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Some Visitors Do a Disappearing Act When Journeying to Tijuana

Its seedier areas attract people who vanish forever. Authorities can provide little assistance as desperate families search for answers.

October 13, 2002|Ben Fox | Associated Press Writer

TIJUANA -- Stepping off a ship in San Diego, David Provost headed south into this border city, where rowdy nightclubs have lured young Americans for generations. But Provost, a 20-year-old merchant seaman from Florida, never returned.

More than a month later, authorities have found no trace of him in hospitals, jails or the morgue. Relatives turned up disturbing clues on their own, leaving them fearful and frustrated. His ship, the USNS Bold, set sail without him.

"If David was just out there roaming around, he would have called, asked for money or something," said Pat Provost, his grandmother. "He wouldn't just disappear."

Now, as the family in Lutz, Fla., shops around for private investigators and calls anyone they think might help find Provost, they live in the anguished limbo that has become typical for relatives of people who disappear in the often chaotic and crime-plagued cities of the Mexican border.

No one knows how many Americans are reported missing each year in Mexico. In Tijuana alone, the U.S. Consulate gets about 1,200 requests a year to either find or check on U.S. citizens.

Many of these requests are quickly resolved or become irrelevant when someone who has been reported missing returns from a longer-than-planned vacation.

"Sometimes they never turn up and we never know what happened," said Al Anzaldua, the chief of the U.S. citizen services section at the consulate.

The citizen services section in Tijuana is busier than any other U.S. consulate in the world. On average, five Americans are arrested and one dies in its territory each day, leaving them little time to spend chasing down an adult who has vanished in the sprawling metropolis.

Mexican authorities can offer only limited assistance. In Tijuana, state police themselves are overwhelmed with a high murder rate and a large number of missing adults, many of them migrants from the interior of the country who disappear in the border region.

The Provost family and many others also file missing persons reports with the San Diego police, who can do little more than check area hospitals and contact liaison officers in Mexico.

"I can't do anything. It's another country. Our jurisdiction ends at the border," said Kathy Bolen, an investigator with the San Diego police missing adults unit.

The reports Bolen receives tend to involve men who were last seen in the strip clubs and discos along the main tourist drag, Revolution Avenue, or the even seedier Zona Norte, where prostitution is practiced openly and alcohol is served all night.

A 29-year-old construction worker and bartender, Jeffrey Scolny, left his San Diego apartment for a night out in Tijuana in 1997 and never came home. His mother flew out from New Jersey, posting fliers with his photo and contacting all local authorities, but turned up nothing.

Two years later, a coroner's assistant read an account of Scolny's disappearance in a Mexican newspaper and recognized the description of his jewelry and tattoos of a tiger head and skulls. He checked the records and discovered that the construction worker had been found beaten to death in an alley but had been misclassified as a Mexican and thus never reported to U.S. authorities.

In March, Allen Bigham, a 43-year-old assistant manager of a Home Depot in the San Diego area, took a taxi to Tijuana and hasn't been seen since. His father took all the official steps and sent friends down to post fliers with his photos.

They found no trace of him, and his bank and retirement accounts are untouched, said his father, also named Allen. "If he's been killed, no one seems to know about it," he said.

Provost's family fears that he has been the victim of a crime. Authorities won't speculate about his fate but acknowledge the possibility, given the gritty reality of the border city, which is the base of operations for drug traffickers and immigrant smugglers.

"All kinds of things could have happened," Anzaldua said. "You get everything here from homicides to drug overdoses to all kinds of crime."

In the city of about 1.5 million people, there were about 300 reported homicides last year, many a result of Tijuana's role in the cross-border drug trade. Nearby San Diego, with a roughly equal population, had 51 murders during the same period.

There have been so many problems over the years that the U.S. Marine Corps and the Navy now require junior enlisted personnel to get permission before heading south of the border. They are urged to travel in groups.

Provost, like the rest of the crew on the USNS Bold, was advised to avoid Mexico, according to police and officials with Maersk Line Ltd., a Norfolk, Va., company that operates the ocean surveillance vessel under a contract with the Navy.

A crew member traveled to the edge of Tijuana with him, then turned back when Provost headed off to the main tourist drag, said Bolen, who spoke to the ship's captain. "I think he probably got in over his head," she said. "I don't know where or how."

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