I got a call back earlier today from Ascan Lutteroth, a Tijuana businessman who has been a leader in efforts to boost public security and transparency in the city.

He acknowledged the city’s security problem, saying it is no better or worse today than it was a year ago. “We have had this problem for many years,” he said.

Yesterday, Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon held a press conference in San Diego touting his city’s progress in the last three weeks. While targeted killings may have been a problem a few weeks ago, he said the city was never unsafe, that tourists were never being targeted. The city, he said, is “as safe as San Diego.” (My story on that is here.)

During our conversation, Lutteroth traced the history of some of Tijuana’s recent violence, which he said stretches over a period of years, not weeks. He pointed to Tijuana’s geographic location on the border as a complicating factor. The city, he said, serves as a bridge between South American drug producers and California drug consumers.

“It is a problem that belongs to both countries,” Lutteroth said. “… Internationally, the priority has been put on attacking the supply side, not especially the demand side. It is impossible to solve that way.”

Lutteroth said Mexico has taken vital steps toward democratic rule under President Vicente Fox. But government relations at the local, state and federal levels are still problematic when it comes to coordinating responses to public security issues. Part of the reason is political. Both Fox and Baja California Governor Eugenio Elorduy Walther are from the conservative National Action Party, or the PAN. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the PRI.

Fox’s move toward democracy six years ago meant the county no longer had a quasi-totalitarian federal president who chose the mayors of large cities, Lutteroth said. While corruption was once most rife among federal police, he said it is now most problematic among city police forces.

“We’re in a transition toward democracy,” he said. “There’s been a lot of costs in that learning process.”

At the same time Mexico has made its democratic moves, the United States has tightened its borders.

“I dare to say that the day after Sept. 11, it got tougher for the drug traffickers to cross and bring the drugs into the United States,” Lutteroth said. And as it became harder to export drugs into the United States, he said organized crime turned to “side businesses” such as kidnapping. At the same time, he said, cartels have tried to create drug markets in Mexico, where none had previously existed.

“Baja California, six to 10 years ago, was not an important consumer,” Lutteroth said. “Now it’s becoming (one).”

But he said it is impossible to label the city where he has lived for 40 years.

“It’s not Sin City,” Lutteroth said, “and it’s not a giant Catholic church either.”


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