Tijuana Violence: Narcocorridos, Kidnappings and Hope

An American playground and “city of sin,” this border city is rife with kidnappings and narco traffic. One writer looks to the “corridos” for hope against the mafiosos.

| March 2013

  • Tijuana Dreaming
    With many essays translated from Spanish for the first time, “Tijuana Dreaming” features contributions by prominent scholars, journalists, bloggers, novelists, poets, curators, and photographers from Tijuana and greater Mexico. Taken together, the selections present a kaleidoscopic portrait of a major border city in the age of globalization.
    Cover Courtesy Duke University Press

  • Tijuana Dreaming

Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (Duke University Press, 2012) is an unprecedented introduction to the arts, culture, politics, and economics of contemporary Tijuana, Mexico—and the dark side of Tijuana's violence. The included essays explore urban planning in light of Tijuana's unique infrastructural, demographic, and environmental challenges. They delve into its musical countercultures, architectural ruins, cinema, and emergence as a hot spot on the international art scene. One contributor examines fictional representations of Tijuana's past as a Prohibition-era "city of sin" for U.S. pleasure seekers. Editor Josh Kun reflects on the city's recent struggles with kidnappings and drug violence. The following Kun essay, called “The Kidnapped City," is a painful look at the reality of serious, everyday drug violence in this globalization-ravaged city nestled to one side of the most-crossed border in the world. 

The finger arrived in the mail next to the gas bill and the grocery store coupons, bubble-wrapped in a sealed envelope with no return address. By then, Luis had already been gone for two months of his thirty- four years. His severed finger—they didn’t even put it on ice; they just let the blood dry, the skin purple, the smell swell—was proof that he was alive, that he existed, that the rest of his body was somewhere, still warm, still beating. The finger meant they wanted more money. If he was still alive enough to lose a finger, then there was still money to be made. They took him from right in front of his house, in front of his wife, his three young children inside, in plain view in the middle of the day on his quiet street in Playas de Tijuana—a tranquil coastal neighborhood known for its remove from the chaos of downtown where the only big news of late was the opening of a Starbucks. They asked for directions and Luis walked over to the car to help out. They pulled him inside. They were not wearing masks. As soon as my wife heard that, she knew things would be bad for her cousin. In the logic of kidnapping, the mask is a chance for survival; if the kidnappers cannot be identified, they might consider releasing their hostage. No mask and the release is harder to imagine. Luis must have known that too; he knew his fate as soon as he hit the backseat. He was never coming home.

My in-laws were active in raising money. There was a breakfast—the whole extended family brought checks, what ever you could afford. Every dollar counted. They wanted $2 million. We raised $100,000. We don’t know when they killed Luis, if he was even alive when the money was being gathered. We do know that they drove out of town to dump his body alongside the highway to Tecate. He was picked up and brought to the city morgue as a John Doe and only weeks later did a family friend who works in forensics recognize his face in a photo search.

The memorial was wrenching. There were people everywhere. The men stood on the steps by the entrance, as if they were guards or escorts, trying to look tough and proud and strong but their faces gave them away—they were outside because they couldn’t bear to go in. Especially Luis’s father. I had met him just a few months earlier. It was my father-in-law’s birthday and we took over the concrete backyard of one of his niece’s homes in Playas. There were family photos on the folding tables and balloons tied to chairs. A man with perfectly gelled hair was singing boleros and pop ballads into a portable pa system. A woman with a face of sweating stone was chopping meat and pressing corn into tortillas, and all of the nieces and aunts and grandmothers took their turn on the piñata. Candy fell. The little ones scurried.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off Luis’s father. He’s tall and thick with the muscles of hard work. He had his jeans up high on his boxy waist, belted tight; he had his cotton long- sleeve Oxford unbuttoned midway down a chest full of furry gray ringlets of hair. He kept his big arms crossed, his face unmoving, stern, serious. He crushed my hand when he shook it. His fingers were hardened sausages, their skin rough from building things, fixing motors. He looked like El Indio Fernandez, the classic Mexican film star who protects the village on horse back, who stays alive squinting into the setting sun. One thing he wasn’t though was a man who cried. So when I saw him on the stairs of the memorial hall, it rocked me to the core. The shirt was still unbuttoned, the jeans still high, but his son was dead and now his face was red and pickled; his eyes were pools of salt. It was as if his body never expected to know what it was now knowing, as if his muscles and joints had never fathomed that something as intangible and immaterial as death or loss could break them down.

Upstairs in the chapel, deep silence was sporadically punctured by spasms of grief, anguished cries quickly muffled by the sweaters and shawls of comforting shoulders. In his prayers for Luis, the priest told us not to grieve, but to use his loss as an inspiration to keep living our lives to the fullest plenamente,plenamente he repeated—to leave the service focused squarely on the here and now. He prayed for the family, for Luis’s kids, for his poor, poor wife. And then he prayed for the city. He begged God to have mercy on Tijuana, to take its streets back into his loving arms. I put my arm around my sister-in-law and asked what she was feeling. “Sadness,” she said. “And a lot of anger.”

9/17/2013 12:38:47 PM

This is a really interesting article (makes me want to check out the book), however, after living in Tijuana for several months, I get the impression from all the Tijuanenses that I've met that the security situation has improved *drastically* since about 2011. For example, a mother of teenage children told me that from about 2008 to 2011 none of the parents let the kids go out at night. They could get together at someone's house but were totally prohibitied from going to bars or restaurants because people were regularly shot and kidnapped in such public establishments. Now, the bars all over Tijuana (not just the Centro) are packed with people all weekend. In my personal experience, I don't sense any of the fear the the author writes about here and, rather, found a city that-- while still rife with poverty and inequality-- is generally positive and rather rejoicing in itself culturally, having developed forms of culture and entertainment to suit the tastes and needs of its own people, rather than catering to drunk "gringos" looking for a good time (especially since most of those Americans who stopped coming during the bad years continue to stay away). This book was published in 2012, so I assume the author probably wrote this piece prior to 2011. I would be so interested to read a follow-up article in response to the recent changes that, according to my many friends from Tijuana (I really can't say myself because I wasn't here prior to 2011!), have notably changed the city. What I also hear, however, is that this new peace is merely a result of a truce between narcos and that the cartel in power (which?) is still going about its business, just with fewer "civilian" casualties. Given the author's clear breadth of knowledge about Tijuana politics, I'd like to know his opinion on this. If anyone can point me to any of the author's more recent writings on this subject, I'd be really grateful!

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