Mexico Dispatch: Tijuana Is No Juarez, Residents Say

BY Jose Luis Sierra  September 15, 2010 at 2:31 PM EDT

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico | Toiling with a pile of wood planks in his garage turned woodshop, 46-year-old Roberto Carrillo exclaims without hesitation: “Tijuana is not Ciudad Juarez. We don’t have the level of violence that you read every day in the papers happens there, or many other states of the country, yet for the foreign media it makes no difference.”

It is a Sunday afternoon. Yet, Carrillo is busy working on his first kitchen cabinet contract of the year. Times are harder than ever, he says, and the publicity about the federal government’s war against narco-traffickers doesn’t help.

“People don’t feel confident crossing the border,” he says as he meticulously cuts the wood planks with an electric saw. “They read all this news about killings and kidnappings … true, once and a while it still happens, but not like other parts of the country — and it happens mostly to people involved in the drug world,” he says, repeating the mantra most Baja residents cite when asked about the economic impact in the war on drugs launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderon four years ago.

Statistics from the Mexican federal government show homicides in Tijuana went up 40 percent in the first six months of this year, compared with the previous year. Four hundred people died, almost all related to narco-trafficking. North Baja California and South Baja California may be considered safer than other Mexican states such as Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, but not out of the loop of violence evolving in almost half of Mexico’s 31 states.

Many Baja residents reluctantly agree with Calderon’s campaign against narco-traffickers but also criticize that billions of dollars have been spent with few results beyond the killings of several heads from the drug cartels. Nearly 30,000 people have died in drug-related violence since 2007. The Senate recently said it is planning to authorize a $2.5 billion budget to sustain this crusade, while newspapers all over the country report dozens of executions every day.

“There are people who say with good reason, that we are fighting the U.S. war on our turf. And we are paying the causalities for it in many ways. … I think the U.S. hasn’t been successful in fighting its war, and we haven’t been successful in fighting our war either,” Gaston Luken, a representative from the state of North Baja California, told the NewsHour.

As other critics have, Lunken said he believes the strategy of concentrating all efforts in law enforcement security must be paired with education, health, infrastructure and economic growth measures. However, with only two years left for the Calderon administration, he added that he believes nothing like that will happen.

The stress imposed by the war against drugs and exacerbated by the world economic crisis is felt as much by the man on the street as the executives of transnational companies, such as Plantronics, a 30-year-old company in Tijuana. It makes Bluetooth ear devices and headsets and is one of the largest employers in the area.

“A lot of companies during the economic crisis … have had to do important adjustments, some as low as a 5 percent reduction, others as much as a 20 percent reduction. So it varies on type of industry,” said Alejandro Bustamante, president of Plantronics, in a NewsHour interview. Bustamante said the war against drug traffickers is necessary, but the federal government should pay attention to other important issues, like infrastructure, education, public health. He added that he calls himself an “optimist” and believes once the world’s economy rebounds, crime will subside.

“What we need is more jobs, so people don’t look at crime as an option to make a living,” he said.

Jose Luis Sierra is a New America Media contributing editor. As part of a Ford Foundation grant, he worked with NewsHour correspondent Saul Gonzalez on a report about the effects of Mexico’s drug war on the country that will soon air on the PBS NewsHour.