- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

TIJUANA, Mexico

Drug dealer Hector Rodriguez Estrada had a feeling he was next. His boss was beaten to death and dumped in an empty lot, his teeth and fingers missing. Then one of Mr. Rodriguez’s underlings turned up in a soccer field, his head next to his body.

Mr. Rodriguez, 30, knew his enemies could only get him if he was asleep or high. But the thought made the longtime addict, who sold methamphetamine in his eastern Tijuana neighborhood, more jittery than usual.

“He felt like something was about to happen,” said his mother, Maria de la Luz Estrada.

With good reason.

Much attention is given to Mexican drug cartels warring over lucrative transport routes to the United States. But more and more, they’re battling for an exploding number of Mexican consumers, a market that barely existed a decade ago. While the United States is expected to remain the largest and most coveted market, local consumers are a big and rapidly growing source of cash.

That makes street dealers like Mr. Rodriguez prime targets for assassins. Low-level sellers are easy prey for rivals seeking to expand turf because they work openly on street corners without bodyguards or armored cars.

Drug dealers account for many of the 10,800 people killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began a crackdown on cartels in 2006 - particularly in border cities, where the battles are fiercest. In Tijuana, they fill at least 90 percent of the body bags, according to top law enforcement officials.

It’s much like gang warfare over drugs in the United States, said Rafael Reyes, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief of enforcement for Mexico and Central America.

“You have the Bloods and the Crips battling over drug turf,” he said.

Mr. Rodriguez fit the profile for his line of work; he is the third of four children from a poor Tijuana family. His mother sold clothes on the street. His father, plagued by mental illness, worked in the United States but sent little money home.

On the streets where Mr. Rodriguez grew up - and came to control drug sales - he was known as “the Russian” for his curly red hair, or “Freckles,” a natural fighter who began smoking marijuana around age 12 and shooting heroin three years later. He was in and out of prison for petty crimes.

To Mrs. de la Luz, he was her favorite child, helping to pay her electric bills and bringing her flowers on Mother’s Day, even after she moved away from the family home. He was the child who wanted things to be different.

“I’m going to work hard so that you don’t have to struggle and your house has everything,” he told his mother. “He was the only one who helped me,” she said.

But livelihood for someone like Mr. Rodriguez means drug dealing, which is all around the aging, graffiti-strewn homes, office buildings and maquiladoras - assembly plants for manufactured goods headed to the United States.

“When you live by the sea, you look for fish,” said Samuel Rodriguez, his older brother. “It’s work.”

No one knows to what extent Mexican consumers account for the billions of dollars the country’s drug gangs collect annually. A crackdown on meth production in the United States in the 1990s spawned labs in Mexico, where drug gangs found a natural market, experts say. Heightened U.S. border security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks only encouraged cartels to expand sales at home.

Mexico counted 460,000 drug addicts in a preliminary government survey last year, up more than 50 percent from 2002, a figure that will likely rise when the revised tally is released.

Mr. Rodriguez started his business in the two-bedroom, prefab home where the family lived for 24 years. Samuel Rodriguez said his younger brother aspired to be like the Arellano Felix brothers, the Tijuana-based founders of one of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartels.

His stints in prison put him in touch with important drug runners, and he used his contacts to move up from corner dealing to managing a handful of dealers when he got out.

Low-level dealers make about $20 a day on 100 hits of methamphetamine, said Julian Leyzaola, Tijuana’s public-safety secretary. Many opt to be paid in drugs instead to support their habits.

That’s a handsome wage in hardscrabble neighborhoods where bricklayers earn the equivalent of $5 a day and factory workers make $60 a week, said the Rev. Raymundo Reyna, a popular Tijuana radio host whose Roman Catholic church is in an area hit hard by murderous drug gangs. Drug peddlers drive cars with music blaring and splurge on new clothes and cowboy boots.

“It’s a status symbol that I now have money,” Father Reyna said. “Look, I have a car. I have a watch.”

Mr. Rodriguez lived modestly, shunning restaurants and fancy clubs. He gave his family a few pesos here and there and drove an old pickup truck for a long time before trading up to a used, late 1990s Ford Taurus.

“He never had money in his pocket,” said his father, Jose Francisco Rodriguez Ruiz.

After Mr. Rodriguez finished his last jail stint, this time for a home invasion, the drug war was heating up in Tijuana. It was early 2008. The Arellano Felix gang had split into warring factions after the founding brothers were arrested or killed, and troops sent by Mr. Calderon tried to exploit the leadership void.

Two rivals emerged: Fernando Sanchez Arellano of the Arrellano Felix family and Teodoro Garcia Simental, a renegade lieutenant who broke away in an April 2008 shootout that left 14 dead.

Mr. Garcia, known as “El Teo,” was more zealous than Mr. Sanchez about killing street-corner peddlers as he tried to solidify his control of eastern Tijuana, said Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica, the Mexican army commander who oversees the city.

The rivalry caused many of the 443 murders during the final three months of last year. Bodies were often left scrawled with messages to the opposing gang: “Here are your people, pick them up.”

“They are the economic foundation,” Mr. Leyzaola said of the small-time dealers. “If you want to knock down a building … you hit the ground floor, and the building will fall.”

Twelve corpses - seven without tongues - showed up in September across from a school not far from Mr. Rodriguez’s house. Nine severed heads turned up in a nearby empty lot in November, their eyes and mouths wrapped in tape.

“It smelled like a graveyard,” Samuel Rodriguez said of the neighborhood.

Mr. Rodriguez’s family didn’t know who he worked for, other than “Gabi,” the boss who turned up dead last year without fingers or teeth. Often the dealers don’t know who they work for, either.

The family only saw Mr. Rodriguez grow more paranoid, looking over his shoulder frequently and asking his mother if she saw anything behind him.

By December, just after one of his associates turned up without a head, Mr. Rodriguez talked about quitting drugs altogether. His new girlfriend, Arecely Lizarraga Lopez, 28, was pregnant with his first child, and Mr. Rodriguez was excited. He introduced her to his mother, saying, “What do you think of her? I’m going to get married.”

Mrs. de la Luz, who had left the family home, moved back to a vacant house across the street with her youngest son, Miguel, to keep an eye on Mr. Rodriguez.

At 1 a.m. on Jan. 10, she crossed the street to check on her son. He told her he was tired and walked her back home. Around 5 a.m., Miguel Rodriguez heard several bangs but paid little attention.

Later that morning, the family found Mr. Rodriguez just as he had predicted. He was shot dead in his sleep, along with his pregnant girlfriend, their blood spattering the walls of the sun-starved bedroom.


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