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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

U.S. a haven for Tijuana elite

Kidnappings and drug violence lead to an exodus and what some call a gilded colony in San Diego County.

June 07, 2008|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer
  • Erik Hernandez washes the car of a Tijuana businessman in Eastlake. Hernandez, who commutes daily from a poor area of Tijuana, says he works all day for Mexicans who demand anonymity and pay well.
Erik Hernandez washes the car of a Tijuana businessman in Eastlake. Hernandez,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

The Plascencia family boasts the brand name for fine dining in Tijuana. Their showcase restaurant -- Villa Saverios -- is a foodie destination, its elegant dining room a gathering spot for the city's political and social elite.

But the family's success has also drawn other attention.

Three years ago, gunmen tried to kidnap chef Javier Plascencia's younger brother. A year later they tried again but, in a case of mistaken identity, snatched the wrong man.

Enough close calls, the family decided.

Nearly 40 years after they opened their first Tijuana restaurant, the entire extended family -- 18 people, including Javier Plascencia's wife and four children -- moved across the border to a suburb southeast of San Diego.

Such migrations have become increasingly common in metropolitan areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, as the ongoing violence of a brutal drug war has disrupted lives from Tijuana to Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Texas. The Mexican government has sent more than 3,000 troops into Tijuana in the last 1 1/2 years, and on several occasions soldiers have shot it out with drug cartel gunmen on residential streets.

"San Diego is the only place you can forget the sense of insecurity and fear. There, you can breathe. Psychologically, crossing the border relieves the stress," said Guillermo Alonso Meneses, a professor of cultural studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

In San Diego County, the Plascencias opened a new restaurant, brought in their violinist and piano player, and found that they had no shortage of customers. Romesco was soon full of others who had fled the growing violence in Tijuana, including members of the city's most prominent families.

Real estate agents, business owners and victims groups estimate that more than 1,000 Tijuana families -- including those of doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officials, Lucha Libre wrestlers and business owners -- have made this move in recent years as the drug- fueled violence has worsened.

People have arrived in south San Diego County with only the clothes on their back. Kidnapping victims released after lengthy captivities have shown up long-haired and disheveled, sometimes with fresh wounds.

Real estate agents tell of clients with fingers missing, sliced off by kidnappers who sent them to relatives as proof the victims were alive.

The presence of the immigrants, most in the U.S. legally, is unmistakable in the many gated, master-planned communities of eastern Chula Vista, where parking lots for upscale stores and spas are sprinkled with Baja California license plates.

So many upper-class Mexican families live in the Eastlake neighborhood and Bonita, an unincorporated community adjacent to Chula Vista, that residents say the area is becoming a gilded colony of Mexicans, where speaking English is optional and people can breathe easy cruising around in their Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs.

"I always say that Eastlake is the city with the highest standard of living in all of Mexico," joked Enrique Hernandez Pulido, a San Diego-based attorney with many Mexican emigre clients.

Kidnappings rampant

Tijuana suffers more kidnappings than almost any other city outside Baghdad, according to a global security firm that handles ransom negotiations south of the border. And a crime wave that started three years ago has only intensified. Most abductions are not reported to authorities, but victim support groups and others estimate the number in the hundreds in the last three to four years.

Experts say the Mexican government's crackdown on drug cartels may have inadvertently intensified the problem. With Tijuana's major organized crime group, the Arellano Felix drug cartel, ravaged by arrests and killings, cartel lieutenants have been turning more and more to kidnappings to supplement their dwindling drug profits.

Heavily armed gunmen, often wearing federal police uniforms, snatch people from shopping centers, restaurants, country clubs. The victims are warehoused in networks of safe houses and often shackled and put in group cages until ransoms are paid.

Some families have seen loved ones abducted, released, then abducted again. Many of the kidnapped have been killed, even after large ransoms have been paid. The threat has forced many families that have stayed in Tijuana to employ large security details, bar their doors and windows and retreat behind thick gates or high walls in the Chapultepec Hills.

These days, the drug war's spiraling violence keeps people away from Tijuana's restaurant row on Sanchez Taboada Boulevard. Bodyguards shadow children to and from school. About half of the businesses on Avenida Revolucion, the city's downtown tourist district, have been shuttered.

Fleeing in fear

Some people must take flight suddenly.

One prominent attorney, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, drove from his office directly to the border with a police escort after being notified that kidnappers planned to kill him for speaking out against the crime wave.

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