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Part two of a two-part series examining the San Diego impacts of Mexico’s escalating drug war. Read part one.
Monday, March 16, 2009 | The news media described it as a brazen midday carjacking on busy Ingraham Street in Pacific Beach. There were three hooded gunmen. The car was a 2007 BMW. The victims were a young man and his girlfriend headed for Rocky’s Crown Pub.
A witness called 911 after he saw the gunmen force the couple back into the car. It made for good TV because San Diego Police Department officers spotted the BMW and the chase was captured on the police helicopter’s video camera. The timely 911 call, on Feb. 3, ended up saving the day. The victims were safe, the car was unscathed, the gunmen jailed.
But it wasn’t what it seemed.
One of the victims, a U.S. citizen, is a suspected drug dealer who’d supposedly run afoul of the ruthless Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation. The accused kidnappers, who have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for a preliminary hearing next month, are believed to be street gang members sent to abduct him and settle the score.
This spillover of drug-related violence is an unintended consequence of the successful crackdown in recent years on the Arellano Felix Organization. What’s left of the AFO, plus splinter groups and rival cartels, are battling for control of the Southern California trafficking corridor.
As a result, Mexico’s border towns have become killing fields, with executions, torture, beheadings and bodies disintegrated in barrels of acid common occurrences. Tijuana suffered more than 800 cartel-related murders in 2008.
And, as the Pacific Beach incident shows, the mayhem has come to America. Some places have been hit harder than others — Phoenix was branded “kidnapping capital of the U.S.” with more than 700 abductions-for-ransom reported in the past two years.
The statistics in San Diego County aren’t as alarming, and experts doubt seriously that the region will ever rival Tijuana in drug-related violence. But there is a general agreement that the situation is dire.
“Thank God we’re not Phoenix but I think it’s a major problem here,” said San Diego Deputy District Attorney Mark Amador, who specializes in gang, drug and kidnapping cases. “I don’t think you can overstate the problem. I believe the spillover is a major problem in that there is an increase in violent crime based on the chaos that’s occurring in Tijuana.”
The exporting of violence to San Diego has been a hot topic lately. Congressional committees have heard testimony on the subject this week, and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders has appeared on national television twice in recent days to discuss the overflow of violence.
Sanders said the United States should start screening motorists who drive into Mexico, since 90 percent of guns used by drug lords are from the United States. Those same guns are being used in assaults, kidnappings and murders on both sides of the border.
“We are very concerned about the increase and what could spill over to San Diego County,” Sanders said on Fox News. “So many of the drug cartel community have residences throughout the southwest.” Law enforcers are keeping an eye on that, he said.
There were four cartel-related murders in the city in 2007, which remain unsolved, according to the SDPD. And there were 26 reported kidnappings for ransom involving U.S. citizens in 2008, most of which occurred in Mexico while the victims were visiting family or conducting business, said San Diego FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth.
Like the Pacific Beach case, some of the abductions took place in San Diego. In most cases the kidnappers and victims had current or previous cartel connections. “Now you’re seeing actual kidnappings of cartel members on the north side of border,” said a criminal defense attorney with expertise in drug cases.
“And you see a lot of cartel members moving to the north side of the border. They’re living in the U.S. because they’re fearful of operating in Tijuana where they used to because they’re afraid they’re going to get kidnapped. Now the kidnappers have followed them.”
Anyone Can Be a Target
What is most troubling to law enforcement is that kidnappings used to happen only to people within the drug trade, as payback for deals gone wrong, but that has changed since the AFO lost its monopoly.
“That’s where we’ve seen a change in the last couple of years,” said San Diego FBI chief Keith Slotter. “Some of the splinter groups decided they don’t need to play by the old AFO rules. In their minds kidnapping purely for profit is simply a money-making operation for them.”
The FBI declined to give details regarding kidnappings that fit that description. “We’re not going to give the name of a victim who was kidnapped here and taken down there. We don’t do that,” Foxworth said. “We have victim-witness confidentiality issues. Also doing that would not only jeopardize the victim but the investigation.”
The FBI has responded to the growing threat by doubling the number of agents dedicated to the issue, Slotter said. “Certainly there’s been a manpower shift where we’ve got more resources working kidnappings, probably more than we’ve ever had before,” Slotter said. He estimated that four agents, up from two, are working with Mexico to investigate cases involving U.S. citizens.
“Anyone potentially could be a target,” he said. “Now obviously the more a person travels to Mexico, if they have business down there, that has an impact on the possibility of something like that happening.”
Untold numbers of kidnappings go unreported because kidnappers threaten to kill their captives if authorities are called. Mexican families often don’t trust law enforcement because of rampant corruption. Or families worry that police should be avoided because the victim is also involved in drug trafficking.
“There are many, many more kidnappings that go unreported and many word of mouth stories that are passed on that seem to have legitimacy,” said Amador, the prosecutor.
“Go down to the nice neighborhoods in Chula Vista and Eastlake and talk to residents of Hispanic ethnicity. Many would know people who have been kidnapped and it’s fairly common to hear those stories.”
Privately some officials admit it’s not especially troubling to see the drug traffickers implode. Just keep the collateral damage away from San Diego, they say.
The Vacuum After AFO’s Fall
The kidnapping problem in both countries became more significant two or three years ago when the Mexican and U.S. governments stepped up enforcement efforts and “put the squeeze” on the Arellanos, said the San Diego defense attorney, who asked not to be identified because he has attempted to negotiate the release of numerous Mexican kidnapping victims in recent years when families were too terrified to go to authorities.
“The drug cartels turned to kidnappings as a primary source of income,” he said. “It used to be they would only go after other persons in the business. They would never touch innocents. All of a sudden you saw doctors, lawyers and dentists, tourists, people racing in the Baja 1000 and surfers being kidnapped and their girlfriends being gang raped. It has all but shutdown the tourism industry in Tijuana.
“If they do that in San Diego, we are looking at the same problems as Tijuana because people are going to stop coming here. They could do the same thing to San Diego. It’s kind of scary. It’s this huge beast sitting right there at our doorstep.”
The defense lawyer compared the dismantling of the Arellano Felix Organization and resulting chaos to the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In neither case, he said, did the authorities adequately prepare for the power vacuum. And as a result, innocent people are dying.
“The government is totally incapable of dealing with it. There are high profile prosecutions on both sides of the border. But I would wager you’re only scratching the surface,” he said.
The FBI’s Slotter does not want to downplay the problem. But he said the notion that San Diego could become another Tijuana in terms of drug-related violence and kidnappings is going too far.
“I don’t like to draw that comparison because I don’t think it’s there,” Slotter said.
Kelly Thornton is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.