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Seduction of a Generation

July 28, 2002|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR

A HOT DAY IN TIJUANA IS COOLING INTO A GOLDEN SUNSET. BUSINESSWOMAN Guadalupe Gonzalez is helping a customer select the perfect floral teacup from a china showroom that is a fantasia of fine figurines. Delicate swallowtail butterflies rest on china daisies. Mermaids hold out conch shells with tiny freshwater pearls. Porcelain brides and grooms painted in reassuring pastels gaze at each other with bland expressions of matrimonial joy.

The elegant breakables in the tall glass cases seem too fragile for the tale that Gonzalez is telling. It is the story of her daughter Angelica's first marriage. And it was anything but bland.

Angelica Bustamante is the granddaughter of Alfonso Bustamante, Tijuana's Rockefeller, the border pioneer who built the twin business towers that loom over this boomtown. Her path seemed preordained: an adolescence consumed with long days at the Tijuana Country Club, the possibility of college in San Diego, and marriage to another young scion of Tijuana's ruling class.

Instead, when Angelica was 16, she tearfully revealed to her mother that she was pregnant. Her suitor was a rakish 19-year-old unknown with bedroom eyes and a crooked smile, a man known as "Kitty" to his friends. Like Angelica, Kitty partied with a popular crowd of teenagers who studied at the Instituto Mexico, one of Tijuana's exclusive private schools. They were hastily married not long before the birth of their twins in 1988. And that was merely the first chapter in a life never imagined by Angelica's parents.

In May 2001, Arturo "Kitty" Paez, 34, became the first accused lieutenant of the Tijuana drug cartel to be extradited to the United States for cocaine trafficking. U.S. prosecutors say he worked for the notorious Arellano Felix brothers: Benjamin, described by law enforcement authorities as the cartel's chief executive, and Ramon, considered the "enforcer," the man who planned the murders of the cartel's enemies. Authorities on both sides of the border believe the organization was responsible for shipping billions of dollars of cocaine into the United States over the last decade. Benjamin Arellano Felix is currently housed in a high-security prison near Mexico City, awaiting trial on drug-trafficking charges. Ramon was shot to death by Mexican police in February.

Angelica wasn't the only well-to-do Tijuanan to bring a reputed trafficker into the family. In 1986, Ruth Serrano Corona, the granddaughter of a top federal official in Tijuana, married Benjamin Arellano Felix. Ruth was with Benjamin in March when soldiers barged into their house in Puebla and took him away.

And consider the saga of Lina Literas, one of Angelica's best friends, a beautiful young woman whose father's chain of border import stores supplied much of the crystal that graces the tables of Tijuana's elite. After a childhood of ballet lessons and society weddings, Lina married the baby-faced son of a courtly Tijuana colonel who had been a presidential guardsman. Emilio Valdez Mainero seemed an appropriately upper-tier husband, but he too allegedly found employment in the Arellano Felix organization, recruiting 'young assassins who belong to Tijuana's upper class'-some of them his childhood friends. Emilio ended up in a U.S prison, convicted of drug trafficking in 1998. Lina disappeared during the 2000 Thanksgiving weekend and turned up dead.

Gonzalez shakes her head. "So many kids from society got involved with them," she sighs. "All the ladies my age, we all say that's the worst cancer to ever hit Tijuana." That cancer was the cartel.

By the time Ramon was killed in Mazatlan in February, at least 25 young Tijuanans from established families had been killed or jailed in a 15-year period, all because of their connection to the cartel. They were graduates of the finest private schools, at home on both sides of the border, the children of families that knew or were related to some of the most powerful people in Baja California.

Their fate poses an uncomfortable question for this cosmopolitan border city: How did a bunch of kids from Tijuana's wealthiest neighborhoods get mixed up with some of the deadliest men in the hemisphere?

TIJUANA IS THE MEXICAN CITY OF REINVENTION. IN THE LAST 50 YEARS IT has been transformed from a dusty backwater of 65,000 to an electric border boomtown whose official population tops 1 million, though many believe it is twice that size. As in Los Angeles, the past is not taken quite so literally. Once people move to Tijuana, they are pretty much whoever they say they are.

Many people who come to this freewheeling experiment in urbanism shed the reserve and formality of central Mexico. Tijuana citizens have acquired a reputation for being extroverted, unpretentious and open-minded. A large middle class feeds a pulsing youth culture of crowded discos and hip rock bands.

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