Baghdad on Our Border

Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico
Debra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in MexicoDebra and Chris Hall, in their El Cajon, California, home, a year after their brush with death in Mexico. Photograph by John Dole

It was after midnight on a cold November night. Chris and Debra Hall were driving home to El Cajon, California, on Baja’s coastal toll road, as they had done a hundred times. Every year for the last 25 they’d gone to Mexico so Chris could pursue his passion for off-road racing. Baja had the best competitions, and he worked the pit crews for all of its big races.

On this evening, in 2007, they were returning from the Baja 1000, in Cabo San Lucas, pulling a racing buddy’s 30-foot Weekend Warrior trailer. As their 16-year-old son Tyler and 21-year-old daughter Divinia dozed in the backseat of Chris’s new Ford truck, the couple heard an upsetting story on the radio: Two armed gunmen in Ensenada, Mexico, wearing masks and dark clothes, had forced a surfer from San Diego out of his RV, robbed and beaten him, then raped his girlfriend. How awful, the Halls thought. That wasn’t the Baja they knew and loved.

They were five miles from the U.S. border, just outside Tijuana, when a black car with flashing red and blue lights and a blaring siren pulled up behind them. “Were you speeding?” Debra asked her husband, who shook his head no. “Are you sure?” she said.

“I absolutely was not speeding,” Chris said as he pulled to the side of the highway, convinced this must be another police shakedown. No big deal, he thought. Payoffs and petty thefts were part of the Mexico experience; over the years they’d had to hand over race helmets, an ice chest, and the occasional watch and wallet, but never had they feared for their safety. This was laid-back TJ, after all, not bullet-scarred, kidnap-crazy Colombia. The Halls figured $40 would satisfy the cops – it always had in the past – and in an hour they’d be home.

Seconds later another car pulled in front of them and backed onto their bumper. Nine men, all wearing black paramilitary uniforms, high black leather boots, and knit face masks surrounded the truck, rifles drawn. “Shut up or we’ll shoot you!” said the group’s leader, a 30-something Mexican. He put a gun to Tyler’s head while another man pulled Chris from the truck and a third pressed a gun to Debra’s ribs as he ripped out the truck’s radio and navigation system.

The attackers moved with speed and precision, as if they’d been trained for this kind of operation. Over and over they screamed, “Where’s the money?” “What do you do for a living?” “Where’s the race car?” and the chilling, “Who do we call?” Chris knew this last question meant they’d been kidnapped for a ransom. He tried to stay calm as he explained that they were an ordinary family of modest means – he was a truck driver; Debra, an account manager at a health insurance company. They had no race car.

“Let our kids go,” Debra pleaded.

“Shut up, lady, or I’ll kill you!” one of the gunmen yelled in English, as he shoved Chris into the backseat with the kids, then jumped behind the wheel. The car in front led them off the main highway onto an unmarked dirt road, then lumbered up a steep hill. Then they stopped. As three gunmen stayed in the truck guarding the Halls, the others ransacked the trailer, then the truck, picking both clean: wallets, cell phones, credit cards, keys to both vehicles, all their cash – about $1,100 – and even Debra’s gold loop earrings. One man put his hand around Divinia’s neck as another felt down her legs to see if she had anything of value in the pockets of her cargo pants.

Again, the angry questions: “Where is the rest of your money?” “Where is the race car?” And again Chris told them, “We don’t have a race car or any more money.”

Agitated and impatient, the gunmen huddled to discuss their next move, since it was clear that the Halls were worth nothing to them. Moments later the gang’s leader signaled for everybody to get back in the vehicles, and the caravan started up again, driving farther into the isolated, pitch-black hills. When they stopped, two men yanked Tyler out of the truck and pushed him down on his knees in a ditch. He started to cry, terrified. Next, the men forced Debra facedown on the ground, then Chris and Divinia – all of them with guns pointed at their heads. “Please don’t hurt my babies,” Debra pleaded.

“Shut the fuck up about your babies!” shouted the leader. Wearing only shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops, the Halls trembled in the frigid night air. Chris draped his body over his daughter to protect her as one of the gunmen threw a sleeping bag over Debra and her son. She figured this was to muffle the sound of bullets and keep blood from splattering onto the uniforms of their killers. “I’m so sorry,” Debra said to Tyler, stroking his head and crying. Over and over the Halls said to each other, “I love you.” Then they lowered their heads and prepared to die.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.

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.”

No one knew that better than Felix Batista, a kidnapping and ransom expert in Miami, and his comments to me last December, a few days before his own abduction, now seem particularly poignant. (Read about Batista’s kidnapping here.) “Kidnapping has become Mexico’s biggest cottage industry, and now every lowlife is getting in on the game,” he said. In 2008 drug gangs and their surrogates in the U.S. with green cards and passports abducted or killed people in San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta. Recently, Las Vegas was added to the travelogue of horrors. In October three Hispanic men wearing police uniforms kidnapped six-year-old Cole Puffinburger at gunpoint in his home. Police believe Mexican drug dealers took the boy as revenge after being ripped off for millions of dollars by the child’s grandfather, 51-year-old Clemens Tinnemeyer.

“It’s one thing to drive across the border into San Diego,” Batista told me last December, “but driving all the way to Vegas to take a little boy? Now that’s brazen.”

Instead of waiting for the ransom call, Las Vegas police blanketed TV, radio, and print with information about the abduction. It worked. Four days after the kidnapping, at around 10:30 at night, a bus driver spotted Cole walking on a deserted sidewalk near downtown Vegas, bewildered but unharmed. The boy’s grandfather and one Hispanic “person of interest” are in custody, awaiting trial, as the investigation shifts from a kidnapping to a drug rip-off.

Most of the American kidnapping victims – 27 in 2007 and 26 in 2008 – were abducted in broad daylight after crossing the border (usually to work or visit family). They were held in dark, filthy safe houses while desperate relatives negotiated for their release. Victims have been beaten, raped, tortured – and killed. After ransom drops, some have been returned, unharmed or with serious wounds – their fingers or toes cut off – while still others have never been seen again, presumed murdered, their bodies dumped on roadsides, at the city dump, or in shallow graves scattered across the Sonoran Desert.

That’s probably what happened last year to a medical doctor (whose name the FBI is withholding) who lived in San Diego but worked in Tijuana. Sometime in early 2008, the FBI says, a van full of young Mexican men began following him as he crossed the border at San Ysidro. He was the perfect target: He and his wife had moved to the U.S. for a better quality of life 10 years earlier but still had close ties – relatives and a medical practice – in Tijuana, and the doctor frequently crossed the border.

The kidnappers followed the doctor for a few days to nail down his routine. One evening in March the men, heavily armed and wearing police uniforms, grabbed him off a street near downtown Tijuana as he left his office. They pushed him into their van, drove to a nearby safe house, and used his cell phone to call his wife in California. “Give us two million dollars or we’re going to kill your husband,” the kidnapper said haltingly, as if reading from a script. “And if you go to the cops or tell anyone, we’ll cut off his fingers and ears, then kill him.” Negotiations dragged on for three weeks before the kidnappers agreed to a lesser ransom. The doctor’s wife then drove into Tijuana, followed the kidnappers’ purposely convoluted directions, and left the cash in a duffel bag in her car and walked away, with the doors unlocked and the keys on the driver’s seat. Moments later two men in their 30s, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, came out of the bushes. One grabbed the bag as the other threw her car keys under a nearby parked car.

They were part of what the FBI believes are at least a dozen well-financed crime groups working in Tijuana, organized like terrorist cells, with clear-cut divisions of labor. The guys waiting in the bushes were the bagmen, while their cohorts handled other tasks: surveillance, abduction, guarding the victim in safe houses, ransom negotiations; if necessary, there are others who cut off fingers and ears or kill a victim when relatives can’t pay enough – or pay fast enough. “This is not about getting revenge on some drug rival or government soldier,” says Alex Horan, who directs the FBI’s violent crime unit in San Diego. “This is a business, and it’s all about the money. They know who they’re after, and they do this all year long.”

After the woman dropped off the ransom, the kidnappers refused to release her husband, demanding more money. Again she begged friends and family for help, and again she drove across the border and dropped the money off, in a bag, as directed.

A year later she still hasn’t heard from her husband. “I knew the first time I dropped off the money that they had probably killed him,” she says, tearing up, “because they wouldn’t let me talk to him. But I kept hoping he was still alive and would come back to us. That’s what these kidnappers count on – our love and hope.”

Plomo o plata. Lead or silver. Honest cops in Tijuana face this choice every day. “Even if you’re righteous and don’t want to cooperate with the mob, you don’t have a choice,” says my chatty cop. “If you don’t cooperate, they’ll kill you.” That’s what happened to a district commander, his wife, and their 11-year-old daughter. They were gunned down in January of last year, and the message was clear: No one is safe from us. Cooperate or die. Plomo o plata.

In January 2007 the Mexican army confiscated the guns of every TJ police officer to determine if they had been used in any unsolved murders. Ten days later the guns were returned, but by then more than half the force had quit. The results of the forensics tests were never released, but 500 cops were fired.

Not surprisingly, police commander is not exactly an easy position to fill. Days before Alberto Capella was to start as the new public safety director last year, a dozen heavily armed gunmen dressed entirely in black surrounded his home early one morning and opened fire with automatic weapons. He survived the attack. But now he’s gone, fired last December when 37 people were killed over a weekend.Police are now carefully vetted with polygraphs, psych evaluations, drug tests, and thorough financial checks. “But it’s not enough,” a top federal official working on the drug wars says candidly. “Mexico’s problems will only begin to change when the entire legal and law enforcement system is cleaned of corruption, which is not an easy thing to do.” This official is one of just 17 exhaustively vetted agents chosen by President Calderón to fan out across the country and oversee all city and state police.

The Halls were sprawled facedown in that ditch for five minutes before they noticed how quiet it had become. Chris no longer heard the rough idle of his truck, so he cautiously lifted his head and looked around. Their attackers had fled with his truck and trailer.

In the dark and dense fog, it took the Halls two hours to find their way back to civilization, walking and stumbling on brambles and rocks, blood covering their feet and legs. Finally, in the distance, they saw a light and heard dogs barking. They called out, pleading for help. Instead, someone fired two shots at them.

The Halls trudged on and came upon a row of houses near the coastal highway; they knocked on a dozen doors before a woman let them in. She offered to call the police, but Chris yelled, “No, don’t call the police!” Chris, Debra, Divinia, and Tyler cleaned themselves up as best they could, and made it to the border, where they borrowed a quarter from a stranger at a McDonald’s and called a cousin collect in San Diego, who drove down to pick them up.

More than a year after the incident, the Halls still have nightmares and tear up when they talk about it, even in the safety of their home, in which they recently installed an elaborate security system. They no longer believe that their abductors will be captured or that the Baja state police ever really looked for them.

They are still afraid the gunmen will slip across the border and kill them – they have the Halls’ home address from the driver’s licenses they stole. In October, Arizona sheriff deputies found Chris’s truck in the desert outside Yuma, filthy and full of dents and scratches, its windows painted black. It had been used to smuggle illegals into the U.S. Someone is still making charges on the stolen credit cards the Halls cancelled the minute they got back; most businesses in Mexico use the old paper-slide charge machines, so there’s no instant check by phone or computer. The Halls’ Citibank, Amex, and Home Depot cards were recently used in Tijuana to buy clothes and shoes, a night at Ensenada’s Hotel Coral and Marina, and a $2,200 meal.

In all, with the stolen cash, jewelry, and the truck and trailer, the Halls have lost $120,000. “But they robbed us of something more precious than physical stuff,” says Debra. “They took Mexico from us. We loved Mexico, and now we’ll never go back.”

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