Drug wars are turning it into another Colombia

Drug wars are turning Mexico into another Colombia
The Mexican army beefs up its security presence in Tijuana, one of a handful of border cities overwhelmed by violent turf wars among drug cartels. ((Luis Arau/CBC) )

The bulletproof Audi makes for a quiet ride through the noisy streets of Mexico City. Esteban Hernandez expertly steers the car to a stop in the congested traffic, leaving just enough room for us to ram our way out of a lane full of idling vehicles in case we need to make a fast getaway.

It's something he factors into his calculations whenever he's driving.

Hernandez is a Colombian. He was raised on survival skills and now he makes his living from those real-life experiences.

He runs the Latin American operations for Auto Safe — an international leader in the armoured vehicle business. Today, we're on our way to the company's Mexico factory to have a first-hand look at vehicles that are protected against everything from handguns to grenades.

But first we have to survive the daily grind of Mexico City traffic.

Getaway lessons

"What an armoured car gives you," Hernandez says, "is time. It gives you three, four, five minutes to get out of a situation. So you have to know what to do.

"Let's say we have an assault right now, right here. Where should we go? The car has to be strong so I can push this car [in front of us] to the side and go out this way. It has to brake well. You always have to have a full tank of gas. Your tire pressure has to be checked daily and the tires should be protected against bullets so you can keep driving if you're hit."

Hernandez did the same work in Colombia before moving to Mexico 12 years ago. The armoured car market in his native country is dropping off a bit these days, a sign perhaps that Colombians are feeling safer.

But that is not the case here in Mexico. In fact, it's the opposite: business is booming, Hernandez says. Mexicans who can afford it are paying big dollars to protect themselves from heavily-armed kidnapping rings and drug cartels.

Memories of Colombia

For Hernandez, Mexico feels like his native Colombia back in the 1980s and '90s. That's when the drug lords were loaded with cash and were often more powerful and popular than the country's own security forces.

Hernandez isn't the only one who sees the similarities. Experts in both countries talk of  "the Colombianization of Mexico." The phrase can cover everything from how much laundered drug money is flowing through the economy to how many cops and politicians are on the cartel payrolls.

Just like Colombia's infamous Pablo Escobar, drug lords here pave roads, build schools and create jobs in towns the government has ignored. Mexicans write songs about their exploits and the number of people they've killed.

As one Colombian politician told me, that popularity "makes it very hard to fight them."

A decades-long battle

On a recent assignment to Colombia, I met up with a cabinet minister from President Alvaro Uribe's first administration.

"I'm not an expert on Mexico's violence," said former planning minister Santiago Montenegro. "But what I read in the papers and watch on television is the Colombia of the 1980s."

In 1989, three Colombian presidential candidates were assassinated by the cartels. Montenegro says that was when everyone — from politicians to business leaders and citizens in general — realized the situation was so serious that they joined together to fight the gangs.

Still, it took more than a decade for the government in Bogota to wrestle back some control of the country.

With that in mind, I asked Montenegro what Mexico should expect.

"The violence will increase significantly before everyone will come together to fight against these groups," he says. "It will take time."

Battleground Tijuana

A closing-out sale at a shop on Tijuana's Avenida de la Revolucion, where 50 per cent of the shops have closed recently because of the drug wars and lack of tourists. ((Connie Watson/CBC) )

According to the latest count, more than 4,600 people have been murdered in drug-related deaths this year in Mexico. At this rate, cartel killings would double last year's count of 2,500.  

One of the cities under siege is Tijuana, just south of the California city of San Diego. Cartels are fighting amongst themselves there, as well as taking on the Mexican military, to control this gateway to the U.S. market.

As a result, Tijuana residents feel they are living in a war zone. They are afraid to stroll the streets of their own neighbourhoods after dark for fear of being kidnapped or hit in the crossfire. Foreign tourists have disappeared almost entirely.

While I was there, cartel hit squads attacked three seafood restaurants, a fast-food joint and an outdoor taco stand in one week. They didn't just kill their targets. They killed innocent diners and cooks as well.

A teacher and lawyer who has lived in Tijuana all his life told me over lunch last month that he hardly recognizes the city he grew up in. As we sat at a corner table, with our backs to the wall, he said everyone who is able to leave Tijuana is packing up and heading to the U.S.

'Oscar' is 27 and planning his escape from Tijuana. ((Connie Watson/CBC) )

Statistics from the city's Binational Centre for Human Rights back up his claim. They show that in the last seven years, more than 1,000 local families have fled to San Diego.

"It's a new migration phenomenon," says the man who runs the centre, Victor Clark Alfaro. "These people are migrating to the U.S. not because they have economic problems but for security reasons."


Mexico's increasing violence is what is behind Oscar's escape plan.

The 27-year-old migrant worker doesn't want to give his real name. But he says he intends to use the rising insecurity as the basis for a refugee claim in Canada.

First he has to cross the high-security U.S. border here in Tijuana. Then he will head due north and try to get back to Vancouver, where he worked for a time once before.

Mexico's volatility is even making Colombia look better these days by comparison.

Esteban Hernandez says Mexico's insecurity has been a boon for his armoured car business but it's definitely not good for the country or even his own sense of well-being.

There is a fine line, he says, when people with money start making calculations: should they invest in more protection or just leave the country altogether?

Hernandez, in fact, is asking himself the same question. He ponders whether it's time to go home to the relative safety of Colombia.

The daily violence of Mexico "is something I don't like personally," he says, "because I have a family, I have sons, I have a wife. And I don't want them to live what we lived in Colombia."