Archive for the Mexico / Cartels Category

Posted in Mexico / Cartels on June 6, 2009 by joder24

The Tecate Shack

The Tecate Shack

In 2003 I moved to a trailer park in Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico to chase a lead about American human smugglers. When things got weird there, I moved into a converted taco shack that doubled as a billboard for Tecate Beer (the Budweiser of northern Mexico).


Border Trilogy, Part III – San Diego Magazine

Posted in Mexico / Cartels on June 1, 2009 by joder24

Part III of the three-part Border Trilogy detailing the tragic events of June 20, 2006 in the small town of Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico. The Trilogy is the result of a five-year investigation:

Border Trilogy, Part II – San Diego Magazine

Posted in Mexico / Cartels on May 1, 2009 by joder24

Part II of the three-part Border Trilogy detailing the tragic events of June 20, 2006 in the small town of Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico. The Trilogy is the result of a five-year investigation:

Former U-T reporter’s response to the Border Trilogy

Posted in Mexico / Cartels on April 5, 2009 by joder24

Anna Cearley, the former lead reporter in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Baja Bureau, posted this letter on San Diego Magazine‘s website, in response to Part I of the Border Trilogy:

S.D. Liddick did a fantastic job in revisiting this particularly gruesome case. The story is well researched, the story is skillfully written and the final product provides an insightful look into the issue of drug trafficking, arms trafficking and corruption within Mexican police agencies.

However, Liddick and his editors fail to acknowledge the extensive contributions of other reporters who have written with equally valuable insight and detail about drug trafficking along the border. The San Diego Union-Tribune has written numerous stories illuminating the human impact of of drug trafficking along the border, including a series called “The Other War.” The Los Angeles Times has been tackling this issue particularly aggressively over the past year in their “Mexico Under Siege” project. Local Tijuana reporters such as Dora Elena Cortes have also provided detailed accounts of this complicated topic. I know I am missing others.

By alleging that other “bad newspaper coverage” has resulted in superficial coverage of drug trafficking, the story seems to be trying to set up Liddick’s authority at the expense of others. Let’s be clear: Liddick provides a valuable contribution to border journalism, connecting the dots in this complicated story. But the story, which hints at answers as to why the beheadings took place, ultimately runs into the same challenges faced by countless other border reporters who write about these kinds of crimes. The truth tends to be muddled in rumors, unnamed sources become pillars of reference, and explanations are framed in generalities and anecdotes of the high human cost of drug trafficking.

I have enjoyed Liddick’s stories in the past and look forward to reading more of his excellent work. Collectively, the work of Liddick and other border journalists, provide comprehensive insights into this complicated world.

Anna Cearley,
former border reporter with The San Diego Union-Tribune

* * *


Anna, you were always my favorite border reporter, and I hope life after the Union-Tribune is treating you well. The heart of your objection to “Blood Of Their Brothers: The Border Trilogy, Part I” seems to be with the assessment of local newspaper performance apropos the border (“bad newspaper coverage,” as the article put it). To be sure, the phrase should have included all media (not excluding TV and radio stations, Voice of San Diego, San Diego CityBeat, the Reader, etc.), but space was an issue. But was the term too harsh?

Tijuana is one of Mexico’s biggest, most vital (and violent) plazas, and one of the three major drug thoroughfares into the United States. Drugs and illegal immigration, meanwhile, are two of the biggest and most important stories of this generation. Tijuana, therefore, has a one-third stake in the biggest stories of our time. (The DEA claims that at one point, the Tijuana Cartel was responsible for up to 70 percent of the cocaine crossing into the U.S.) All of which means the news gathering apparatus of San Diego — which is far wealthier, broader and capable than its Tijuana counterpart — has a national obligation to shoulder.

The U-T, a regional paper, has a national obligation because no other outlet is covering this acutely important thoroughfare. Maybe the Los Angeles Times feels some responsibility for it, though until recently it relied on local coverage that was spotty and ineffective (as you point out, the Times has stepped up its game lately). The other major U.S. dailies seem to share the strategic outlook imparted by the foreign editor of The Washington Post — “We’re covering the border region from our Mexico City bureau and we’re doing a good job of it” — something akin to covering D.C. politics from Anchorage, Alaska. The major American dailies have failed at the border because they don’t have intimate contact with it.

They send their reporters to Mexico City (to report from expensive offices and eat at posh restaurants in the Polanco) while the real action of narcopolitics is happening hundreds of miles away in the mountains of Michoacan, and thousands of miles away on ranches in the hinterlands of border towns like Tijuana and Rosarito. Maybe they don’t put their reporters at the border because it’s too dangerous. But that answer is too easy. I suspect they don’t permanently place reporters in places like Tijuana because they’ve ceded, for economic reasons, that line of coverage to the dailies of note in the border regions of Juarez, Tamaulipas and San Diego.

The majors aren’t going to compete with regional dailies that (ostensibly) already have the border covered and dwarf their satellite offices in terms of resources and manpower. The question, then, is to whom have the majors ceded coverage? The facile answer is that they’ve abdicated responsibilities to those Mexican and American regional papers — but that comes with an important caveat. As is pointed out in “Blood Of Their Brothers,” Mexican dailies are already failed.

Two years ago, the Union-Tribune held a panel discussion at its Fashion Valley office complex, which examined border coverage. Several Tijuana reporters spoke and they said something like this: We’re scared for our lives and it directly effects our reporting. Another decorated Tijuana reporter, who moved to Los Angeles to work, echoed his colleagues’ sentiments in a private conversation. Adding to that collective indictment, I have a deep source who was closely involved with the investigation into the assassination of Tijuana Police Chief Federico Benitez.

That source assures me that before Benitez died, he imparted to other officers a number of important figures. One of them was the amount of money he (Benitez) was supposed to be paid by the mafia for his cooperation as the head of the Tijuana plaza — $100,000 a month (which, apparently, was longstanding protocol). Another, lesser-known figure, was $20,000 a month. That, the source said, was the cartel payoff divvied up every month between a number of people related to the newspaper business in Tijuana. That was in 1994.

On their own, the source’s claim and the confession of Tijuana’s own writers condemn that city’s papers to irrelevance and rebuke. But in the larger picture, in light of the fact U.S. major dailies have effectively abandoned continual border coverage (Mexico’s major dailies are so far away they’re a nonfactor in Tijuana), the pressure on U.S. regional papers has ramped up — in fact, their failure would mean a vacuum of coverage at the border. To measure the success of the U-T, a one-third stakeholder in two of the biggest stories of the new century, the Duke Cunningham case might be enlightening.

Cunningham operated a racket of graft in the shadows of Capitol Hill and through obnubilated bank accounts. There were no accusations floating around him (as is the case with Mexican mobsters — which gives anybody investigating them a head start); Cunningham carried out his crimes quietly and with discretion. It took the hard work of a good reporter — Marcus Stern, formerly of the Copley Press — to dig into Cunningham’s property records and cull out some deep truths. A team of U-T reporters doggedly pursued the story and was deservedly rewarded with a Pulitzer.

In comparison, the U.S.-Mexico border (of which San Diego/Tijuana has a huge stake) has been crossed every year for the last two decades by hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and billions of dollars of cocaine. The hometown team, the Tijuana Cartel, has pumped hundreds of millions, likely billions of dollars of cocaine over the border in that time (a border that lies less than 20 miles south of the Union-Tribune’s offices). Since the turn of the century, almost as many Tijuana residents have been executed as Americans have died in the Iraq War, and the region has produced (on both sides of the border) thousands of narco-gangsters since the name Arellano-Felix started popping up around drug shipments in the late 1980s.

All of that proliferation has occurred, as you point out in your letter, in an atmosphere where names, dates and acts are often readily apparent through the rumor mill — it’s not exactly a mystery who’s committing the crimes in Tijuana, or where to begin overturning rocks to get to their identities. The sprawling Union-Tribune has, meanwhile, until the past several years, enjoyed something in the vicinity of the industry standard 20 percent profit margin. Though it’s dwindled of late, the U-T’s newsroom has, for decades, had scores of well-paid people on its payroll.

To all other reporters at the border (independents, freelancers, bloggers, et al.) the resources given to U-T reporters are unimaginable. That’s not counting the paper’s decades-long Rolodex of law enforcement and government contacts; being the daily of note for more than a century lends a paper incalculable clout and cachet. Yet after reading the U-T’s border coverage for six years, I can’t remember an article dealing with organized crime that cited anything but the same three sources (Victor Clark, David Shirk and a wild card here or there), or that didn’t simply restructure a press release and quote a DEA or an FBI source.

In the past two decades, during the explosion of the cartel epidemic in Mexico (in which Tijuana has played a salient role) — with thousands of gangsters and corrupted officials operating freely at any given time — how many organized crime sources have been fostered by Union-Tribune reporters (reporters with incredible assets at their disposal)? How many unique stories were broken about rampant government corruption south of the border? About police forces so compromised the federal government withdrew their weapons? About the sale of 76 first-class government IDs to the cartel, or the savage beheading of three police officers in the small and helpless town of Rosarito?

How much new information was divulged about former Tijuana mayor (and Coronado resident) Jorge Hank Rhon, whose family was called a “significant criminal threat to the United States,” by a leaked American law enforcement report? (The report was later rejected by then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, ostensibly because it hadn’t been vetted by senior intelligence before it was leaked, and so couldn’t be deemed certified.) Going by what I’ve seen as an avid follower of border coverage, the sum answer to all of those questions is zero. In the big picture the weight put on the shoulders of regional dailies in the U.S. is unfairly onerous. In the local picture, the U-T hasn’t carried that weight; arguably, not at all. And yet 20 miles south of the U-T’s multimillion-dollar office complex lies a small weekly paper called Zeta that, week in and week out, explains what’s happening inside Tijuana’s organized crime world, and why.

The U-T would do its readers a greater service by simply translating and reprinting Zeta’s copy every week. Three Zeta editors, of course, have been gunned down (two killed) since the 1980s, for getting too close, for becoming a threat to organized crime — a high price to pay for a civilian media organization. A new question, then, revolves around that price. Has the U-T — which has clearly been retarded in its coverage (why does the paper have a two-person bureau in a Baja region with so much importance and so much intrigue to cover?) — intentionally sacrificed border coverage out of fear?

And if it’s been cowed in this arena, what sector of society will be allowed next to operate without Fourth Estate oversight? Renegade city cops? Local gangbangers? Corrupt politicians? Correctional officers? A bully mayor? Even more disheartening, what if the failure of Tijuana’s newspapers isn’t simply an effect of organized crime, but a contributor to its existence? Only a few people, from inside the organization, know the U-T’s reasons for its restricted coverage south of the border. But if it hasn’t been for fear, it’s been to save money — and either way it’s let organized crime off the hook, which has cost the reading public immeasurably. Whatever the case, the term “bad newspaper coverage” was charitable.

I know you were a dedicated reporter and I think your hands were bound at the U-T (though much of that binding had to do with the notions of objectivity that I know you were in accord with). Regardless, your feedback is valuable and I welcome more exchange here or in any other forum, as I hope improved newspaper coverage (and greater public understanding) will play a role in Calderon’s war against Mexican organized crime. And few people understand the inherent challenges (and frustrations) of border reporting better than you.

s.d. liddick

Border Trilogy, Part I – San Diego Magazine

Posted in Mexico / Cartels with tags , , , , , on April 1, 2009 by joder24

Part I of the three-part Border Trilogy detailing the tragic events of June 20, 2006 in the small town of Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico. The Trilogy is the result of a five-year investigation:

Documentary trailer for the Mexico investigation

Posted in Mexico / Cartels on June 1, 2006 by joder24

This is the trailer for an unfinished documentary treating the collusion of electronic music and Mexico’s world of organized crime:

Worlds Collide – San Diego CityBeat

Posted in Mexico / Cartels on January 1, 2006 by joder24

The collusion of Electronic Music and Mexico’s world of organized crime: