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Cal State system's ban on studying in Tijuana draws protest

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San Diego State is a U.S. university with one foot in Mexico. For years, students pursuing international degrees have attended the hillside campus because a study abroad experience is only a quick trip down Interstate 5.

But studies south of the border are on hold after California State University administrators prohibited all university-sponsored activities in this sprawling city. Drug war violence, they say, poses a threat to visitors. Many students think the only thing threatened now is their education.

"This ban is devastating.… It puts an end to my research here," said Alaina Gallegos, 29, a student of Latin American studies and public health.

Such students as Gallegos, along with faculty and Baja California state officials, are mounting a campaign to overturn the ban, which they say is based on a distorted picture of Tijuana. On Saturday, about 35 students and faculty held a "Solidarity With TJ Day" event in which they partook of everyday Tijuana, not the Tijuana of blood-soaked headlines.

There were no bullhorns or chants at this low-key protest walk around downtown sights, just a passion for Tijuana's diverse offerings. Protesters strolled in alleyway art galleries, picnicked in a park, listened to strolling mariachis and bellied up to taco carts.

"It is striking how normal life is, given the prohibition on working here," said Jim Gerber, director of the university's International Business program.

The cross-border classes were shut down in March by Cal State system Chancellor Charles Reed, who was prompted by a State Department travel warning that included Tijuana among several Mexican cities where U.S. citizens should exercise caution.

"It's something that the chancellor has to weigh and consider very carefully," said Erik Fallis, a Cal State spokesman. "Ultimately, it's the safety and security of students that wins out."

The ban's timing is puzzling to protesters, given that cross-border university activity wasn't banned during the worst of Tijuana's drug wars in 2008 and 2009. Also, the security situation has improved significantly since January, after the arrest of drug cartel figures who were responsible for the massacres and beheadings that dominated headlines.

The State Department's travel warning was issued after a shooting in Ciudad Juarez — across the border from El Paso — where three people connected with the U.S. Consulate were killed. It's unfair, students say, to fault Tijuana for the deteriorating situation 700 miles away.

Other universities, including UC San Diego and the University of San Diego, still sponsor cross-border activities, protesters note.

"The vast majority of crime and violence we've seen in Baja California has not affected the ordinary population," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, which tracks drug cartel violence. "Unless you happen to be a drug trafficker, the odds of being killed as a result of drug trafficking-related violence remain extremely small."

The ban cuts across 13 programs and affects a few hundred students. Political science students can't visit maquiladora laborers. Religious studies students had to stall research on a project to map religious sites. Most affected are students in the Latin American studies department, who visit Tijuana to meet with politicians and human smugglers, and conduct research on drug and immigration issues.

Victor Clark Alfaro, a Tijuana human rights activist who teaches two popular cross-border classes, said the policy wipes out a resource that few other universities can offer: a laboratory for foreign study just minutes away.

"We're not going to be irresponsible as professors and put students in danger," said Clark, who said none of his students have been affected by violence since he started teaching the classes 11 years ago.

Baja California state officials are pressing Cal State administrators to reconsider their decision. They have a meeting scheduled this week, where they plan to invite Reed, the chancellor, to visit Tijuana.

It's not the scary place he perceives it to be, said student Gina Chapa.

"What's at risk is our education, not our lives," she said.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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