In 1996, the Republican National Convention put San Diego in the spotlight. Some 30,000 people crowded into the city’s hotels and conference halls.
Tijuana’s boosters hoped to lure some of them across the border to shop and eat.
They also hoped some of the journalists assigned to cover the convention would venture into Tijuana — and send back positive stories about what they saw.
A U.S. public relations firm was hired. The streets downtown were swept. A promotional video was prepared.
Late on a Saturday afternoon the day before the convention, I drove three of my Tijuana colleagues across the border for a lavish media party. It was hosted by my newspaper’s Republican owner.
My car was tiny and there was barely enough room for all four of us.
I drove in circles through downtown San Diego, feeling anxious. Everything seemed unfamiliar, so different from Tijuana.
On that Saturday evening — while my friends and I were enjoying live music and fireworks over San Diego Bay — something was happening in Tijuana. Something that would dash its grand hopes of attracting those Republican tourists.
A Japanese businessman was kidnapped. A man with the nickname “Mr. Sweet.”
The Japanese businessman was 58-year-old Mamoru Konno. He was vice president of Sanyo Video Components, one of Tijuana’s largest assembly plants.
Konno lived in San Diego County and crossed the border to go to work. Employees called him “Mr. Sweet” because he often passed out candy.
Konno drove into Tijuana that Saturday afternoon to cheer for his company’s baseball team.
After the game, he walked to his car with an employee and her sister. Two vehicles blocked his Cadillac. Then gunmen jumped out and abducted them.
The women were released the next morning. But the kidnappers demanded $2 million in ransom for Konno.
The story was explosive.
A foreign executive had been kidnapped. And the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Globalization was in full swing in those days. And Tijuana was a booming manufacturing hub.
Foreign companies had built large, flat buildings in industrial parks across the city. Their products — often electronics — were going to U.S. consumers.
The plants were called maquiladoras, and the city had hundreds of them, more than anywhere else in Mexico. The pay was low — less than $50 a week for an entry-level worker. But it was a steady job, and employees got government housing credits and health care. Free meals and grocery coupons were often part of the deal.
Sanyo had opened its first factory here in the 1970s. By 1996, it had five maquiladoras and 5,000 employees. They assembled refrigerators, batteries, televisions.
Konno’s kidnapping drew attention to Tijuana. Just not the kind that tourism promoters were counting on.
This was the first known kidnapping of a maquiladora executive in Mexico, and the story went worldwide.
“It makes me feel really bad because you know Tijuana doesn’t kidnap people. There are some people from outside, and they kidnap this Japanese guy, who was a good man,” said José Galicot, the owner of the popular nightclub where the Arellano brothers once partied. He’s also a prominent businessman and a founding member of the city’s Image Committee.
“We were very upset, and there were few things we could do. We didn’t have the tools to find him, so we were just praying to God that he was alive.”
Sanyo paid the ransom. And a week after he was kidnapped, Konno was released.
But by then, the convention was over.
I asked Galicot if he felt the kidnapping caused his efforts to promote the city and its people to fail.
“All the time,” he said. “We are fighting with the bad image, and I am a very optimistic person. They say that an optimist is a guy who sees a light where there is none and the pessimist is the one who turns this off. So I’m optimistic all the time. I’m presenting the good things of the city.
Am I in danger?
Was it dangerous for Americans to visit Tijuana?
Was it dangerous for me to live there?
My friends in the United States often asked me those questions. And I usually told them the same thing.
Yes, horrible things had happened to some people. But not to anyone I knew.
I felt safe in my apartment. I felt safe in my office. I avoided traveling in rough neighborhoods at night. But during the day I drove anywhere in the city, reporting stories or just exploring on my own.
My middleclass Mexican friends didn’t seem especially worried either. In those days, the violent crimes that made the news rarely involved ordinary people like them.
In most of the cases I wrote about, the victims were linked to the drug world. Or they were law enforcement officials who had somehow angered the traffickers.
Once in a while the violence did come close to my world. Uncomfortably close.
A few months before Konno was kidnapped, a former federal prosecutor was jogging on the track at a Tijuana recreation center. It was a place where I often exercised.
Two men came up behind the prosecutor and shot him in the back. He died at the scene.
But once the crime tape was removed and the blood washed off the track, things returned to normal. By the next morning, the runners were back. I went back, too.
My job was keeping me so busy that a neighbor helped me find someone to clean my apartment.
Angela Rangel arrived at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. She was a small woman with a ponytail and wore a shirtwaist dress, white bobby socks and loafers.
She looked to be about my age, in her early 40s. But she barely reached my shoulder, and I’m only 5 foot 4.
To get to my apartment, Angela traveled across town from her hillside neighborhood. She took two taxis that were more like buses. People traveling the same route would squeeze in together.
After the taxi let her out, Angela would walk uphill for 20 minutes — then up two flights of stairs to my door.
She wasted no time getting to work. Beads of sweat formed on her brow as she cleaned nonstop.
When she was done, I drove her back to the two-room house she shared with her husband and three daughters.
It was on an unpaved street and had no running water. To bathe, they heated full buckets on a gas burner or on a wood fire outside. The toilet was an outhouse.
Like me, Angela came to Tijuana from elsewhere. But that’s where our similarities ended.
She was born in the state of Michoacan, about 1,500 miles from the border.
She was the oldest of 11 children.
When her father fell gravely ill, 16-year-old Angela left for Tijuana to support her parents and siblings. She made the 30-hour bus trip alone and took a job as a live-in housekeeper. Eventually, she met a man from Michoacan and started a family of her own.
Angela cleaned my house every Saturday. Sometimes, she brought her girls to help. Teresa was 17 and pregnant. Angelita was 14, funny, noisy, affectionate and always in motion. Griselda — La Gris — was 15, a middle-school student who spent hours dreamily at the sink.
“It was always something special when my mother would say we’re going to go with my Madrina Sandra,” told me. “We all wanted to come, but we couldn’t all come at once, we had to take turns. … For us it was a chance to have an outing and see something different. When we went for the first time and saw, it all looked so pretty, and when we knew you, even more. You would bring us things, and it was so special, because we were children who had nothing.”
Bit by bit, Angela told me about her life. She had survived uterine cancer. When massive flooding hit the city one year, their canyon neighborhood was cut off and food had to be dropped in by helicopter.
Week after week, she showed up at my place with her stories.
Week after week, I drove her home.
Our lives became interwoven, without really trying.
Angela began inviting me to her family’s parties. She called them convivios, which translates to “live together.”
We’d fill our plates with tortillas, guacamole, beans and carne asada. The thin slabs of beef were grilled by her sisters’ husbands. Someone usually prepared jamaica. It’s a red drink made of hibiscus flowers.
As the setting sun cast long shadows, we’d all sit together outside Angela’s little house. We’d watch the children play, their voices rising with chatter and laughter.
Birthdays. Weddings. Graduations. Children’s Day.
Sometimes we celebrated just because it was Sunday.
Angela made sure I was welcome.
She watched after me, as though I was one more sister.
One day Angela asked me to be La Gris’s madrina, or godmother.
I accepted, of course.
That made me Angela’s comadre. It’s a Mexican form of kinship that can bind even unrelated people tighter than blood.
Still, we used the formal usted when we addressed each other. It’s an old-fashioned sign of respect.
When Teresa’s baby was born, they called her Sandrita, or “little Sandra.”
Nobody said she was named for me. But it seemed to be so. And I was flattered.
Poverty and hope
When I look back on my early years in Tijuana, I realize how little I understood about the city where I lived and worked. About the political, economic and dark underworld forces that were playing out even as ambitious outsiders — like Angela and her sisters—were arriving from Mexico’s interior.
At the time, it all seemed exciting to me, like the Wild West.
I imagined those young families as modern-day pioneers, courageously building shanty towns and persisting through flooding, landslides and cold weather.
They often lived without running water or paved streets. They raised tarps to create classrooms for their children — then they demanded that the state send teachers.
Their lives seemed difficult, yet far from hopeless.
I didn’t see then how hard it would be for them to realize their dreams. That their bravery might not be enough. That the communities they were trying to build would someday become violent battlegrounds — places where neighborhood drug dealers competed to supply local addicts.
Y tú, dónde naciste?
And you, where were you born?
I’ve always dreaded the question. I usually answer Egypt. Then I brace myself for the follow-ups that are sure to come.
For someone who makes a living peering into other people’s lives, I’ve always been reluctant to reveal much about mine.
My father was a U.S. foreign service officer who met my mother when he was posted in Alexandria, Egypt. She was Swiss and Greek, a member of the city’s large European expatriate community.
My two brothers and I accompanied our parents on postings to Turkey, Austria, Switzerland and Syria. In many ways it was a glorious childhood that allowed us to see the world and learn foreign languages.
Yet when we returned to the United States, we often felt foreign ourselves.
I was never quite sure where I fit in.
I think this is part of what led me to the border — the idea that I might find a place for myself in a city where so many people are recent arrivals or on their way to somewhere else.
My brother Charles? Well, he has another notion.
On a visit to a market in Tijuana, I asked him if he thought I was the oddball.
“Yes, I think you were,” he said.
In what sense?
“You were contrarian, and you probably still are,” Charles said.
I asked him if he thought I came to Tijuana because I’m a contrarian.
“No, I think you like struggles,” he answered. “You like challenges, and Tijuana, I’m sure, is a challenge.”
Friendship and music
One September night, my friend Norma and I went to a concert at El Lugar del Nopal. It’s an independent arts space near downtown Tijuana.
A group called Cuarteto Esplandian performed a hauntingly beautiful song composed by Mexico City-based musician Gerardo Tames. Its title — “Tierra Mestiza” — speaks of Mexico’s mixed Spanish and Indigenous heritage.
After the concert, I met one of the guitarists, Francisco Guerrero. His friends called him Paco, and that’s what I called him, too.
Like me, he came to Tijuana in search of something he couldn’t really define.
“It was like casting a bottle into the ocean, because the truth is that things were going very well for me in Mexico City,” Paco said. “I was playing in a duo with piano and guitar. I had a guitar quartet.”
Paco was born in Oaxaca, a state with deeply rooted musical traditions. His family migrated to Mexico City, where he graduated from the National Music School.
He began teaching and performing.
But Paco said something was missing.
And when he was offered a position at a newly formed guitar center in Tijuana, he wasted no time accepting.
“My mother was very upset. She said, ‘What are you going to do there, why are you leaving?’ But there was something in my heart that attracted me very, very, very much.”
Paco’s story reminded me of my own impulsive decision to move to Tijuana.
“The truth is that I didn’t think,” Paco said. “I didn’t even take the time to evaluate the work conditions. The moment they told me, I came very quickly, like a girlfriend who doesn’t even have the ring yet, but she’s already said yes.”
Music with Paco and get-togethers with my other new friends became lifelines.
Gentle hooks that bound me to Tijuana.
But every time I felt I was finally settling in, something happened to remind me that I was far from home.
When my grandmother died in Switzerland, I drove to Hidalgo Market. I bought tomatoes, carrots, onions and parsley — ingredients of the delicious sauce she used to cook.
I poured it over rice. And I ate it alone in my apartment.
Police commander killed
In 1996, a brutal crime rocked Mexico’s law enforcement community and once again put Tijuana in the national spotlight. It made the Arellanos seem more powerful than ever.
That August, a new federal police commander came to Tijuana. He vowed to bring down the cartel and to purge his agency of the corrupt officers who served it.
His name was Ernesto Ibarra Santes.
He traveled around the city with eight heavily armed bodyguards. Yet somehow he seemed fearless.
Most law enforcement officials avoided speaking openly about the Arellanos. But Ibarra Santes told reporters that he knew the whereabouts of the cartel’s leaders.
He knew the names of their accomplices.
And he knew how they laundered money.
My reporter-friend Dora Elena was shocked and intrigued. She requested a one-on-one interview with Ibarra Santes.
To her surprise, he said yes.
”I went there pretty skeptical,” Dora Elena said. “I thought, he’s not going to say much, but it is still worth a try.”
She met Ibarra Santes in his heavily guarded office in the city’s Rio Zone.
“He says, if you assure me that you’re going to publish what I’m going to say, I will talk. So he starts to mention the Arellanos. He speaks above all about their financial connections. And when we’re finished, I tell him, ‘You know, be careful. They’re going to kill you. And he laughs and says, ‘You think so?’ I say, ‘The truth is, what you are saying is very delicate. Are you sure you want us to publish this?’ He says, ‘Publish.’”
Less than a week after that interview, Ibarra Santes and two of his agents flew to Mexico City. They were headed to a meeting at their agency’s headquarters.
It was late when they arrived and they got a cab at the airport. On their way into town, they were ambushed. Gunmen sprayed the taxi with bursts of automatic gunfire.
Ibarra Santes and everyone else in the cab were killed. Including the driver.
”More than anything,” Dora Elena said, “I felt anger and indignation. I was saying, this isn’t right. I felt that a courageous man suffered this consequence because he spoke out. I asked myself, if I hadn’t published, perhaps this would not have happened. But he was prepared to talk. He would have perhaps said it to someone else. He even challenged me and said if you publish, then I’ll give you more information.”
By now, the Arellanos were leading one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico — some said the most powerful.
Their biggest rival was the Sinaloa cartel. Its leaders tried many times to unseat the Arellanos but failed.
The government tried to shut them down too.
And it also failed.
It wasn’t just the Arellanos’ enormous firepower that made them a threat. It was also their money. Massive amounts of money.
“You know there is over $50 million a year that they were spending on bribes in Baja California,” said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego. He follows organized crime in Mexico.
And so whether that’s police chiefs or secretaries of public security or even perhaps people at other high levels of elected office, they were able to keep the wheels greased in a way that allowed them to operate with almost complete impunity in the 1990s.
“Some of the tactical things that they did — working with narco juniors, working with cross-border gangs — I mean those were all key to sort of reinforcing that power. But at the end of the day this is a business. It’s all about making money and finding ways to facilitate that,” Shirk said.
The drama spills across the border
Two weeks after Ibarra Santes was assassinated, two men were arrested on the San Diego side of the border, in the small, wealthy city of Coronado.
One of the men arrested that day was Alfredo Hodoyan. He was the youngest of the Hodoyan family — Adriana’s little brother. They were the Tijuana siblings who grew up down the street from El Arbol — the neighborhood hangout where Ramón Arellano sometimes showed up.
Alfredo was 25 then. More than a decade had passed since he first crossed paths with Ramón.
The U.S. held Alfredo on a weapons charge. But Mexican authorities wanted him extradited to Mexico. They accused him of participating in the murder of Ibarra Santes.
The Hodoyans lived just down the hill from me. But like most people in the neighborhood, I was oblivious to the tragedy unfolding at their comfortable home.
The family was frantic not just because Alfredo had been arrested but because his older brother, Alex, had disappeared on a trip to Guadalajara. When Alex didn’t stay in touch, the family grew alarmed.
“So I think my mom spoke with him like the last time on September 10,” Adriana said. “When the 16th of September passed and Alex didn’t communicate, then she knew something was wrong.”
Adriana said nobody seemed able to help them. Not the police. Not Mexican government officials.
Because the Hodoyan children were dual citizens — they were all born in San Diego — the family turned to the American government for help.
Eventually, Alex was traced to an abandoned military base outside Guadalajara. An agent from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found him chained to a bed and blindfolded.
The agent reported what he found to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. But no action was taken.
No one believed he was a U.S. citizen, Adriana said. “Because he’s dark skinned. And because he spoke Spanish and he didn’t speak English and he didn’t know the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Of the four Hodoyan children, Alex was the only one who wasn’t fully bilingual — the only one who didn’t go to school in San Diego.
The other side
In the 1990s, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border was easy for the tens of thousands of Tijuana residents whose lives spanned both sides of the border. It was almost like driving to another part of town.
I crossed to shop, see friends, visit the doctor, meet editors, go for a swim.
If I avoided rush hour, it took me about 20 minutes to drive through at San Ysidro. It’s the busiest land port in the Western Hemisphere.
I didn’t even show a passport — I’d just say, “American citizen,” and most of the time, I was just waved through.
Crossing was also a comfortable routine for my friend Maria Andrade.
She is a dual U.S. and Mexican citizen who lives in Tijuana and has family on both sides of the border. Her dad used to work in San Diego. To her, San Diego is simply “el otro lado” — the other side.
“So we used to cross like every day. My brothers and sisters, they used to go to San Ysidro just to put gas (in the car), buy milk or to get a hamburger because the border was so available, so fast that we didn’t have any problem crossing.”
Maria and most of my friends have documents — U.S. passports or visas — that allow them to cross into the U.S. legally. But for those trying to cross without papers, the journey was often perilous — especially after 1994.
That’s when the U.S. launched Operation Gatekeeper. It was designed to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into urban San Diego, where hundreds would sometimes rush across in a single night.
The number of illegal crossings into San Diego dropped dramatically. But migrants continued crossing — often taking their chances in the rugged mountain and desert wilderness to the east.
On a cold winter day in January 1997, photographer John Gibbins and I boarded a plane in Tijuana and headed toward southern Mexico.
In the cargo compartment was the body of 19-year-old Alejandro Ramos.
Down below, we could see low mountains wrapped in fog. Alejandro had died just north of there, in the rugged terrain of eastern San Diego County while he was trying to cross illegally into the U.S.
Now Alejandro was going home to Ignacio Ramirez, near the Guatemala border.
It’s a town of dirt roads and brightly painted houses, of men on horseback and families who gather in the shade of palm trees.
Alejandro had moved to New York City when he was 17. He’d come home for a family wedding and was eager to get back to the Bronx. He had a room waiting for him there. And a job as a dishwasher at a fancy Manhattan restaurant.
Alejandro and two of his cousins made their way to Tijuana. Then smugglers led them through the mountainous terrain east of the city and across the border into San Diego County.
They walked for more than a day through snow and freezing rain — until Alejandro could no longer keep up.
The smugglers didn’t want to stop. So one cousin stayed at his side.
And the other walked to find help.
By the time the Border Patrol arrived, Alejandro was dead.
I remember two things about that warm afternoon when Alejandro Ramos’s coffin was returned to his hometown.
I remember the dozens of mourners who held each other and screamed with a pain that seemed too much to bear.
And I remember how John and I were received — as though we were returning family members, not strangers intruding on their grief. They offered us their bedrooms, plates of food, the best fruit from their trees.
Why are you so nice to us, I asked Alejandro’s grandmother. She smiled and answered: Because you brought him back to us.
Coming next week, Chapter 3: A journalist is shot.