Photo Credit: Tomas Castelazo
By Andrew Campos
Director of Operations
Looking for cheap thrills, inexpensive booze runs, immaculate weather, stunning women, and a no-questions-asked attitude that indeed won’t judge the unruly behavior you’re looking to engage in? Well, located just 20 miles south of San Diego, via the Interstate 5 Highway, Tijuana might be the place you’re looking for. While you may engage in these frivolous activities anywhere in Southern California, you’re fortunate to find that Tijuana, like many other cities in Mexico, is willing to look the other way, dropping any semblance of law and order for the low, low price of American fiat currency. Better yet, enthusiastic tourist, your day trip to paraíso (paradise) will not unveil Mexico’s underbelly—rampant with homicides, human trafficking, and hostilities against journalists—so long as you remain on the yellow brick road.
Ridding itself of the yolk of authoritarianism that plagued it since its independence in 1821, the revolutionary bigotones (bigwigs), tasked with rebuilding the fabled country, sought to institute a secular democracy devoted to modernization and social progress. The founder of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (National Revolutionary Party), Plutarco Elias Calles, declared that Mexico, once and for all, must transform itself from a country governed by one man into a country of institutions and laws. Like their Bolshevik counterparts, Calles and his lackeys within the subsequent Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) established a one-party state with the PRI at the helm, and held indiscriminate power over Mexico’s affairs for 71 years. Inevitably, with the establishment of a narrow political elite, corruption plagued each political institution from local offices to Los Pinos, or the Mexican presidential residence. In 2017, Alejandro Gutierrez, the former adjunct secretary of President Enrique Peña Nieto, was arrested in a ‘sophisticated scheme’ of siphoning 250 million pesos, or $13 million, from funds intended for educational projects. In 2021, despite promises by left-wing populist Andres Manuel Lopéz Obrador to eradicate the corruption fermented under the PRI, Mexico still ranks 124 out of 180 countries on the Corruptions Perceptions Index. Though it may be different faces, different colors, or different ideologies, the racket remains. In Mexico, everything and everyone has a price.
Now, if you fancy yourself a savior and believe your sole selfless efforts may achieve true prosperity and justice in Mexico, it would be wise of you to rethink that notion before crossing the San Ysidro border. Mexico has never seen a shortage of romanticists with such notions. In 1994, Luis Donaldo Colosio, a senior PRI official, was favored by the party’s political machine to succeed President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. However, at the PRI’s 65th anniversary on March 6 of that year, Colosio’s speech drove a sharp break between him and the establishment bigotones that supported his ascendancy. In response to recent incursions in the state of Chiapas by the predominately indigenous Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), Colosio declared, “Facing Chiapas, we PRI members must reflect. As a party of stability and social justice, we are ashamed to realize that we were not sensitive to the great demands of our communities.” Classified as a threat to the PRI, Colosio was subsequently assassinated on the campaign trail under the orders of Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of President Salinas de Gortari. What was perceived as Mexico’s sole opportunity to raise itself from decades of decadence and despair perished with a single .38 Special bullet. Imbued and inspired by Colosio’s war cry for reform, journalists investigated Colosio’s assassination and the ongoing drug trade. The most prominent of these journalists was Jesús Blancornelas, former editor-in-chief of the Tijuana-based ZETA magazine. After exposing ties between the Tijuana Arellano Félix cartel and local politicians, Blancornelas was ambushed by hitmen from the San Diego-based Logan Heights Gang. Blancornelas survived the assassination attempt, but later died in 2006, likely due to health complications from the attack. Up until his death, Blancornelas fearlessly continued his writing on the Tijuana cartel and the suppression of Mexican journalists.
While Colosio and Blancornelas are regarded by the Mexican public as earnest heroes, there are countless others whose efforts go unsung and unnoticed, albeit intentionally. Mexican journalists are still killed indiscriminately for the harsh crime of speaking the truth. In January 2022, two reporters from Tijuana, Margarito Martinez and Lourdes Maldonado, were gunned down with no explanation from authorities. Worse yet, journalists have been restricted from attending any judicial proceedings for the assailants responsible and from accessing court documents. In this instance, the rule of law may have “prevailed,” but all-in-all up to 90-95% of cases involving the murder of journalists are left unresolved. After all, it is simply bad for business if mud-racking journalists start to reveal that it was not simply hard work that created Mexico’s cherished captains of industry and political bosses, but associations with criminal enterprises. If one cannot pay to repress the truth, there is surely someone that can be bought to silence it.
At this point, potential traveler, you’re pondering: “Who or what funds these lucratively profitable activities?” Is it the international exchange between the United States and Mexico that produced $33.6 billion in Tijuana sales in 2020? Partially, but in larger part to the maquilas (manufacturing firms) that propped up across Baja California following the ratification of NAFTA in 1994. “Well, what about the drug trade or other illicit exchanges?” you might ask. Not quite. It is women. The aforementioned maquilas employ women en masse, usually through the prospects of upward mobility—though, at a cost. Maquilapolis, a 2006 documentary by filmmaker Vicky Funari, chronicles the lives of two female workers, Carmen Durán and Lourdes Luján, as they endeavor to support their families with an $11/day wage in a “life-or-death struggle” to produce consumer goods that most Americans take for granted. Outside of the Kafkaesque concrete jungles, women are at great risk of being kidnapped or murdered. In 2021 alone, Mexican officials reported 1,004 female deaths as a result of femicide. In Tijuana, already the most violent city in the world with 138 murders per 100,000 people, Mexican women are at even greater peril. In 2020, 145 women in Tijuana were registered as missing. Their likely destination? Tijuana’s Zona Norte—or red light district—or other similar sleazy locals, where they are subjected to sexual servitude. Of course, sex trafficking likely would not flourish in Tijuana without the coveted capital of northern tourists seeking a “good time.” Then again, the former mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon, described women as “my favorite animal” when he campaigned for office in 2004. So perhaps it’s as much a homegrown industry as a tourist attraction.
Though one may believe that all of these developments are committed by members of the criminal underground, particularly narcotics royalty like Tijuana’s very own Arellano Felix family, most are planned and perpetrated by the robber barons that have set up shop across the U.S.-Mexico border. The most prolific being the aforementioned Jorge Hank Rhon. Hank was arrested in 2011 on suspicion of money laundering for the Arellano Felix cartel. Aside from an absurd amount of opulence unbeknownst to the average Mexican that included a casino and the Agua Calientes Racetrack, 88 weapons and 9,000 rounds of ammunition were found at Hank’s residence. If this does not sound all too familiar, Hank’s father’s former chief of security was arrested for the assassination of ZETA editor Francisco Ortiz Franco. The apple never falls far from the tree, as the entire Hank family, was declared “a significant criminal threat to the United States” by the National Drug Intelligence Center. Follow the money, and you find that Mexico’s Rockefellers earned their affluence, not through elbow grease but through corruption that renders the Watergate scandal mere child’s play.
Do not fret though, because a day trip to exotic Tijuana may only result in a measly slap on the wrist from a Tijuana police officer. If you’re stopped during your hypothetical escapades, whether you committed a crime or not, a hefty “donation” to the protective and prolific institutions of law and order, ranging from $100 to $500, is expected—American dollars, mind you. Besides, as a guest of the Mexican intellectual Octavio Paz, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa declared—on live television—Mexico to be “the perfect dictatorship” with a party system that was “irrevocable,” and he made it out of the country just fine. Safe travels.