“Mica/DrivingMSSQL” for Borderlandbeat.com.
This the Part 3 of 3 from WAPO, “To Live and Die in Tijuana”
Part 1 and Part 2 are here; enjoy!

Chapter 3 | The Federal Agents

The drugs arrived in a garage in an upscale Tijuana
neighborhood, blocks of crystal meth wrapped in plastic in the bed of a pickup truck, kitchen containers of fentanyl in the back seat.

“Where does this stuff go?” asked one of

the movers, clutching a tower of plastic containers with “fentanyl” scrawled in black marker on the side.

He was an agent from the Mexican attorney general’s office, responsible for seizing and holding drugs.

He took a deep breath. The smell from inside the garage was overpowering — enough to knock out a first-timer. It was already full of thousands of pounds of fentanyl, meth, marijuana and heroin.

“Oof,” he grunted.

But there was a more immediate problem for the movers. There was barely any room for the newest load.

The drugs arrive there almost every day from the clandestine laboratories and stash houses that now pepper Tijuana. Others were manufactured farther south, in the state of Sinaloa, and were moved through the city on their way to the border.

The government’s garage of seized narcotics, federal authorities say, is proof of their efforts to stop the flow of drugs and secure evidence for ongoing trials. It fills so quickly that once a month, to make more room, they take thousands of pounds of drugs to a desolate military outpost and set them on fire.

But the fire is as much a spectacle as it is a way to destroy drugs. Local journalists are invited to photograph the agents, who pose in front of the flames.

García has gone several times, watching a plume of narco-smoke rise over the city. Each time, she wondered: “Who are these images meant for?”

Were they an attempt to assure the citizens of Tijuana or prove to the Americans that Mexico was stemming the flow of drugs?

The shift in fentanyl production from China to Mexico in the past several years has flooded the border with synthetic drugs. Seizing labs and narcotics would be a monumental task for any law enforcement agency. But in parts of Mexico, where organized crime often has more power than the government, the more important question has become: Are authorities even trying?

In almost no time, after each incineration, the garage is full again.

And the cartels know exactly where it is. Members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel last year released a video of several gunmen driving by the warehouse. One of them held a gold-plated rifle. It quickly went viral.

“We’re in Tijuana, sons of bitches,” they said. “We’re hunting you down, sons of bitches.”

Fentanyl seizures at the southern border
On four separate high-profile raids, Washington Post reporters watched as Mexican authorities arrived at the alleged homes of fentanyl traffickers and manufacturers, only to find them empty.

“The target left for Sinaloa yesterday apparently,” said one agent, walking back to his car after the most recent of those failed busts, in October.

On their better days, the agents sometimes find pill presses imported from China and barrels full of chemicals used to make fentanyl. The pill presses aren’t illegal; many of them are purchased on the Chinese retail website Alibaba.

After they’re seized, authorities send them to the same warehouse where the piles of drugs are kept. In many cases this evidence is not brought to trial.

It can take days or weeks to get a search warrant from Mexican judges. That’s enough time for information about a planned raid to leak to drug traffickers. Those trafficking synthetic drugs like fentanyl are the least likely to be caught.
That’s in part because of how easy it is to produce and move the pills, which are small and odorless. They are labeled “M-30” — counterfeit versions of the oxycodone pills manufactured by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, based in St. Louis.

Between May 2013 and June this year, the federal government made 462 arrests for fentanyl-related crimes, according to a freedom-of-information request, compared with 116,689 arrests for producing, trafficking or selling large quantities of other drugs during that same time period. In many cases, Mexican authorities seized large loads of fentanyl without arresting anyone.

In October, federal police stopped a white passenger van loaded with 150,000 fentanyl pills and 1,500 pounds of meth outside Ensenada. Authorities watched as the traffickers fled the scene.

“The [traffickers] chose to leave the vehicle when they identified the presence of authorities, dispersing in different directions,” the attorney general’s office wrote in a press release.

The power that drug-trafficking organizations wield is normally difficult to assess. But periodically the scale becomes clear, an invisible army suddenly emerging to strike.

That’s what happened on the afternoon of Aug. 12 in Tijuana. It had begun as an uneventful day in the attorney general’s office, where officers catalogued their most recent fentanyl seizure. Before sunset, the calls started coming in.

Criminals had stolen a public bus and set it on fire. Then a taxi. Then another bus. Within minutes, Tijuana was riddled with narcobloqueos, or cartel road blocks, paralyzing the city and effectively shuttering the world’s busiest land border crossing.

“We’re going to create mayhem so the f—ing government frees our people,” a message that circulated on WhatsApp said. “We’re the Jalisco New Generation cartel. We don’t want to hurt good people, but it’s best they don’t go outside. We’re going to attack anyone we see on the streets these days.”

By midnight, 42 vehicles had been set aflame. It was a rare moment when all of Tijuana was jolted by the same event. The U.S. government ordered diplomats to shelter in place. Factory workers slept under conveyor belts. Bus drivers abandoned their buses for fear that their vehicles would be hijacked.

García covered it live.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said in one broadcast.

José González could see the smoke rising from his encampment near downtown Tijuana. At first, he assumed it was a car accident or a house fire. Then someone nudged him.

“Narcos,” the man said, pointing to the smoke.

José considered the connection between the men who sold him tiny bags of fentanyl powder and those who had just set the city on fire. It was like seeing the true size and power of a machine he knew only superficially.

Chapter 4 | José’s Choice

It was late afternoon when José returned to downtown Tijuana, with more items to sell.

The day’s second attempt to earn 100 pesos began. He added a few new products to his tarp: plastic bags of granola, a few DVDs, two pairs of shoes, a red hat.

He displayed them meticulously on Calle Artículo 123, which had been converted to an open-air market.

He knew his prospects were still bad. The sun was setting and tourists were beginning to pour into Tijuana from across the border. But they didn’t want what he was selling.

They were mostly here for cocktails and cheap tacos and strip clubs.

José leaned against a car and watched the crowds pass by. Other addicts pitched their junk to a mostly uninterested clientele, shouting out prices. José’s approach was more Zen. If they want it, he thought, they’ll come.

Each sale would tilt the scale toward his next hit of fentanyl. Or he would strike out.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.

It might be a sign that he should drag himself to rehab.

Then a man bought a black tank top for 20 pesos. A woman came up and purchased two bags of granola for 20 pesos each.

José looked at them in disbelief.

“It’s always the things you least expect to sell,” he said after they walked away.

Suddenly, he had 60 pesos.

Then a man bought his last two bags of granola. A woman bought a light switch.

One hundred ten pesos in five minutes.

The streak of luck felt impossible.

“Enough to get cured,” he said, and he began rolling up the tarp.

He took a left at a convenience store and met one of his dealers outside a house. He walked away with two tiny bags: one of fentanyl and one of crystal meth. It was his cocktail of choice, which he believed smoothed out the high.

He needed someone to help him shoot up. Normally he would offer a volunteer a taste of his supply for help. But when he walked up to his encampment, the men were either semiconscious or unwilling to help.

“You can’t count on anyone in this place,” he said.

It was getting dark and the neighborhood looked even bleaker. Police cars streaked by with their sirens on.

José wandered toward another heap of garbage next to an alley. An older man, also high, was picking through the trash. José tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would help with the needle.

Across the street, an open-air church service had begun. Families in folding chairs prayed for the junkies. The voice of the pastor blared through loudspeakers.

“God loves you,” he said. “You are the children of God.”

José got on his knees, peering down solemnly.

The needle went in, just above the collar of his T-shirt. The hit was too much for him. He grabbed his knees like he had finished a sprint.

“My heart,” he said to the old man.

“I messed up the dosage,” he said.

He was usually careful. He had only overdosed once, nothing compared with most of the other men.

He took a few deep breaths and swallowed hard.

“I’m okay now,” he said, his eyes wide. He didn’t look okay.

He threw his backpack over his shoulder. He walked back toward the lights of downtown. He had to find a way to make another 100 pesos.