Tijuana police arrest 35 in crackdown aimed at border safety

A Tijuana police officer arrests a man Sunday on suspicion of showing aggression against drivers waiting in Sentri lane at the San Ysidro border. The Director of Public Safety said 35 people were arrested in an effort to increase border safety for drivers and vendors. (Courtesy of Secretaria de Seguridad Publica)

Tijuana’s Director of Public Safety said those detained have been trying to extort drivers who accidentally get into the SENTRI lane for expedited border crossings

MAY 21, 2019
4:26 PM

Tijuana, Baja California —

Ahead of a long holiday weekend, Tijuana police are cautioning travelers about a group of violent cons who extort money from U.S.-bound drivers stuck in long lines at vehicle border crossings.

Tijuana’s head of public safety said the criminals often disguise themselves as police officers by sewing a police insignia onto their baseball caps or vests. Then they demand money from drivers stuck in checkpoint lines, especially those who have accidentally driven into the wrong vehicle lanes to return to the United States.

More recently, the scams have become aggressive, even violent, with drivers being beaten for refusing to pay, Tijuana police said Tuesday.

“What we’re seeing are cases that are more violent and more constant,” said Marco Sotomayor, the Secretary of Public Safety for Tijuana. “We’re worried someone could end up seriously hurt or with a fatal injury, so we’re taking action to maintain the security at the border.”

Officers arrested 35 people Sunday for allegedly behaving aggressively against drivers queuing in the hours-long line in Mexico to cross into the United States through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

The extortionists offer to help drivers move their car to another lane, demand a payment or “a fine,” and in worst cases, beat travelers or damage their cars if they refuse to pay or move.

One recent video posted on Twitter on May 18 shows a man throwing a beach-ball size rock at the window of a vehicle waiting to cross into the United States.

Street vendors, who are permitted by the city to travel from car to car selling newspapers, snacks, and souvenirs, said Tuesday the extortionists are hurting business.

“These acts of aggression are not being committed by the vendors,” said Sotomayor. “These are people pretending to be vendors, but targeting cars who enter the SENTRI lanes by error.”

SENTRI stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection. They’re designated lanes for pre-approved drivers who obtain clearance through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program and pay a $122 fee. Travelers with a SENTRI pass can typically cross the border by car in 30 minutes or less, while regular lanes can take hours.

There is a potential $5,000 fine in the U.S. for traveling through the SENTRI lane without the pre-approval. Cell phone GPS maps often default to the SENTRI lane, unless a user specifically requests directions to “Ready Lanes” or “all vehicle traffic” lanes.

Once a driver gets into the wrong lane in Mexico, there’s no way to turn back or get out of the long vehicle line because of traffic behind them and concrete barriers.

Usually, U.S. border agents only issue a warning to first-time offenders who drive through the SENTRI lanes without approval.

For years, people in Tijuana have offered to help drivers in the wrong lanes negotiate their car around cones and concrete barriers to the correct lane for a fee or tip. They often convince travelers to move by warning them of the hefty fine or falsely telling them they will detained or they will be denied entry to the U.S.

Until recently, the scofflaws have avoided aggression against tourists or U.S.-bound travelers because they recognize news of violent incidents at the border will impact the number of travelers, thus cutting into their business.

“These people are really bad,” said Julian Hernandez, who sells churros to drivers from a cart he pushes in between cars at the San Ysidro border crossing. “Many people don’t know which way they’re going because there aren’t signs and it isn’t clear, so (the drivers) are already nervous and then they mess with them.”

Hernandez said vendors treat northbound travelers like valued customers.

“If less Americans start coming, that is less people for me to sell to and less money for me,” he said.

Sotomayor said the suspects sometimes falsely dress up as security guards or police.

“It’s dark and they put on a black vest or shirt and they have a badge that says ‘National,’ so if people don’t know, they may think these are real officers. The only law enforcement in the line have uniforms that say ‘Policía Municipal’ or ‘Policía Federal’ and you can always ask to see identification,” said Sotomayor, who added there are no fees on Mexico’s side of the border for drivers in the wrong lanes.

Sotomayor said Tijuana municipal police and Mexican federal police will have a heavy presence at the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa vehicle crossings this weekend.

“This weekend is a holiday weekend in the United States, so there’s going to be a lot of visitors. This is why we have to be prepared, so that people can safely return. Not just that they are not extorted, but also that they aren’t bothered while they’re waiting in the line,” said Sotomayor.

The head of the Tijuana police force and the Baja California prosecutor’s office said the extortion scams were completely unrelated to an incident last Monday when a Utah man ran over several people in a truck during a chaotic police chase. The U.S. driver was contacted by real police officers blocks away and fled, according to prosecutors and police.