U.S. a haven for Tijuana elite

Times Staff Writer

The Plascencia family boasts the brand name for fine dining in Tijuana. Their showcase restaurant -- Villa Saverios -- is a foodie destination, its elegant dining room a gathering spot for the city’s political and social elite.

But the family’s success has also drawn other attention.

Three years ago, gunmen tried to kidnap chef Javier Plascencia’s younger brother. A year later they tried again but, in a case of mistaken identity, snatched the wrong man.

Enough close calls, the family decided.

Nearly 40 years after they opened their first Tijuana restaurant, the entire extended family -- 18 people, including Javier Plascencia’s wife and four children -- moved across the border to a suburb southeast of San Diego.


Such migrations have become increasingly common in metropolitan areas along the U.S.-Mexico border, as the ongoing violence of a brutal drug war has disrupted lives from Tijuana to Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Texas. The Mexican government has sent more than 3,000 troops into Tijuana in the last 1 1/2 years, and on several occasions soldiers have shot it out with drug cartel gunmen on residential streets.

“San Diego is the only place you can forget the sense of insecurity and fear. There, you can breathe. Psychologically, crossing the border relieves the stress,” said Guillermo Alonso Meneses, a professor of cultural studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

In San Diego County, the Plascencias opened a new restaurant, brought in their violinist and piano player, and found that they had no shortage of customers. Romesco was soon full of others who had fled the growing violence in Tijuana, including members of the city’s most prominent families.

Real estate agents, business owners and victims groups estimate that more than 1,000 Tijuana families -- including those of doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officials, Lucha Libre wrestlers and business owners -- have made this move in recent years as the drug- fueled violence has worsened.

People have arrived in south San Diego County with only the clothes on their back. Kidnapping victims released after lengthy captivities have shown up long-haired and disheveled, sometimes with fresh wounds.

Real estate agents tell of clients with fingers missing, sliced off by kidnappers who sent them to relatives as proof the victims were alive.

The presence of the immigrants, most in the U.S. legally, is unmistakable in the many gated, master-planned communities of eastern Chula Vista, where parking lots for upscale stores and spas are sprinkled with Baja California license plates.

So many upper-class Mexican families live in the Eastlake neighborhood and Bonita, an unincorporated community adjacent to Chula Vista, that residents say the area is becoming a gilded colony of Mexicans, where speaking English is optional and people can breathe easy cruising around in their Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs.

“I always say that Eastlake is the city with the highest standard of living in all of Mexico,” joked Enrique Hernandez Pulido, a San Diego-based attorney with many Mexican emigre clients.

Kidnappings rampant

Tijuana suffers more kidnappings than almost any other city outside Baghdad, according to a global security firm that handles ransom negotiations south of the border. And a crime wave that started three years ago has only intensified. Most abductions are not reported to authorities, but victim support groups and others estimate the number in the hundreds in the last three to four years.

Experts say the Mexican government’s crackdown on drug cartels may have inadvertently intensified the problem. With Tijuana’s major organized crime group, the Arellano Felix drug cartel, ravaged by arrests and killings, cartel lieutenants have been turning more and more to kidnappings to supplement their dwindling drug profits.

Heavily armed gunmen, often wearing federal police uniforms, snatch people from shopping centers, restaurants, country clubs. The victims are warehoused in networks of safe houses and often shackled and put in group cages until ransoms are paid.

Some families have seen loved ones abducted, released, then abducted again. Many of the kidnapped have been killed, even after large ransoms have been paid. The threat has forced many families that have stayed in Tijuana to employ large security details, bar their doors and windows and retreat behind thick gates or high walls in the Chapultepec Hills.

These days, the drug war’s spiraling violence keeps people away from Tijuana’s restaurant row on Sanchez Taboada Boulevard. Bodyguards shadow children to and from school. About half of the businesses on Avenida Revolucion, the city’s downtown tourist district, have been shuttered.

Fleeing in fear

Some people must take flight suddenly.

One prominent attorney, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, drove from his office directly to the border with a police escort after being notified that kidnappers planned to kill him for speaking out against the crime wave.

He and his family slept on air mattresses and sofa beds in a San Ysidro apartment for weeks until he closed escrow on a home in Eastlake. He shut down his office in a Tijuana high-rise and now works from his American home.

“I had to change cities, houses, countries, offices,” he said. “It’s a life of constant fear.”

In the rolling hills of Eastlake -- only five miles from Mexico up California 125, the new South Bay Expressway toll road -- most of the gated mansions in the $2-million-to-$3-million range have been sold to Tijuana refugees, say real estate agents. Maids cross the border daily to work for families that have recently come north -- both in Eastlake’s mansions and in its lower-priced neighborhoods of large tract homes with red-tile roofs.

Though safely ensconced behind gates or in the cookie-cutter anonymity of manicured American suburbia, many people who leave Tijuana remain tethered to it by business.

Many continue to run their factories or businesses there from a distance, from nondescript office parks in Otay Mesa or Chula Vista. They monitor their employees via closed-circuit camera systems and shuttle messengers back and forth across the border with paperwork and cash.

If they must travel to Tijuana themselves, they take ample precautions -- varying their routes and driving junky cars that they hope will not attract attention.

“They’re running scared. They’re having to do clever things to not be seen crossing the border. They go in different clothes. They go in different cars,” said Father John P. Dolan, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Chula Vista. Dolan said six families in his parish have fallen victim to kidnappings in the last year.

Dr. Fernando Guzman, who was kidnapped in April, said he occasionally commutes by motorcycle across the border to his hospital near downtown Tijuana.

The prominent attorney armor-plated his SUV for $66,000. Another business owner wears a GPS tracking device hidden on his body so that in an emergency his family will be able to determine his location via satellite.

Still, any return to Tijuana is risky. About 30 people from the Chula Vista area who travel back and forth across the border have been kidnapped in the last 1 1/2 years while conducting business or visiting relatives in the Tijuana area, according to the FBI. Some have been killed.

Extraordinary security measures aren’t limited to visits to Mexico. Many families won’t tell even their closest friends their new addresses in San Diego County. Some parents with kids who carpool tell them to get dropped off a few blocks from home and walk the rest of the way.

Homeowners cast wary eyes on nosy landscapers, maids, busboys, members of their health clubs -- fearful that someone will pass along valuable information about them to kidnappers.

A lifestyle adjustment

Many emigres miss their old lifestyles in Tijuana. Accustomed to lives of privilege in Mexico, some had to downsize their tastes to afford the more expensive San Diego suburbs. Some traded customs homes for tract houses. Their social lives, which revolved around country club lunches and all-night parties, have been dialed down in their adopted country of early last calls.

Slowly, an emigre culture is taking root. Golfers tee up at the Eastlake Country Club instead of Tijuana’s Club Campestre. The Vega Caffe in the Eastlake Design District offers carne asada tortas with cappuccino shots. English isn’t an issue in most Eastlake stores, where signs are in Spanish and clerks are bilingual.

Power lunch spots such as Frida Restaurant and Romesco have filled the gaps left by Villa Saverios and Sanborn’s in Tijuana.

For many, Romesco has become the next best thing to an elegant night out south of the border. Its shopping center locale lacks the curb appeal of the Plascencias’ Tuscan-style restaurant on Sanchez Taboada Boulevard. But the fare is familiar: Baja-Mediterranean seafood, featuring olive oils and wines from the Guadalupe Valley.

Plascencia, who recently joined elite chefs at a West Hollywood culinary event called Tables of Ten, says his restaurant offers the kind of gourmet experience that his fellow refugees crave. “The people who come here miss the atmosphere of Tijuana,” he said. “They’re like us. They can’t go back very often.”

Before his infrequent visits to Villa Saverios, he has trusted friends scout the area for suspicious-looking people. He never stays long.

“I can’t play host anymore and say hello to guests,” he said. “I take a quick tour of the kitchen, walk the dining room and come back.”