Tijuana Photo Trouble
Posted on April 28, 2008
So in honor of yesterday’s cartel shootout on the streets of Tijuana, I thought I would explain what happened to me the last time I visited this city while working on a project.
I love Mexico, and for the most part, I have had great experiences while working there.
Border cities are major transition zones, not just in Mexico, and you know when you visit these places you are, chances are, going to run into the best and worst of humanity in need and in transition.
I drove to Tijuana to continue a project called, “Dogs Can’t Read,” a look at dogs and graffiti in four cities around the world.
I had been to TJ many times before, but it had been a while since I had walked the streets.
Driving down early I parked near the border on the San Diego side and walked over, my normal procedure when I work along the border.
I try to keep a low profile, working with one small camera and lens, a second, strictly as backup in my non-photo backpack. I look no different than a tourist down for the day looking for a ceramic Bart Simpson.
I realize immediately that something had changed in TJ. The dogs were gone. During my research I read about aid groups who had started foundations in the city to save the wild dogs, and it was apparent that they had been making a significant impact, a bummer for my story, but more importantly, great for the dogs.
I had my walking shoes on and headed due South, toward the mountains, figured I would just have to walk much further to get what I needed.
Tijuana, like most other cities in the world, is covered with graffiti. The spray in TJ is unique to the border world, and very unlike what you would find in New York or Paris. The messages here are political, but based on the most basic of human needs and rights. There are gang signs, but they are weaker and are simply there as ways of telling the viewer where the taggers are looking for inspiration.
I hit the mountains, headed East, and slowly began picking up more and more dogs. After a few hours I found myself in West TJ, and decided to head back toward the border crossing.
Shortly after making the turn I began to feel a little more on my guard, you know the feeling when you can just feel the energy in the air and know you are in a place where you need to be more alert.
The streets were broad, wide and gated, and there were NO people on the street. I ducked into a store, which ironically had a dog out front, and asked the owner, “Hey, what is up with this neighborhood?” “You need to watch out gringo,” he said and shook his head.
I stood inside the store for a minute, just scanning the street, watching, waiting. Nobody. Zero. Dead quiet.
I walked out, photographed the dog, then headed East, walking on the sidewalk.
About twenty yards up the street there was a gap in the fence to my right, and the moment I passed I notice motion and three guys came through the hole.
I knew right away this was bad news.
They walked passed me, much closer and faster than they should have, and kept going.
I took the camera in my right hand and wrapped the strap tighter and tighter around my right wrist and held the camera in my right hand like I was holding a hammer.
The guys got about ten feet in front of me, scanned the street and turned around to face me.
“What are you doing gringo?” they asked.
“Working on a project about dogs,” I said, in Spanish, and then immediately asked them about World Cup soccer, thinking I could change the subject and move on.
It didn’t work.
They came closer, a large guy, a medium guy and a small guy.
Okay, at this point, I knew this was not going to work out verbally. I made a quick assessment. The large guy looked fat and slow and was already sweating like crazy. The small guy was, well, small, but the middle guy was the real issue. He was the one doing the talking and he was wired.
I made the mental decision that if and when this little “event” went South, he was going to get my Contax mashed in his face. I can’t tell you what a horrible feeling this was, and I DETEST violence and fighting. I figure if it comes to this, both parties have failed in basic human relations. But, within a few seconds I knew I was going to have to do something drastic.
The idea of my project, getting images, etc, was gone, and all I could think about now was what to do first, where to run and how to get out of this. Nobody knew where I was, other than that I was in TJ. If something happened to me here, it would be a long while before things were settled.
The guy in the middle started to make his move, just beginning the move to grab me. My right arm began to cock back, and suddenly there was an odd noise.
Screeching brakes, metal doors sliding and trigger mechanisms, or what sounded like trigger mechanisms sliding into place.
My three new friends had their hands in the air and their faces did not look as happy as they did moments before.
To my left was a full-size van, the sliding passenger door was open and the driver and passenger, both wearing black ski masks, were standing in the street with automatic weapons pointed at me, and at the three amigos.
It was, I think, Grupo Alpha, the anti-drug police that call TJ home. Now typically, you want to avoid these boys. I’ve had friends who have had issues with them in the past, and GA basically does what they want. These are the guys that wear the ski-masks, ropes and hang off the back of the assault trucks as they drive through TJ. Unless you are working with them, it’s best to just get out of the way.
The passenger began stuffing the three guys into a tiny, metal cage in the back of the van, and the driver, with one arm on his rifle and the other hand stretched out to me kept saying, “Okay gringo, get in the van.”
I knew that if I got in that cage it would be a LONG day and probably NIGHT and DAY and NIGHT, etc.
“Sorry, I’m not getting in the van,” I said. I explained what I was doing, started rambling about dogs and graffiti, in Spanish mind you, and thought if I just kept talking he would get frustrated with my horrible Spanish and let me go.
His hand kept slowly, really slowly waving, and all I could see was his eyes through the slit in his mask.
“What were you doing with those guys?” he asked.
And then it dawned on me. He thought I was buying dope.
I said, “I don’t know them.” “I’m working on a project about dogs,” while I pulled a business card out of my back pocket.
I handed him the card, kept talking, as he studied my card and kept slowly waving that hand.
Frankly, I was scared. I have no problem admitting that. I’m no thrill seeker, action junkie, risk taker, etc, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Get the f%$# out of here gringo,” he said and lowered his weapon.
“No problemo,” I said and lit out for Zona Norte, the shady area just to the East of where I was standing.
Now normally Zona Norte is sketchy at best, but after my little close call, it felt like lobby at The Four Seasons.
As I walked away I glanced back as the cage door shut on the three guys, and I actually felt bad for what they had to be going through.
For the rest of the day I kept to the Zone, Central TJ and actually made most of the better pictures.
This experience has not altered my view of Tijuana, Mexico or the border areas. I wa
s an outsider on foreign soil. Nobody asked me to be there, and there are many people in the border area who are really hurting. When you are hurting you do what you have to do.
This wasn’t the worst situation I’ve been in, not by a longshot, and I don’t suppose it will be my last.
The cartel war will ultimately punish the locals more than anyone else, those civilians caught in the middle.
This cartel war is three years old and I have seen virtually NOTHING in terms of coverage.
Let’s hope there are photographers out there covering this time in history.