San Diego Union Tribune News

Chapter 6: A city on edge and under siege

When I look back at my time reporting in Tijuana, one period stands out — the three-year window from 2008 through 2010. It was a period of violence and terror on a scale the city had never known.

The Arellano cartel was growing weaker. A breakaway faction was now allied with the Sinaloa cartel. Public displays of brutality were common.

I’d never set out to be a police reporter. But almost every day, I found myself covering a shootout or a police funeral or a dramatic arrest.

Police were so scared that they wore black ski masks and traveled in caravans. Heavily armed soldiers in brown camouflage seemed to be everywhere.

But it wasn’t just the violence that was putting the city on edge.

In 2008, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression swept across the world. Tijuana was hit hard. The maquiladoras cut back production. Fifty thousand jobs were lost. The real estate bubble burst.

A darkness descended on Tijuana, and the dawn felt so very far away.

On a Friday morning in April 2008, I headed to the state government building in Tijuana to cover the latest anti-crime demonstration. When I walked in, I saw protesters crowded into the inner courtyard. They looked angry and scared — but also determined.

Approximately 2,000 people attended a march and vigil against crime in Tijuana on Aug. 30, 2008, which coincided with similar demonstrations throughout Mexico.

(David Maung / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At least 20 doctors had been kidnapped that year, including the head of a major hospital.

Now they were demanding that the government do its job — protect them.

Dr. Eric Rosenberg headed the medical society back then — just as he does today. He led the doctors in their 12-hour walkout. His thick cloud of graying curls made him easy to pick out in the crowd.

Not long ago, I met up with Rosenberg at his wife’s medical office in the Rio Zone, the city’s bustling and upscale business district.

Rosenberg’s wife is a doctor, too. He told me about a call she got back then — right in the small room where we were sitting.

“There was a young girl’s voice saying, ‘Mother, I’ve been kidnapped. Help me,’” Rosenberg said. His wife called their daughter, and she answered her cellphone. “She was at school.”

Rosenberg described the call as typical of the time. He said people started hearing that some doctors were so afraid they were leaving the city or that other doctors paid ransoms to free family members from kidnappers.

The Rosenbergs made a plan in case they became targets.

If one of them were kidnapped, “then we wouldn’t pay ransom. We agreed on that.”

I asked why.

“The moral aspect of the situation, and it would break us financially,” Rosenberg said.

A battle of the cartels

Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos and Tijuana city police Chief Julián Leyzaola take part in a memorial service for slain officers.

Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos, left, and Tijuana city police Chief Julián Leyzaola take part in a memorial service at Tijuana’s city hall for seven police officers who were killed during coordinated attacks in April 2009.

(David Maung / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A week after the doctors’ protest, a gun battle off a major thoroughfare took the violence to a frightening new level.

By this time, Lt. Col. Julián Leyzaola was in charge of the Tijuana police.

Leyzaola was a retired army officer who had gone on to command a state police unit. He’d believed for years that organized crime had infiltrated Tijuana police. Now that he was chief, he was determined to do something about it.

Tijuana had never seen such a hands-on police chief. Leyzaola joined his officers in chasing suspects. He even made arrests himself. He called drug traffickers filthy pigs. Cockroaches. Scum.

Leyzaola had received death threats before but now the threats included his family. He moved them to California, where they would be safe. To protect himself, he stayed at the military base south of downtown.

Leyzaola was asleep at the base when the gun battle began just before 2 in the morning that April. Noise from his police radio jolted him awake.

The chief made a rash decision — to drive across town to the shooting scene. His bodyguards scrambled to catch up.

Julián Leyzaola, Tijuana's former police chief.

Julián Leyzaola, Tijuana’s former police chief.

(David Maung / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Years later, Leyzaola and I would sit down together at a busy Tijuana restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I asked him to describe that day for me. His memories were still fresh.

“There were dead people everywhere, a mass of bodies, on top of cars, on the ground, on top of walls,” he said.

More reports of gunshot victims started coming in, and Leyzaola went to investigate those, too.

“I think after those 25 that I saw, there were more,” he said. “About 40 more or less.”

Later that morning, I rushed to a news conference at the state attorney general’s office.

It turned out that a split in the Arellano cartel had triggered the gun battle.

The cartel’s latest leader — an Arellano nephew named Fernando Sanchez — was far weaker than his uncles. So El Teo, the rogue Arellano lieutenant who had been kidnapping Tijuanenses, was growing more and more powerful and forging a relationship with the rival Sinaloa cartel.

Leyzaola said the two camps fought it out that day.

“The Arellanos stopped having strength,” he said. “They were finished. After that confrontation, the Arellanos stopped existing.”

Later that day, I drove to the place where the gunfire began. It was off a major boulevard in eastern Tijuana, near a rustic place where I’d sometimes buy sugar cane juice.

Yellow tape kept people from entering the crime scene, but I could see bullet holes in the wall and windows of a nearby liquor store.

Life was already resuming its Saturday rhythms.

Families had gathered in a park just blocks away. They were laying out food and decorating picnic tables with balloons and piñatas.

The news from Tijuana that day was filled with images of bloodshed. But I still hold to my personal memory — of families celebrating, of people who refused to relinquish their hard-won moments of happiness.

Growing toll

Armed officers stand guard as a forensics worker takes photos of two bodies found near the Tijuana-Rosarito Beach toll road.

A forensics worker takes photographs of two bodies found near an off-ramp from the Tijuana-Rosarito Beach toll road in June 2009. The bodies were presumed to match two heads that were found earlier that same day at a separate location in Tijuana.

(David Maung / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The U.S. and Mexico signed an agreement in 2008 known as the Merida Initiative. The goal was to weaken the grip of drug traffickers and organized crime in Mexico and Central America. It was a huge commitment — $1.9 billion.

Mexico got money to reform its judicial system, to improve police training and to buy high-tech equipment. And U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies worked more closely than ever to capture cartel leaders.

El Teo was one of their targets.

El Teo’s brutality often played out in public. His underlings opened fire in broad daylight. On busy streets. In popular restaurants. Bodies were mutilated, dissolved in lye, hung from highway bridges.

Early one Monday in September, 12 corpses were discovered outside an elementary school. Some had their tongues cut out. The youngest among the dead was 15.

On a Sunday in December, nine decapitated bodies were discovered near some power lines in eastern Tijuana. I knew the spot well — I used to pass it on my way to Angela’s house.

Three of the dead were cops — members of Leyzaola’s police force.

El Teo and his followers started targeting small-business owners. At my favorite taco shop, the young owner who always greeted me with a great big smile disappeared one day. He’d been kidnapped, I was told.

He was released, but he was never the same. When I caught sight of him, he stayed in the background. And he didn’t smile.

For the first time since I arrived in Tijuana, I felt burned out.

The news industry was in transition, and the recession had hit the Union-Tribune hard. By now, I was the only one covering Tijuana.

Writing about brutality became a numbers game.

How many today? Were the bodies mutilated? Dissolved in tubs of caustic soda? Strung up from highway bridges? Dumped on a rural road?

After work, I’d go home and fall on my couch, exhausted and rigid with tension. A friend from Tijuana sometimes spent the night in my extra bedroom. He was trying to avoid the long lines at the border in the morning — waits that could now stretch for two hours.

He was sweet and chatty, but I didn’t want to talk. I just watched “Seinfeld” reruns, night after night.

Almost everyone I knew was affected by the violence in one way or another, including Paco, my guitar teaching friend.

“During that period many people left,” Paco said. “Those who could went to San Diego. Others returned to Mexico City. As a result, in 2008, out of 20 private students I was left with three. It was hard, very, very hard. And the general atmosphere of violence that you could see in restaurants, in the streets, there was a certain thickness you could feel in the air.”

I searched for other topics to write about — stories that showed different sides of Tijuana, stories that were uplifting and hopeful.

I reported on the arrival of 1,000 teenage athletes for an international taekwondo competition. I cycled with a group of Tijuanenses who took Wednesday night bike rides, escorted by police.

I rode a roofless red bus through the city’s tourist district — a poignant effort to bring back the visitors who had stopped coming.

I needed to tell the stories of people who kept going. Because those stories kept me going, too.

A city tour bus makes its way down Avenida Revolución.

A few people ride atop a tour bus as it makes its way down Avenida Revolución in September 2008, part of an effort to lure visitors back to the area.

(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Distance and time

Writing about Tijuana had become so all-consuming that it was hard to imagine anyplace else existed. Every time I flew back to Washington, D.C., for family visits, I was catapulted into another reality.

My mother was 85 years old and having trouble walking. So before dawn on a chilly May morning, I drove her through Washington’s silent streets to the hospital for a knee replacement. As she was wheeled away to the operating room, we both burst into tears.

She recovered quickly and returned to her townhouse and her tiny backyard filled with flowers.

But I was worried. She lived alone. She needed help with errands and shopping.

My brother Philo would soon be moving to Rome with his family for a new diplomatic assignment. My brother Charles lived more than an hour away in Baltimore.

Sandra Dibble with her mother, Cleo, during a visit to Washington, D.C.

Sandra Dibble with her mother, Cleo, during a visit to Washington, D.C.

(Courtesy of Sandra Dibble)

And there I was at the border, more than 2,500 miles away.

Over the years, I’d written about so many people in Tijuana who were far from home. But I’d rarely stopped to consider the lives they’d left behind. The family members they still carried in their hearts. The constant ache of being far away as a parent grows old.

Back in Tijuana, I was more careful about venturing out around the city, especially at night. Many of my friends were more careful, too.

Members of the band Nortec Collective gather in front of Dandy del Sur in Tijuana's Centro district.

Members of the band Nortec Collective (left to right), Sergio Brown, Ramon Amezcua, Roberto Mendoza, Pedro Gabriel Beas and Pepe Mogt, gather in front of Tijuana’s Dandy del Sur.

(Charlie Neuman / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

But some young Tijuanenses refused to give in to the fear that gripped their city.

“We also had fear, but we decided not to stay in our houses in those days,” said Pedro Gabriel Beas. He played keyboard with Tijuana’s Nortec Collective back then.

The group’s favorite gathering place was an old-fashioned bar just off Avenida Revolución. It was called Dandy del Sur, and they called it their office.

They’d stay at Dandy’s until the early morning hours. Writers, poets and painters hung out there, too.

The Nortec Collective won international recognition for its blend of techno and norteño music. It helped define a new Tijuana. The sound of a city that was gritty, edgy and rough — but also young and joyous.

Pedro Gabriel composed a piece called “Dandy del Sur.” And suddenly new faces began showing up at the bar.

In January 2009, a new bar called La Mezcalera opened across the street from Dandy’s.

La Mezcalera was a cantina but for hipsters. It banned traditional banda music — the tunes favored by the criminal underworld.

More bars opened. Gradually, a quiet downtown street became a throbbing bar scene alive with the energy of young people tired of staying home. One of Nortec’s songs told the story of this new Tijuana. It was called “Tijuana Makes Me Happy.”

The view of Avenida Revolución from a rooftop amphitheater being renovated into a new music venue in 2010.

A view of Avenida Revolución from a rooftop amphitheater under renovation in 2010.

(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Taking aim at the police

Even as the downtown crowds of young Tijuanenses grew, the battle against drug traffickers continued.

By this time, the Mexican military was openly leading the fight. A week rarely went by without a news conference at the base near downtown.

I always rushed there, eager to see the day’s display.

Ammunition and weapons on display during a presentation at Tijuana's main military base in 2009.

Ammunition and weapons were displayed for journalists during a presentation at Tijuana’s main military base following in a gunfight between two suspects and police in October 2009.

(David Maung / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

It could be tall bales of marijuana as far as the eye could see. Or tables with rows of high-powered weapons and ammunition.

Sometimes soldiers paraded their latest suspects as the news cameras rolled.

Human rights groups criticized the military’s growing role. To have soldiers handling civilian law enforcement was a recipe for disaster.

But political and business leaders applauded the unprecedented effort. So did many residents.

They saw Police Chief Leyzaola as a hero. A man who was courageous and honest. Tough enough to take on drug traffickers and clean up a police department infested with organized crime.

But as the months passed and more cops were arrested, another picture emerged.

Families of the detainees said their relatives were being held without charges, tortured and forced to confess to crimes they hadn’t committed.

Some pointed the finger at Leyzaola.

On March 27, 2009, Leyzaola held a routine briefing with his police commanders. When the meeting was over, he ordered three of them to stay behind.

Miguel Angel Mesina was one of them.

“The chief’s bodyguards come and take us by force, disarm us,” Mesina said. “They take us outside, they make us board their vehicles and take us to the installations of the 28th Infantry Battalion.”

The officers were handcuffed, blindfolded and interrogated for hours, even though they hadn’t been charged with a crime.

Mesina was accused of having ties to El Teo.

“They said we were working for one of the drug cartels. I said, no, I am one of Julián Leyzaola’s men. No, no, no, tell me whose people you work for and how much they pay you,” he said.

“They covered our mouths with plastic bags to suffocate us. They beat us, they gave us electric shocks on our genitals. They made us think they were going to kill us … and they were going to throw us on some boulevard with a sign so people would think it was organized crime.”

I was accustomed to seeing lineups of drug suspects. But when I started seeing high-ranking police officers, it all began to seem unreal.

Could this be happening? Where was the line between good and bad? Were they guilty or being scapegoated?

Mesina and the others were flown to a maximum-security federal penitentiary in the state of Nayarit, a thousand miles from home.

They were never tried, and their cases drew the attention of Amnesty International and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

All of them were eventually released.

Mesina was paid compensation for his 17 months behind bars. But he didn’t get his old job back. He now earns his living selling secondhand goods.

Leyzaola has repeatedly denied the accusations of torture. I asked him whether some of the officers might have been innocent.

“Is it possible? It’s possible,” he said. “The military conducted most of the arrests of police. The ones that I detained, it was because the federal attorney general’s office gave me the warrant.”

In 2011, Leyzaola was hired to lead the police in another violent city — Ciudad Juarez. It’s just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Again, he campaigned against police corruption. And violent crimes fell in Juarez, too.

But again he was dogged by complaints of human rights abuses.

Capturing El Teo

In 2010, the growing collaboration between U.S. and Mexican authorities paid off in a big way.

DEA agents had been on El Teo’s trail for months and had shared what they’d learned with their Mexican counterparts. Finally, electronic surveillance of El Teo’s telephone led them to an upscale neighborhood in La Paz, in the state of Baja California Sur.

Before dawn on Jan. 12, a team of Mexican soldiers and federal police approached the house where El Teo was staying.

Teodoro Garcia Simental, known as El Teo, is guarded by federal police after his arrest.

Teodoro Garcia Simental, known as El Teo, is guarded by federal police as he is presented to the press in Mexico City following his arrest in La Paz on Jan. 12, 2010.

(Alexandre Meneghini / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

One of the most ruthless crime bosses Tijuana had ever known was surprised in his own bed. He surrendered without a fight.

Almost immediately, the high-profile kidnappings in Tijuana stopped. The gruesome displays of violence disappeared. The open street battles died down.

But the killings continued.

Lighting the way

Arturo Rodriguez stands in front of the La Caja art gallery.

Arturo Rodriguez stands in front of the La Caja art gallery as it reopens in a new location in June 2010.

(David Maung / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Despite all this uncertainty, residents started to push back. It wasn’t an organized movement. Just individuals finding their strength and lighting their own way through the darkness.

One of them was Arturo Rodriguez.

“Everybody was upset. Everybody was tired. Everybody had the need of seeing each other again,” Arturo said.

“So at that point, I think that that’s what everybody felt, that they wanted to keep the city alive and safe.”

Arturo makes his living fixing industrial containers. But his passion has always been promoting Tijuana artists. In 2008, he shut down a tiny storefront gallery he’d been operating near the city’s racetrack. With the violence escalating, people weren’t in the mood for art.

But two years later, he relaunched in an elaborately converted warehouse filled with hidden doorways and compartments. He called it La Caja— the box. It was clearly a labor of love — and an act of faith.

Tijuana’s mood was shifting. Arturo could feel it.

“The common thing about us is that we wanted to take the city again by ourselves. And listen, it wasn’t a thing of a leader or someone that was promoted.”

Antonio Escalante talks with other artists in Pasaje Rodriguez in 2010

Antonio Escalante, center, talks with other artists in front of a storefront being remodeled into an art gallery in the area known as Pasaje Rodriguez, off Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución in April 2010.

(David Maung / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Antonio Escalante and two dozen other artists were also reclaiming a piece of their city. They focused on Pasaje Rodriguez, an old passageway off Avenida Revolución, the street where American tourists used to shop.

“When we arrived, it was very dirty, abandoned,” he said. “We found syringes left by people who had come to inject themselves.”

He said the artists quietly repaired the spaces and created galleries and studios, “some of them very special.”

I asked Antonio what he was thinking at the time. Was he trying to revitalize downtown?

“Curiously, I wasn’t thinking anything. I knew something would happen. It’s like when I step into my studio to paint. When I go to the studio, I don’t know what’s going to happen because I work in abstract,” he said. “We knew and could see that something was going to happen, but we did not know just how.”

The renewed Pasaje Rodriguez opened on an April evening in 2010.

“It was raining. I said, ‘This is ruined, nobody will come.’ And when I crossed the street to get to the Pasaje, at the time we had scheduled the opening, I was struck at the sight of it being filled with people. It was full in spite of the rain. People were enjoying what we were offering.”

Changing fortunes

A Trump resort billboard is shown against stretch of Pacific coast between Tijuana's Playas area and Rosarito.

The economic downturn and violence took a toll on development and tourism in Baja California. The planned Trump Ocean Baja Resort ended up as a hole in the ground and the developers declared bankruptcy. Trump had previously cut all ties to the project.

(Jim Baird / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

One of the best parts of my job was still driving the toll road that leads from Tijuana to the cities of Rosarito Beach and Ensenada, the stretch that Trump and others once promised would be the world’s next glamourous destination.

I’d lower my window and watch the Pacific Ocean meet the sky. Shades of blue stretched all the way to the horizon. I could smell the air and feel the wind whipping through my hair.

But for all its natural beauty, the recession and the violence had caused a downturn here, too.

The view of the Baja California coast as seen from the Rosarito-Ensenada toll road north of Ensenada, Mexico.

A view of the Baja California coastline as seen from the Rosarito-Ensenada toll road about 25 miles north of Ensenada.

(David Maung / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Restaurants, shops and hotels that were once filled with U.S. visitors sat desolate and empty. The highway was lined with the frames of unfinished condo towers.

And the Trump Ocean Baja Resort? It was just a hole in the ground.

The developers had declared bankruptcy. Trump had cut all ties to the project and removed his name. And the buyers were suing to get back their deposits.

All across the region, so many lives had been upended — some by violence, others by the recession. Tijuana seemed caught in a daily struggle between hope and despair.

As I drove around and reported stories, I could see no clear winner.

Next week, Chapter 7: A splashy event brings a parade of world celebrities to Tijuana. But a gruesome display of bodies becomes a sobering reminder of the brutal violence.

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