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Tijuana: In the cartels' shadow

Emilio San Pedro
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Drugs seized from gangs
A Mexican soldier stands guard over packages of seized drugs

In Tijuana armoured military vehicles patrol the streets.

This border city is one of the focal points for Mexico's battle against the country's powerful and violent drugs cartels.

According to the US government, the flow of narcotics to the US from Mexico is worth nearly $14bn (£7bn) a year.

Much of that illicit merchandise passes through Tijuana - the busiest border crossing point to the US, the world's largest market for drugs.

Spreading south

But tighter border controls have pushed Mexico's cartels into developing the domestic drug market.

"There are over 20,000 tienditas , or little shops, throughout the city where people can buy drugs," says local human rights activist, Victor Clark Alfaro.

"It's like a tsunami spreading from the border down to the south of Mexico."

Jose Ramon Arreola
I have seen as much as a 300% increase in the number of children coming to our centre for treatment
Jose Ramon Arreola, Director CIRAD rehabilitation centre

We accompanied Victor as he drove to work with his bodyguard.

He has needed protection since the 1990s when he denounced links between some government employees and the cartels.

Death threats followed.

"Tijuana has an estimated 200,000 drug addicts - the highest level of drug addiction in Mexico", he says.

Of those newly and recently addicted, thousands are believed to be children and teenagers.

"I have seen as much as a 300% increase in the number of children coming to our centre for treatment," says Jose Ramon Arreola, one of the directors of a local rehabilitation centre, CIRAD.

"It's in the interest of the drug dealers to get these kids hooked on drugs early."

Turf wars

He believes children - some as young as eight or nine - have become a vital part of the growing domestic market for the cartels. And it is not only because they are consumers.

"The drug pushers use kids to sell drugs on the streets because they don't draw as much attention from the police," he says.

Nancy - not her real name - started taking drugs at 13. She was a regular user of marijuana, cocaine, crystal meth and various pills before she came to CIRAD.

"I was selling drugs not for profit but simply so that I could afford the drugs I needed," she tells us.

Guns and violence were the norm in her life.

"I was exposed to shoot-outs, because there would be conflicts with other dealers over turf. I was also asked to hide weapons for the man I worked for."

Nearly 1,500 people, including some 400 police officers and other public officials, have been killed this year in Mexico as the cartels battle each other - and the state - for control of the drugs trade.

Of those, 260 have lost their lives in Tijuana, many of them in bloody shoot-outs.

Death threats

The power wielded by the cartels is very real. Nancy didn't want to be identified for fear she or her family might become the victims of reprisals.

Journalists who report on the cartels are also forced to confront that fear.

The press freedoms organisation, Reporters Without Borders, has classified Mexico as the second most dangerous place in the world for journalists after Iraq.

Over breakfast one morning in Tijuana a local journalist tells me about the threats that have been made against him in 20 years reporting from Tijuana.

Odilon Garcia expresses an almost visceral outrage at the cartels' lack of respect for human life, and especially for the impact the culture of violence is having on children.

"What kind of kids can we expect to raise with this kind of violence?" he asks me before sharing an anecdote about a recent encounter with a young boy.

President Felipe Calderon
President Felipe Calderon

The boy had been excited to meet Odilon after seeing him on TV.

He was even more excited by the story Odilon was reporting on: the gruesome decapitation of four people.

To Odilon, this child represented a depressing loss of innocence, an example of the depths to which respect for life has plunged in Mexico.

In an effort to break the power of the drugs cartels, President Felipe Calderon has deployed more than 25, 000 troops on the streets - 3,000 of them to Tijuana and the state of Baja California.

"The army is a necessary, temporary solution," Odilon tells me.

"But the real solution is going to require a change in the way we live here in Mexico, a greater understanding of our reality, a change in the way we think.

"That's going to be the big, big fight in Mexico."

Crossing Continents: Tijuana was broadcast on Thursday, 7 August, 2008 at 1102 BST on BBC Radio 4 and repeated on Monday, 11 August, 2008 at 2030 BST.

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