A street in Tijuana destroyed by a landslide. / Photo by Omar Martinez

“We live in a polvorón,” Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero said in a recent Facebook Live posting, comparing the city to a crumbly shortbread cookie. “We live in a Mazapan.” 

The jokes have been flying on social media after Mayor Caballero likened Tijuana to a Mazapan – the light brown peanut candy popular across Mexico that falls apart at the touch. But behind the humor is a very serious issue – heavy rains have triggered some highly visible landslides in recent weeks as the city’s brown hills crumble under the weight of uncontrolled development.

The questions linger, so far unanswered. Exactly who issued permits for the two apartment buildings precariously perched above  Cuauhtemoc Sur Boulevard, a four-lane thoroughfare that runs south from Tijuana toward Rosarito Beach. How many other similar landslides are waiting to happen?

“We have had to pay for things poorly done by other administrations,” the mayor said. She accused a former mayoral administration of issuing permits for the apartment buildings, and her predecessors of all political parties of failing to properly address the issue of the road to Playas de Tijuana – a problem she vows will be fixed under her watch.

Near the border, city authorities said members of the U.S. Border Patrol first notified them of the landslide on March 21 at the foot of Matadero Canyon – known as Smuggler’s Gulch on the U.S. side. City officials quickly closed two lanes on the busy highway, built over an embankment, that is a major artery to Playas de Tijuana and the toll road to Rosarito Beach and Ensenada, leading to major traffic slowdowns.

Tijuana authorities attribute the collapse to a deteriorated drainage pipe. They say repairs will take four months and involve the construction of a new storm drain. On Monday, a federal transportation official announced plans to invest 70 million pesos – close to $4 million – to repair the road as quickly as possible.

Landslides have been a running theme throughout my years of covering the city. Some result in tragedy – such as one last January when a slope fell on a small house, burying two sisters, ages 7 and 14, with mud and debris. But nothing has compared to the floods of 1993, the year before I arrived, when dozens of lives were lost in the city.

Heavy rains have caused landslides in Tijuana. Seen here a van stuck in a broken road. / Photo by Omar Martinez

The construction of storm drains has helped the city avoid another flood of such magnitude, said Antonio Rosquillas, former longtime head of civil protection for the city and for the state of Baja California. But government leaders have done little to prevent people from building in high-risk areas prone to landslides, he said.

“They worked on storm drains, that I completely recognize,” Rosquillas, who now works for a nonprofit, told me. “But coming up with a regulation and a law that prevents building in places susceptible to streams of mud and landslides? No, no one has done anything with respect to that.”

A study by a group of Spanish researchers published in 2014 in the journal Engineering Failure Analysis found that more than 30 percent of the city’s population “resides on hillsides where terrain instability is a constant threat and where landslide hazards acquire unpredictable levels.”

“In Tijuana, the land is very fragile, there are no rocks, it’s not a very strong soil to build on,” said Juan Manuel Rodríguez Esteves, a geographer at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a government-funded think tank. 

Rodríguez said it’s not just the lack of regulation – but the lack of enforcement of the existing rules governing construction. “The government may have good intentions, but it doesn’t have the capacity or the personnel to supervise.”

In Tijuana, the two cases have been front and center of the news in recent days because so many drivers have been affected, including those who are making their way to and from the international border crossings. 

The imminent collapse of the two small apartment buildings, both of them evacuated, has turned into something of a spectator sport, with news websites posting round-the-clock updates. Finally, on Saturday night the smaller of the two came tumbling down. City authorities have said they plan to demolish the second one, and re-open Bulevar Cuauhtemoc this week.

In Other News

Journalist targeted: Dianeth Pérez Arreola, the Mexicali-based editor of the website Brujula News, has been the subject of an anonymous smear campaign in recent weeks. Her case has been taken up by Article 19, a group that defends the rights of journalists worldwide. 

According to a communique, the attacks on the journalist and members of her family came after she published a series of investigations on publicity payments made by Mexicali city government and the state legislature to different media outlets. 

Article 19 is calling on the Baja California Attorney General to “investigate in a diligent manner the digital aggressions committed against the journalist.” It also urges the state protection mechanism to offer protective measures to the journalist and family members. And it calls on leaders of the state and Mexicali governments, as well as the state legislature, “to hold themselves to the highest  standards of freedom of expression and access to information.”

Deadly risk of maritime migrant smuggling: This is the deadliest year for maritime migrant smuggling since 2019, reports inewsource. 

Cross-border bus: The city of Tijuana announced a new cross-border bus service between San Ysidro and Avenida Revolucion. It costs $10 for a round-trip ticket. (San Diego Union-Tribune,  El Imparcial.)

Archaeological discovery: Mexico’s National Institute for Anthropology and History reported the discovery of remains of the Yumana and La Jolla cultures dating back 1,300 to 5,500 years on a coastal location about 19 miles north of Ensenada on Sempra’s Costa Azul site.

Deportee artist: KPBS-FM profiled a deportee in Tijuana who tells his story through art. His latest painting, commissioned by a group that’s fighting to prevent a new border fence at Playas de Tijuana, features President Joe Biden locked in a kiss with former president Donald Trump. 

La Frontera with Pati Jinich: Season 2 of the series featuring the Mexican chef opens with a visit to the Tijuana-San Diego border. The premiere airs tonight (April 3) on KPBS-TV at 9 p.m. 

About me: I have written about the border since 1994, and am the co-creator of the podcast Border City that tells the story of my 26 years of covering Tijuana as a daily newspaper reporter. Got a concern or an idea for a border story? Message me at: sandradibblenews@gmail.com 

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