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
Mexican soldiers now patrol the streets in Humvees, automatic rifles at their sides. Others pace in front of Hospital General de Tijuana, guarding locked gates so drug traffickers can't storm in to rescue one of their own or finish off a wounded rival. Cops stand nervously on corners, scanning streets for bad guys. The bad guys are out too. Black Escalades and jacked-up Hondas slither through the streets and alleys of downtown Tijuana.
Outside police headquarters a group of officers, sweaty from the blazing heat and swatting away flies, are standing watch for any suspicious activity. "You know the saying, 'The well is dry'?" a disgruntled policeman told me, smiling ruefully. "Well, TJ is dry. It used to be nice here. I'd come downtown with my wife to have a beer, and I couldn't walk down the street because it was so crowded. Now, look. Tourists don't want to come anymore. If I could, I'd hightail it out of here myself."

Anyone in a cash business or with a tie to law enforcement is a potential target – at least 20 police chiefs and commanders have been gunned down, although it's impossible to tell which of them were the good guys and which ones were wearing a badge but moonlighting for drug lords as bagmen, bodyguards, drivers, interrogators, and executioners. However, there is no confusion when it comes to the common methods of killing and torture: beheadings, victims submerged in vats of acid, tongues cut out, heads covered with duct tape to cause suffocation.

All these killings are meant to intimidate, to send a message, none more direct than the one delivered by the 12 bodies found near an elementary school on the morning of September 29. At the scene, police found a plastic bag holding seven severed tongues and a note scribbled on cardboard that promised the same fate for anyone associated with the Arellano Félix cartel, which once ruled the U.S.–Mexico border.

Mexico's president Felipe Calderón has called out the army to fight this crippling, systemic crime and corruption. Since 2006 he has sent 50,000 troops into the worst hot spots. The drug cartels responded by killing more than 300 police officials and some 30 federal agents.

In late October, Calderón sent additional troops to patrol Tijuana's streets. Ten days later three more people were killed in retaliation. "You never saw this degree of violence when the Arellano Félix family was strong and intact," says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. The ruthless organization run by seven Arellano Félix brothers and two sisters was one of Mexico's most powerful crime groups and controlled Tijuana's drug trade – smuggling tons of cocaine into the U.S. – from 1982 to 2003.
The arrest that same month of Eduardo Arellano Félix was a drug agent's dream come true. All of the active Arellano Félix brothers, and many of their lieutenants, were now either dead or in custody. But the cartel's weakening led to an unforeseen consequence as new players moved in. The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels moved to fill the power vacuum, facing off against organized crime cells led by a nephew of the brothers in a battle for control of the lucrative drug transit routes into the U.S. "Now it's a real war between the cartels," says Shirk. "A war with very high stakes." Eighty percent of all the cocaine, marijuana, meth, and heroin consumed in the U.S. – a $13.8 billion business – comes across the 2,100-mile border with Mexico annually. As do an estimated 2,000 guns, smuggled each day from the U.S. into Mexico.

Violence against American citizens is clearly on the rise as well. Since summer 2007 at least six robberies targeting U.S. surfers along the 780-mile Baja peninsula were reported on Baja sports websites. Mexican authorities dispute this but concede that tourists may not be stopping to report the incidents as they flee back to the U.S. "The bad guys are obviously getting more aggressive," said one Baja surfer. "It's like the frickin' Wild West down there."