexican government need more U.S. partners to fight the cartels and reestablish order and public safety in the streets, which presents San Diegan elected officials with a unique opportunity to affirm their “sister city” ties to their southern counterparts.
The sister city program is a popular initiative that emerged out of the Cold War, as a way to build peaceful cultural exchanges and strengthen communication between American and foreign cities. Many municipal officials have since expanded their relationships to include humanitarian assistance, commercial trade groups, and governmental exchanges.
In particular, Baja cities have received generous public safety support from their American colleagues. The City of Riverside has provided its sister city Ensenada with law enforcement aid, including SWAT and police training as well as donated surplus equipment including police uniforms and Rescue Squad vehicles. Sister city envoys from Huntington Park have presented the people of Rosarito with half a dozen donated police patrol cars, as well as high-tech equipment to improve its Fire Department. But beyond independent business partnerships outside of San Diego City Hall, Tijuana unfortunately has not received the public attention it deserves from America’s Finest City.
Last May 1st marked the 15th anniversary of the official signing of San Diego’s sister city agreement with Tijuana, but regrettably, this historic day passed unrecognized by both the Mayor and the City Council. One way local lawmakers can make amends and start 2009 off with stronger leadership would be to ask Tijuana officials if they need any additional assistance in their law enforcement efforts. A safer Tijuana creates a safer San Diego, and provides the conditions to allow for more economic growth at a time of international stagnation. There is strong precedent for such action the City Council has approved the sale of at least 76 surplus police vehicles to Tijuana officials since 2000, and has also approved the sale of surplus police motorcycles to the city of Ensenada as recently as fall 2006. Police equipment can be found from donated, used, and surplus sources that are available, and a new police officer exchange can be a positive cultural and educational program for both cities. Officials in Chula Vista, a city which is more than 50% Latino yet has no sister city ties in Mexico, should also review whether a new partnership in Baja could be fostered in the coming months.
While news of the battles between cartel factions dominated our local media it has to be said that there are more stories to report from a metropolis of 1.5 million people than body counts. Tijuanans celebrate a beautiful culture, bear proud traditions, and provide the jobs that are the foundation of San Diego’s unique quality of life. San Diego leaders are behooved to be a strategic partner in turning around the economic and safety conditions of our closest and most important neighbor, as we ultimately share the same destiny in the world.
Vince Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.