Baghdad on Our Border
Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico
Credit: Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico. Photograph by John Dole
It's a mess down there," a former DEA agent told me as I prepared to cross the U.S. border into Tijuana. When he realized that I was going despite his warning, he said, "Try not to look like an American."

The huge, garishly colored WELCOME TO TIJUANA billboard near downtown is faded from years in the searing sun, and its message – to report any crimes to the Baja state police – is now a poignant reminder of the good old days, when car thieves and traffic cops seeking petty bribes were the biggest problems norteamericanos encountered in TJ.

This January marked the fourth year of a brutal, bloody war that seems to have no end in sight. Mexico's big drug cartels have been fighting for control of the border, killing policemen, army troops, and one another and losing profits in the process. Dwindling drug sales stemming from the Mexican government's crackdown, tighter post-9/11 border security, and the economy's perpetual downturn have led to a rise in alternate means of support for the criminally minded – kidnapping and extortion, crimes with little risk but big rewards. The violence is escalating and has now spread to America, where a string of kidnappings has singled out Mexicans with valid U.S. visas who have children or spouses living in the States.

As the Mexican government's war against drug trafficking and corruption rages on, the violence that first spread north from the little-visited mountain state of Sonora has now turned Tijuana and Rosarito, the most popular tourist towns in Baja, into the war's dangerous front lines. Paul Magallanes, a former FBI agent and the founder of MAI, a security firm based just north of Los Angeles that works regularly on kidnapping and ransom cases in Mexico, says abductions are so common, some Americans are being snatched not only a few miles south of the border like the Halls, but also in San Diego border towns or when they cross into Tijuana. "We're seeing all kinds of victims, with or without ties to the drug cartels, even innocent women and children," says Magallanes. "It's open season on just about anyone."

Until 2007, when tourist traffic all but died, TJ drew thousands of U.S. visitors every weekend, many of them college kids and young recruits from San Diego's military bases drawn to the raunchy nightclubs and bars that trafficked in underage drinking, gambling, whoring, and brawling. The rules of El Norte didn't apply here; a pitcher of beer cost 70 cents (and tasted like piss), weed was plentiful (and inevitably mixed with dirt), and the women in the bars – well, you hadn't had the complete TJ experience until you came home with an STD. You might have spent a night in the drunk tank or woken up with a black eye, but rarely did anyone worry about being shot or kidnapped.

Those days are gone. Tijuana marked its bloodiest year in 2008, with 843 people killed, more than twice the total in 2007. Many of the dead were local drug dealers and low-ranking gang members killed by rivals or by the government. At least 450 police officers and soldiers have also been murdered, as have innocent bystanders – among them children, spouses, and co-workers who got caught in the crossfire.

No one knows for sure how many kidnappings went down last year – most victims are afraid to go to the police because they can't be sure the cops aren't working for the ones doing the abducting – but everyone agrees that the number is alarming. One security agent in Mexico says only Baghdad has more kidnappings than Tijuana.