Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Bienvenidos a Tijuana! La parte uno...
For the past several months, I have been hearing a lot about the situation in Northern Mexico, especially on conservative talk radio and other similar media sources. I have heard border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez described as "shooting galleries" and I have read a lot about them in the international media. Well I decided I needed to see this for myself, so I bought a plane ticket and flew down to San Diego. From there, I took the trolley into Tijuana. I felt a rush of adrenaline just seeing the city from the trolley window, before I even reached the San Ysidro border crossing. A giant Mexican flag flew beside the Tijuana arch, which I found to be a spectacular sight.
I'm not quite sure of the dimensions of this flag, but it must be very large. As soon as I stepped across the border, I found a large convoy of yellow taxis all waiting to bring the American tourists to the most popular parts of Tijuana. My driver was surprised when I told him what destination I was hoping to reach: the Tijuana police headquarters.
Once the cab got in motion it didn't take long to realize I was truly in a foreign country. The traffic was madness...cars swirling through roundabouts, aging buses blowing out black smoke, and pedestrians walking into oncoming traffic. It was a "every man for himself" mentality on the streets of downtown Tijuana, at least that's the way it seemed to me. Being from a quiet town outside of San Francisco, maybe I don't know what I am talking about.
Upon reaching the police station, I asked the driver if he would accept dollars since I had only converted half of my money to pesos and I wanted to save it. He did, and I was surprised to learn how many stores in Mexico accept dollars. Anyway, the police station was quite an experience. Armed guards with M-16 Assault rifles slung over their shoulders patrolled the perimeter...it was basically a fortress. I chatted with a police captain for several minutes and was disappointed to learn that my contact I had spoken with over the phone had been called away to Mexico City for the weekend. I did have a few minutes to talk with his spokesman though.
Police vehicles are pretty much the same as their counterparts in the US, although they are printed with "Policia" on the side, so you definitely know you are in Mexico.
Tijuana has also introduced a new fleet of police vehicles that are smaller, flashier, and more fuel efficient. There was also a lot of motorbike cops on the streets. I was surprised by the number of female police officers, one of whom was driving a vehicle.
I asked the captain if he would allow me to take a few photos and he said it would be okay. Taking photos of police and military personal is a very sensitive issue, or so I learned, because after the captain went inside, one of the men holding an M-16 decided I had taken enough photos. Considering the firepower he was packing, I was not in a position to argue. I put my camera away and strolled off to Avenida Revolucion, Tijuana's once bustling tourist zone.
Before I left for Tijuana I learned that Avenida Revolucion had been devoid of tourists as of late because of the spiraling drug cartel violence. I noticed that most of the people I was passing by on the streets were Mexicans. Waiters, bartenders, and club owners rushed out on the streets upon seeing me walking down the street, hoping they might be able to get a few dollars from an American visitor for a beer or a cigar. I ended up buying a couple of Mexican lagers and a Cuban cigar. The man in the cigar shop had hoped I would take it a step further by purchasing a poncho and a Sombrero, but I politely declined. I do regret not asking him to take a photo of me wearing it though.
This is a car dealership across the street from my hotel. Used Jetta sedans are being sold for just under 135,000 Pesos, or around 9,000 dollars. It really makes you appreciate the value of the dollar, despite all of the enonomic news, doesn't it?
Further downtown in the financial district of the city, things were calm, save for the occasional sound of a police siren or the honking of a horn. In this photo, the sun is beginning to set, and common sense was telling me to get back to the hotel because many of Tijuana's most horrific crimes take place at night and in the late evening. I ended up hanging out in a Starbucks for a little while though.
Now this I found to be a strange sight...this is a statue of Abraham Lincoln, also just a few blocks away from my hotel. I've heard a lot about how Latin America is "Anti-US" but I didn't see any of that in Tijuana. I proudly wore a "United States Navy" sweatshirt during my walk through the city and I had many people say to me "Yeah! America". Tijuanans were very friendly.
Outside of the financial district, things got a little more gloomy. This is the type of setting I imagine every time I read a horror story on the news about violence in Tijuana or any of the other northern cities. This was probably the one point in the trip where I feared a shoot-out could suddenly erupt. This picture was taken from a pedestrian overpass above a busy road.
I crossed over the pedestrian bridge and could see one of Tijuana's main hospitals off in the distance. After crossing a drainage canal I got a good view of the hospital, and found that it was very busy.
Once again, here are some more indications you are clearly not in the US when you are in a border city like Tijuana. The Km/hr sign reminded me of Europe. This was taken as I stepped down from the pedestrian bridge.
Tijuana is growing rapidly despite the troubles it is facing. I read somewhere that the city's population is approaching 2 million!
As I began to walk back to the hotel, I passed a government office...I believe it was for a state prosecutor. Granted that this is the type of peron at the center of the drugs war, I was not surprised to see two armored Humvees sitting outside with masked soldiers behind 50 Caliber machine guns. I reached for my camera, anxiously hoping to get a photo. In my best Spanish, I politely approached them.
Hola, yo soy estudiante del periodismo en Estados Unidos. Un Foto?
(Hello, I am a journalism student in the United States. May I take your photo?)
They politely replied:
Arrepentido, eso no es permitido. (sorry, we are not allowed to do so)
and I said:
Permanezca seguro, amigos (stay safe friends)
I would've been quite a sight to get a picture of, but just as I felt with the police, I was not in a position to push it when my subjects have machine guns. I also learned that soldiers and police wear black or brown face masks to conceal their identities, and photos are a concern because the drug cartels could use them to find the families of soldiers and police...something that has been happening all to often along our troubled border with Mexico.
I will have more photos to post soon, along with the conclusion of my trip...standby until then.