Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Most Dangerous Place To Visit.


The US State Department has issued travel warnings for Tijuana, Mexico, the most dangerous city for Americans to visit close to home. Innocent bystanders are being killed.
Newspaper reporters have disappeared. Middle-class business men and their families are being kidnapped. Innocent tourists are being shaken down for bribes by local police. The U.S. State Department issues regular travel warnings, which are recommendations to avoid certain cities or countries.

Faced with the assassinations of top police officials, beheadings of suspected narco-trafficers, body parts being thrown on the beach at Rosaritos, Baja Calafornia, rolling gun battles on public streets, and a deadly shootout in a hospital in Tijuana in April 2007, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has dispatched over 30,000 federal troops to combat the violence. In Tijuana Federal Troops went from one precinct to another and removed the guns from the local police, because many were suspected of carrying out executions for the drug cartels. It appears that the violence is getting worse. The newly appointed director of the anti-drug intelligence force was shot dead in Mexico City. In the State of Sonora across the Arizona border, a gun battle left 22 people dead and many more wounded.

More than 1,000 people have been killed already in 2007 in drug-related violence, according to the Mexican newspaper El Universal. In 2006 more than 2000 people were killed in drug-related violence. More than 200 police officers have been killed. It is not clear whether the police were killed because of their involvement in fighting the drug trade or because they were a part of it says Jose Arturo Yanez of Mexico City’s Professional Police Training Institute. Mexico has become the second deadliest country for journalists behind Iraq. A survey in March showed that 85 percent of the people believe that President Calderon’s action will only lead to more violence.

A video last month on the website YouTube showed a man being beheaded next to the message “Do something for your country, kill a Zeta”. That was a reference to the hit men for the Gulf cartel that is believed to be warring against the Sinaloa cartel for the lucrative drug routes into the US.

Anyone visiting Mexico for more than a quick, one time, sight-seeing visit needs protection says risk consultants such as New York-based Kroll Inc. One of the first things to keep in mind, says Kroll's Senior Vice President Kelly McCann, is that the U.S. government is not going to rescue a civilian in the event of a kidnapping or hijacking overseas. "That is a huge misconception," says McCann. "Overseas, there is no responsibility by the U.S. government or its consulates to save you." "The guiding rule is to ask yourself if you are prepared and informed," says McCann. "You can travel safely in Mexico, but you have to do it right, such as avoiding known drug trafficking areas or red light districts”.

Fear of being kidnapped is prompting some of Tijuana's middle-and upper-class families to move across the border to San Diego County neighborhoods where they feel safer.
A Tijuana businessman said his family paid several hundred thousand dollars for his release after he was kidnapped this year. The family never reported the incident to police, he said. Afterward, he and his family decided to move into San Diego and San Diego county.

Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Tijuana-based Binational Center of Human Rights, said more kidnappings have occurred over the past few years, mainly because drug trafficking groups are finding kidnapping to be a relatively easy way to earn quick cash.
"It's a way to finance their activities," Alfaro said.
In a recent interview with Tijuana's Frontera newspaper, Jaime Valdovino Machado, president of the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce, said the city's business people "don't feel secure" because of crime and kidnapping risks. "It's a binational culture, and the question of living in Tijuana or not has been around for many years," said Daniel Romero Mejía, president of the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial de Tijuana, an umbrella group of business organizations.
Typically, families that make the move have dual citizenship or U.S. residency status through family or marriage.
Nine kidnapping cases were reported to Mexican state authorities in 2005 in Baja California, according to Raúl Gutierrez, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
But that number is believed to be low because many cases are not reported to police. Family members often are afraid that it would anger the kidnappers or that local police are in collusion with the kidnappers.
"It's common that one learns when talking with friends of the middle or upper classes that this or that person has been kidnapped, and that's how you usually find out because they aren't usually made public," Clark said. "The statistics don't reflect the reality."
In one of case, he said, the family paid $150,000. In the other case, he said, the family paid $1 million – and then moved north of the border. That person still maintains his business in Tijuana, Clark said.
Most families don't want to talk about the experience. The kidnappers' method typically is to grab people at gunpoint as they are on the way home or headed to work. Most of the victims are men.
The Tijuana businessman who contacted the Union-Tribune shared details of his kidnapping but asked that they not be published out of concern for his safety.
Abraham Cecena, an agent with Prudential California Realty's Chula Vista office, said he is seeing more people from Tijuana moving to places such as Eastlake and Rancho del Rey.
"It's something that is becoming of greater concern to people down there, especially affluent families," he said. "The crime over there is just getting out of hand, from what they are telling me, and they don't feel safe."
The communities that people are moving to are the same places where some members of Mexican drug cartels – who also commit kidnappings and abductions – live for similar security reasons.
In 2004 a man charged with participating in kidnappings for the Arellano Félix drug cartel was linked to a home in Otay Lakes. Others with ties to the cartel, such as money laundering suspect Ivonne Soto Vega, have been found to be living in upscale communities such as Bonita.
U.S. law enforcement officials say they also have noticed that kidnappings have prompted people to move north.
Kroll Inc., an international risk consultant, estimates that 3,000 kidnappings occur in Mexico each year. In Latin America, only Colombia surpasses Mexico, according to the firm.
Those who don't move are taking greater precautions, said Ron Kimball, president of a San Antonio-based company that bullet-proofed 50 cars for Mexican residents last year.
The company, Texas Armoring Corp., equipped six of those for Tijuana families, Kimball said.
"In almost every case, they have told me that they had a family member who has been kidnapped and rescued by ransom," he said. "Normally, it's people involved in major industries like banking or ranching."
Armoring a sport utility vehicle can be done in 90 days and costs about $70,000, Kimball said. The idea is to give the driver enough time to survive an ambush and drive out of danger, he said.
Victor de la Garza, an assistant state attorney who oversees Baja California's organized-crime investigations – including kidnapping cases – didn't return phone calls. If convicted in Baja California, a kidnapper faces 20 to 40 years in prison.
Kidnappings of business people or other residents are typically committed by drug trafficking groups or by rings that specialize in kidnappings.
Those are different from the abductions that drug trafficking groups carry out against rivals, informants or people who owe them money. In those cases a ransom may be collected, but the person is often killed.
Mexican federal authorities often intervene in cases that have a strong drug link. But sometimes residents turn to them to investigate other kinds of kidnappings because they see federal agencies as more trustworthy.
An official with the Mexican attorney general's office in Tijuana said federal agents are investigating three kidnapping cases not connected with drug trafficking groups. The official declined to be named because of the agency's policy against talking with the media.
The rings evade authorities by negotiating on phone lines routed through other cities or countries to make the calls harder to trace. Kidnappers often leave the community once their job is done.
While most kidnappings last a week to a month – enough time for the family to negotiate and sell off assets to pay the ransom – quicker variations have emerged.
"Express kidnappings" take place when a person is targeted for a smaller amount of money – such as $5,000 to $30,000 – and is released within a few days after the family provides the cash.
Other groups have used extortion to commit "virtual kidnappings" in which a caller demands money from people so that they won't be kidnapped. In 2003, 10 members of Tijuana's business community reported such threats, and some ended up placing as much as $40,000 in designated bank accounts.
Romero said ensuring the safety of the city's business class is important for keeping and attracting investment. He said Tijuana's business leaders have been meeting with police.
"We need a greater police presence in the area to prevent these kinds of activities," Romero said.

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