Shootout on busy streets Thurs. left 10 dead
Last week, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for Nogales, Son., warning Americans of an increase in violence there.
Thursday, a shootout on two busy Nogales streets between police and sicarios, a name given to members of drug cartels and organized crime, left 10 suspected sicarios dead and injured eight other people, including three police officers. we
The alert and the shootout are the latest in a string of bad news for one of the most popular tourist destinations near southern Arizona. For some time, increased border security has caused long lines at border crossings into the United States. On some holiday weekends, it has taken hours to cross the border.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Homeland Security Department began requiring Americans to show a passport or other proof of citizenship to return to the United States when previously all that was required was an oral declaration of American citizenship.
And the declining American economy has reduced the number of tourists visiting southern Arizona and Nogales.
The State Department alert, accented by Thursday’s gunfire, raises the question of whether the border city is safe to visit.
Tuesday, American tourists and Nogales residents interviewed by the Tucson Citizen said the city was safe, especially in the tourist areas near the border, and that the violence was not bad enough to stop visiting.
Dozens of American tourists wandered the streets of downtown Nogales shopping for arts and crafts.
Others sat in waiting rooms at doctor offices, and a dozen more were seen eating lunch on the patio of one of the many restaurants on the first block, a tourist block, in the border city.
The travel alert was not enough to cause American tourists such as Maggie Gaitley and Mary Wiley to cancel their monthly trip south of the border for “a little shopping.”
Wiley and Gaitley, of Green Valley, said they were aware of the alert but believed they would be safe if they stayed in the first few blocks south of the border and traveled during the day.
The tourist area of Nogales consists of the first dozen square blocks just below the international border.
That’s where most Americans visit and where they are advised to stay because of recent shootings and gruesome slayings taking place on the outskirts of town.
A few blocks south of the tourist area, two Humvees driven by federal police in tan camouflage patrolled the narrow streets Tuesday, and state police carrying AR-15 assault rifles and handguns stood guard at a street corner.
State officers such as these were shot at Thursday morning, said José Larrinaga, a high-ranking state justice official.
The shooting took place about three miles from the tourist area. The initial confrontation led to a high-speed chase and a shootout, Larrinaga said.
Although shootings and other violent confrontations have been constant between police and drug cartel members in the past year, Mexican officials said tourists should not worry because they are taking place on the main highways, streets, and neighborhoods south, east, and west of downtown.
“That means that the tourist blocks are basically exempt from this violence,” Nogales police Commander Martin Francisco Figueroa said.
Because of the increased violence, additional police were brought to the city, mainly to the tourist blocks, he said.
“Nogales had never seen so much police present. It’s hard not to notice us in the city, especially in the past couple months we’ve assigned a special team of tourist police,” Figueroa said.
He is in charge of the tourist square where a team of 25 officers patrols on foot until 10 p.m., in addition to the usual city police officers.
Figueroa walks around the crowded sidewalks each day, shaking hands and chatting with business owners and vendors.
Alejandro Castro is the secretary of the association of vendors for the Municipal Committee of Tourism. He owns Alejandro el Grande, an arts and crafts store in the tourist district.
Vendors, business owners and community members are are working with municipal police to increase safety for visitors, Castro said.
“I would dare to say that downtown Nogales is much safer than other areas in the city and the state, because delinquents have been kicked off these blocks and the violent ones want nothing to do with tourists. They are after other bad guys in the city,” Castro said.
Roberto Centero, who owns a curio shop on Avenida Obregón, the main avenue in the tourist district, said that despite Thursday’s carnage, his shop remained open all day. He said tourists should not be afraid to visit Nogales because the shooting didn’t happen downtown and similar violence has not happened there.
Despite the safety assurances of shop owners and Mexican officials, the alert and the threat of violence is having an effect.
Although about one in every dozen cars near doctor offices and pharmacies in downtown Nogales has an Arizona license plate, some American tourists put off trips and doctor visits in the past week because of the alert.
Dentist Francisco Javier Tapia is president of The Nogales Dental College. He lives in Nogales, Ariz., and crosses the border to his office in Sonora every day.
Some of his patients canceled their appointments last week when the alert came out.
“They were scared, and I don’t blame them, but most of them have been here many times before and know where the bad parts of town are,” Tapia said.
The people being killed are members of rival drug cartels on the outskirts and not American tourists visiting downtown, he said.
“It’s a fight of powers between those involved in drug trafficking; they’re only attacking each other,” Tapia said. “If you’re not involved in anything like that, you shouldn’t worry.”
Gary Logan traveled from Tucson to Nogales for an appointment with Tapia on Tuesday afternoon.
He travels south of the border weekly for business and doctor visits and said that the violence needs to be put in perspective.
“Yes, there’s violence here, but what about Tucson? There are terrible things happening there too, and it’s worse because innocent people are often the victims there.
“I feel like recent events in Nogales have been blown out of proportion. They are mostly violent killings and nobody can deny that, but people who just come to shop and visit haven’t come across that at all,” Logan said. “But what they have come across is an abundance of police officers downtown.”
Homicides up 40%
El Imparcial, the city’s largest daily newspaper, reported that Nogales had the most homicides in Sonora, with more than 83 in 2008 as of Wednesday.
It reported that the bloodiest month was August, with 17 homicides.
That month, three bodies were found decapitated and abandoned in a pickup truck; a day later the three heads were found in a cooler in the city.
This year’s homicides are up 40 percent from 2007, which ended with 50 homicides, according to the newspaper.
Because of the increase in slayings, members of the state and federal police arrived three months ago in Nogales as part of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s increased efforts to eliminate drug violence and organized crime, state officials said.
Christina Fulton, 57, was sitting on a scooter on a Nogales sidewalk Tuesday afternoon, waiting while her friend saw the doctor.
“My friend is a disabled veteran who’s highly overweight with a lot of health problems, and he can’t afford to get liposuction in the States,” Fulton said.
The friend was in Nogales for his first consultation but Fulton said she drives down from Green Valley to see doctors frequently.
“I was laid off a month ago, I have no insurance and can’t afford to see the eye doctor or the dentist in Green Valley,” she said.
Fulton said she often takes her daughters to the doctor and to purchase medication and contact lenses in Nogales.
She was not aware of the alert but said she was aware of the increased violence.
She said she had never seen anything violent happen during her trips.
“There is no place in Tucson where I’d walk around by myself after sunset, so it’s the same here. I come during the day and stay in the tourist area,” Fulton said. “Plus, the people are so nice, so helpful and so considerate that I like coming here.”Violence in Nogales
An increase in patrols by city, state and federal police in Nogales due to the rise in violence among rival drug cartels in Noglaes.
Producer: FRANCISCO MEDINA
(from Jan. to Sept.)
El Imparcial reported 83 homicides as of Thursday, not including that morning’s deadly shootout.
Tucson homicides (within city limits, not counting those killed by law officers):
(as of Thursday)
Nogales’ estimated population is 300,000. Tucson’s is 540,000.
Source: Sonora state police, Tucson Police Department