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ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE WORLD 2009

Arrests of Americans in Tijuana are up in 2008, but drop in other foreign cities

Experts can't explain why the Mexican city bucked the trend.

February 08, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

Despite all the tourists scared away by the bloody struggle between Tijuana police and Mexican drug lords, Tijuana continues to lead the world in arrests of Americans abroad.

In fact, arrests there increased in the last year, while figures were falling in the rest of Mexico and the world. The contrast perplexes even some experts.

"It's a statistician's nightmare," said David A. Shirk, professor of political science and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

In the year ended Sept. 30, 687 Americans were arrested in Tijuana, according to U.S. State Department statistics requested by the Los Angeles Times.

That figure far exceeds numbers for runners-up: London (274 arrests), Mexico City (142) and Hong Kong (107).

Worldwide, the State Department's embassies and consulates reported a decrease in American arrests: from 4,456 in 2006 to 3,125 from October 2007 through September 2008.

Mexico has six of the world's top 13 cities for American arrests. But the State Department tally shows arrests in Guadalajara fell from 416 in 2006 to 50 in the latest period. In Nuevo Laredo, they fell from 359 to 69; in Mexico City, from 208 to 142; in Nogales, from 96 to 76. In Ciudad Juarez, where the number was fewer than 90 in 2006, the most recent count was 58.

The newest Tijuana numbers, on the other hand, represent an increase of nearly a third from 2006, when a world-leading 520 Americans were reported arrested in or near the city.

"It's an interesting puzzlement," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. "The first thing I, as a social scientist, would say is, 'Have they changed the method of data collection?' If you can rule that out, you'd have to look at changes in tactics by anybody who does law enforcement."

U.S. officials said they were unaware of any changes in Mexican arrest-reporting procedures.

"That blip might just reflect more policing," said Michael Dear, a geo- graphy professor at USC who has been studying the U.S.-Mexican border for the last 10 years. He noted that Tijuana is "a city that's now significantly more policed than it's ever been."

State Department officials declined to speculate on what might be behind the numbers. They also offered no specifics on which crimes were connected with the Mexican arrests, nor would they say how many of those arrested were jailed.

But they did estimate that fewer than 10 of Tijuana's U.S. citizen arrests were connected to the drug-trade violence of the last year.

The usual causes of American arrests, U.S. and Mexican officials agree, are drunk and disorderly behavior, involvement in a traffic accident, possession of a firearm and drug trafficking (which can mean possession of small amounts of forbidden substances, not necessarily linked to the region's warring drug cartels).

To a large degree, the placement of Tijuana and Mexico atop the arrest list reflects long-standing social dynamics. Mexico is a leading foreign destination for American travelers, its 19.4 million overnight visits in 2007 far surpassing Canada's 13.4 million visits. (No Canadian city reported more than 35 arrests in the most recent count.) Moreover, U.S. officials estimate that as many as 125,000 U.S. and dual citizens live on the Mexican side of the border in Baja California, a figure largely unchanged by the recent increase in Tijuana violence.

And finally, for nearly a century, American visitors -- especially those younger than 21, who can drink legally in Mexico -- have headed to the bars and strip clubs near Avenida Revolucion for thrills forbidden in the U.S.

Many of them don't know or don't care that Mexican gun and drug laws, like Canadian gun and drug laws, are stiffer than those in the U.S.

But in the last year, escalating violence in Tijuana has changed many traditional patterns. In the first nine months of last year, Baja California state officials reported more than 400 violent deaths in the Tijuana area. Since late September, more than 500 additional bodies have turned up, many of them decapitated.

Though solid Tijuana tourism statistics are hard to come by, a downtown merchants association reported early last year that visitor volume had fallen 90% since 2005, when the number was estimated at 4.5 million yearly.

Tijuana tourism officials avoided theorizing about the new arrest statistics and were unwilling or unable to provide figures on overall tourism.

"There is a battle among drug cartels, and all three levels of government are fighting organized crime and therefore the current events," Juan Saldana, marketing manager for the Tijuana Convention & Visitors Bureau, wrote in an e-mail. "I can also assure you that visitors and tourists are not targets of this, and that we, the people of Tijuana, go about our daily lives as usual."

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