In the shadow of the Cartels

In the shadow of the Cartels

By Emilio San Pedro, BBC Mundo Special Correspondent in Tijuana

The border town of Tijuana is one of the focal points of the war being waged by the Mexican government against drug trafficking.

The centre of Tijuana

The centre of Tijuana

Narco Mexico

And it is very evident: during my visit to the town I am aware of the constant presence of the authorities on the streets, and in particular, the military who patrol the neighbourhoods in armoured vehicles.

These soldiers are part of the 25,000 who, in 2006, were deployed up and down the country by President Felipe Calderón in order to combat the powerful drug cartels. Their business of controlling the flow of illegal drugs is worth thousands of millions of dollars to the traffickers.

In fact, according to the US authorities, the flow of narcotics from Mexico to the US is estimated to be worth US$14,000 million per annum.

A large part of this illegal merchandise passes through Tijuana, one of busiest border crossing points to the US, which is one of the largest markets of illegal drugs in the world.

Nevertheless, the authorities insist that the presence of the military and the progress made in border control in the last few years have contributed to a reduction in the amount of illegal substances, such as cocaine and marijuana.

Little shops and contacts

But this success has had unexpected and negative consequences for Tijuana and other border towns. Seeing that it was becoming more and more difficult to get their merchandise north of the border, powerful cartels like the one run by the Arellano Félix family, have started to exploit the domestic market.

"There are already more than 20,000 'little shops', as we call these clandestine sales points. We are experiencing a veritable 'tsunami' of drugs. They are the ones the cartels couldn´t get into the US so they try and sell them here," human rights activist Víctor Clark Alfaro told BBC Mundo. Clark is studying the impact of trafficking on the population of Tijuana.

I walk the streets with Clark. What surprises me is that he goes around with a personal bodyguard. He had to get used to that in the 90s, when he became the object of death threats following the publication of a report stating there were close links between some government officials and the drug cartels.

On one occasion I went with him by car from his home to work - a journey he does every evening. A beautiful drive through the Tijuana hills.

I cannot tell you how scared I was during the 15 minute journey with the activist.

Then I realised that what I had just experienced, for only a few minutes, was what for Víctor Clark and so many others in Mexico had become the norm.

Point of sale

However for this human rights activist there are more important things than one´s personal situation.

"There are estimated to be about 200,000 drug addicts in Tijuana, the largest figure per capita in the country." he said.

And of those who have become addicts in the last few years, thousands are young people. Some of them end up dealing on the streets, drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines or crack.

This increase in the number of young drug addicts has manifested itself in the rehabilitation centres.

José Ramón Arreola, of the Tijuana Drug Rehabilitation Centre (CIRAD), informed BBC Mundo: "I have seen an increase of 300% in the number of children sent by the courts or who come here voluntarily to take part in our rehabilitation programmes."

This ex heroin addict lives the intense reality of life within the "sociological turbulence" of the borders.

I was able to see for myself this intensity and passion he has for his work during the evening I spent with him visiting several CIRAD centres. Occasionally I could read the frustration on his face ... except when he was interacting with the youngsters during break time as they played basketball in the yard.


José Ramón told me that the little ones, some as young as eight or nine, had become an important part of the internal market for the cartels - not only as consumers but also as dealers.

"The narcos use children to sell drugs in the streets because they don´t attract as much attention."

At one of the CIRAD centres I met a young girl who had started taking drugs at 13 years old and not long after that, started selling them. Before being sent for rehabilitation, she used marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and other illegal drugs.

She asked me to refer to her using the pseudonym of Nancy, for fear of reprisals.

It was hard for me to understand how this young middle class girl had got into this situation. She explained to me in detail.

"I used to sell drugs on the streets, not to earn money but to be able to get hold of the drugs I needed as a user."

"I found myself in the middle of shoot outs between the dealer I worked for and rival groups trying take over his turf."

According to official figures, some 3,000 people have died so far this year in acts of violence allegedly related to drug trafficking like those witnessed by Nancy. Of those deaths, more than 300 occurred in Tijuana.

The Press under threat

The Mexican journalists who cover drug trafficking are also familiar with fear.

The NGO, "Journalists without Frontiers", which defends the right of journalists to report freely, has put Mexico as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, after Iraq.

During my visit to Tijuana I got to know several local reporters who closely cover these matters.

One of them, Odilón García, told me he had received a number of death threats during his twenty years in the profession. Some of them, he said, coming from official circles.

García, who works for the Televisa network, says he is disgusted by the lack of respect the traffickers show for human life, and he feels particular bad about the impact this culture is having on children.

"What kind of young people can we expect to raise when they are growing up in such a climate of violence?" he asks, before sharing with me a particularly harrowing story about an encounter he had recently with a boy.

The youngster was keen to meet Odilón because he had seen him on the television a few days previously. But apparently what mostly interested him was the theme of the report: the horrifying decapitation of four people. The boy talked about it as if it were something entertaining.

For Odilón García, the reaction was an indication of the worrying loss of innocence, of that young boy and a whole generation.

Asked about the deployment of troops to combat drug trafficking, the journalist believes "it is a necessary measure, but it should only be a temporary, not a permanent one."

"The real solution will require a radical change in the way we live and how we see things in Mexico."

And he concluded: "We will need a greater understanding of our reality. Now that will be an important battle."