TOPICS > Politics

Mexican President Orders Crackdown on Crime

February 22, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

SAUL GONZALEZ, NewsHour Correspondent: Residents of the Mexican border city of Tijuana haven’t seen anything like it: military checkpoints on the outskirts of town, where soldiers search vehicles for drugs and guns.

Units of heavily armed national police agents patrolling the city’s commercial heart and stopping people for impromptu pat-downs. And the temporary seizure of all firearms carried by Tijuana’s local cops to see if any of the weapons have been used in crimes.

These efforts are part of recently elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s new national crackdown on crime and drug trafficking in his country, a crackdown backed up by the deployment of thousands of soldiers and police to Mexico’s most violent states and cities, such as Tijuana.

ANTONIO MARTINEZ LUNA, Baja California Attorney General: It sends a message that, if anybody is involved in organized crime, we’re going to get them.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Antonio Martinez Luna, a strong supporter of President Calderon’s public security initiatives, is the attorney general of the Mexican state of Baja California, where Tijuana is located.

ANTONIO MARTINEZ LUNA: Organized crime needs to understand or criminals need to understand that they cannot affect ordinary people. They cannot affect our people. They cannot take our streets.

Crime drives down tourism

SAUL GONZALEZ: However, on Tijuana's streets, a lot of blood has been spilled in recent years, as rival drug gangs have fought each other and the authorities. Last year, more than 300 people were murdered in the city.

A recent rise in kidnappings has also rattled Tijuana's residents. Anxiety over security has even damaged Tijuana's free-wheeling, anything-goes image that usually attracts so many tourists to its clubs and bars.

EFRAIN PEREZ, Nightclub Doorman: We're missing many Americans. We're really missing.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Efrain Perez is a nightclub doorman and bouncer in the city's red light district.

EFRAIN PEREZ: We're losing money; we're losing sales. This has to change. I don't know if the next month or next week, but it has to change.

SAUL GONZALEZ: A few miles away, in upscale Rio district, restaurant owner and chef Miguel Angel Yagues says crime has gotten so bad some Tijuanans with money have taken permanent refuge across the border.

MIGUEL ANGLES YAGUES, Restaurant Owner (through translator): Many of my friends have left here and gone to San Diego. That's just because of the security situation. There are many people who've run their businesses from the United States. They don't want to come here.

Relationship between crime, police

SAUL GONZALEZ: Last October, concerns about spiraling crime and violence prompted activists to organize a mass march through the streets of Tijuana. It displayed grassroots outrage over the city's growing body count and the local police's inability to stem the tide of violence.

The public's confidence in law enforcement's ability to protect and serve citizens is so low, it's estimated only one in four crimes is even reported. There's also a widespread public perception that many local cops are really working for the drug cartels as their eyes, ears, and muscle on the street.

ALBERTO CAPELLA IBARRA, Citizens Advisory Committee on Crime (through translator): All of the police agencies it's assumed have committed acts of corruption.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Alberto Capella Ibarra is president of Baja California's, citizen advisory committee on crime.

ALBERTO CAPELLA IBARRA (through translator): There's a very close relation between members of the police and criminal groups. How otherwise could they act with such impunity and freedom, armed bands of criminals in this city? It shows how authorities are intimately involved with them.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Local officials understand the suspicions and say they hope federal authorities, who will stay in Tijuana as long as needed, will keep police agencies on a tight leash.

ANTONIO MARTINEZ LUNA: That's very important, a lot of control.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Control and oversight?

ANTONIO MARTINEZ LUNA: Exactly. Now they have to provide more security for the people who live in Baja, live in Tijuana, and then for the tourism. And we have...

SAUL GONZALEZ: And more security in a clean way?

ANTONIO MARTINEZ LUNA: Exactly. Definitely. There's no way this could go back. We cannot go back to what was happening.

The personal security industry

SAUL GONZALEZ: While most Mexicans see corruption, crime, and the country's general climate of fear as crises, Mexico's growing personal security industry see them as opportunities.

At Tijuana's Blindado Seguro-Total Shield Company, customers come to have their cars and trucks armored with enough steel-plating and other protective material to drive through a war zone. The cost of the automotive makeover ranges from $30,000 to $80,000. The company's president is Carlos Guerrero.

CARLOS GUERRERO, President, Total Shield (through translator): This is a high-end job, a level five that can protect you from automatic weapons.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Guerrero says customers want the kind of protection he can provide after they've already had a close call with crime.

CARLOS GUERRERO (through translator): They come here because they've been the victim of a kidnapping, and they now want protection.

There are American clients who want an armored vehicle to cross into Mexico. That's why we have an office in the U.S. And it can be a local client who uses his car to travel to his business or home here in Tijuana.

SAUL GONZALEZ: At his restaurant, Yagues often sees his customers with other kinds of protection.

MIGUEL ANGLES YAGUES: All the businesspeople or those who have money who are scared bring security. Everybody has guards, bodyguards, all of them with weapons. There are times when we have one table outside with 10 armed bodyguards around it waiting.

Crime-fighting successes

SAUL GONZALEZ: As for Mexico's wider war against its drug cartels, experts such as David Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute generally agree the government has scored some major victories in recent years.

DAVID SHIRK, Trans-Border Institute: Two prominent cartels in northern Mexico have essentially been dismantled. Their top leadership has been either imprisoned or killed off over the course of the drug war, and those groups are beginning to lose their grasp on power, lose their ability to control these markets and territories for moving drugs.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The problem, though, is, as drug king kingpins, like this man, Osiel Cardenas, get either extradited to the U.S., jailed in Mexico, or killed, violence frequently increases, as henchmen and lieutenants battle to take the boss's place.

DAVID SHIRK: There's always a drug trafficker, either within your organization or outside your organization, who wants to move up the ladder, because the profit potential at those very high levels is enormous.

SAUL GONZALEZ: That's a reality Baja's attorney general, Luna, knows all too well.

ANTONIO MARTINEZ LUNA: We know that we're not going to eliminate drug trafficking. We cannot live with it, but it's there, and it's been there for a long time. And, I don't know, it's bigger than us.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Mexico's president, who has proposed a 12 percent increase in public security spending and ordered 10,000 soldiers transferred to the National Police Force, has vowed no truce in the government's offensive against organized crime.