Deportees are linked to Mexico crime rate
Tijuana police blame U.S. felons for robberies, kidnappings and killings
By Anna Cearley
September 12, 2004
PEGGY PEATTIE / Union-Tribune
A Mexican national with a criminal record in the United States was deported Thursday through a separate entrance at the San Ysidro border crossing. U.S. officials say the number of felons deported each year to Mexico has increased in recent years.
Criminal deportee now a shopkeeper
Edward Gutierrez grew up in a Los Angeles suburb where illegal immigrants come to raise their children in hopes of a better life. Gutierrez took a different path, joining a gang and getting in trouble with the law. At 20, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for armed robbery.
Because Gutierrez is a Mexican citizen, the U.S. government deported him eight years later when he was released from custody. He ended up in Tijuana, and promptly became Mexico's problem.
Gutierrez, 31, now sits in a Mexican prison, accused of killing two people in a Tijuana apartment last year. One of the victims also was a deported L.A.-area gang member.
The heavily tattooed Gutierrez, known by his English nickname "Shy Boy," faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted. He declined requests for an interview but says he is innocent.
Mexican authorities in Baja California say they are disturbed by a trend they have noticed in recent years of more criminal deportees living in border communities. They blame some of these deportees, particularly L.A-area gang members, for contributing to Baja California's crime rate.
The number of felons deported each year to Tijuana and Mexicali has grown – from 6,300 in 1995 to 9,500 in 2003, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Mexican police handout
Edward "Shy Boy" Gutierrez was deported and is now charged with killing two people in Tijuana.
The increase is due to 1996 immigration law changes, which widened the definition of which criminals could be deported, according to immigration attorneys and U.S. government officials.
But the recent observation by Mexican authorities also might be due to tighter border security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the past, many deportees were able to quickly cross back into the United States by using their fluent English to talk their way in. Now it's not so easy, and many are deterred because felons can face up to 20 years in prison if caught trying to re-enter.
Once in Mexico, some of the criminal deportees try to eke out an honest living, but Tijuana police blame others for creating gangs and committing armed robberies, kidnappings and killings.
City officials say that even those who were convicted of lesser offenses such as drunken driving or shoplifting in the United States may be tempted to get into more serious trouble out of exasperation.
"Since they don't have any money or identification and no means to work or eat, they get involved in criminal activities, committing assaults and robberies," Tijuana Councilman Alcide Beltrones Rivera said. "The moment they commit these acts here, it costs us to keep them in jail, to feed them and to clothe them."
U.S. to Baja California deportations Deportations* to Baja California have decreased steadily, according to Mexican immigration statistics.**
Criminal deportations to Baja California have increased, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
*A deportation means the case has gone before a U.S. immigration judge. Most migrants caught trying to cross the border waive their right to a hearing and are voluntarily returned to Mexico.
Tijuana and other border cities don't believe that's fair because the deportees, though Mexican citizens, often have little or no connection to those communities.
Some were brought illegally to the United States at a young age from Mexico's interior. Others have worked for years in the United States, where their children and families still live. In some cases, they obtained legal immigration status but put off acquiring U.S. citizenship.
The issue is one of many deportation and repatriation issues that Mexican officials are discussing with their U.S. counterparts.
Mexican officials want the United States to do a better job informing them of criminal deportations so they can arrest any migrants who have pending Mexican warrants and keep an eye on the rest.
U.S. authorities say they often notify Mexican officials but are working on improving the system. The challenge, they say, lies in coordinating their efforts with a vast array of U.S. correctional institutions.
Of the 161,000 inmates in California prisons, 18,500 are slated for deportation upon release, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. About 70 percent end up in Mexico.
Ronald Smith, who oversees detention and removal operations for the agency's San Diego office, said Mexico needs to take responsibility for its citizens.
"They can't be allowed to remain in our communities where they have the potential to commit even more crimes," he said.
Gutierrez already had a criminal record in the United States when he was convicted in 1993 of using a gun to steal money and jewelry from a couple, according to Los Angeles Superior Court records.
Gutierrez was sentenced to 15 years in prison and served about half of the sentence. He was deported from prison to Mexicali on Aug. 14, 2001, according to U.S. immigration records. He apparently re-entered the United States because the next record on Gutierrez shows he was deported again to Mexico on Nov. 13, 2002.
A few days later, he tried once more to cross into the United States at Calexico, but he was caught in the tighter border security after Sept. 11.
Gutierrez was a prime candidate for deportation, but the 1996 immigration law changes mean that people can be deported after being sentenced to just a year or more in prison. This includes people convicted of sexual abuse of a minor, domestic violence, drunken driving and drug and firearms possession.
As a result, the number of criminal deportees sent from the United States to all corners of the world rose from 29,072 in 1995 to 77,710 in 2003, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 attacks focused attention on the gaps in immigration enforcement within the United States. People who once might have slipped through the cracks began to be deported for immigration violations as well as criminal activities.
This year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it wants to deport more than 80,000 criminals who aren't in custody. The effort affects many people who served prison terms and were released into U.S. communities before the 1996 immigration law change. They are being targeted because the law is retroactive.
Many immigration attorneys believe violent criminals should be deported but worry the law is being applied to the extreme under the guise of protecting the country from terrorists. David Leopold, an attorney based in Cleveland, said he recently represented someone ordered deported for pulling his wife's hair during an argument.
"I think it's more of a numbers game to make the government look tough to the American public," he said.
Adrift in Tijuana
Although deporting people with criminal records is intended to make U.S. communities secure, the deportations have left Mexican border cities feeling unsafe.
An average of 26 felons are formally deported to Baja California each day, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the deportees arrive in Tijuana or Mexicali with little or no money, usually far from their hometowns.
Not all are gang members. This spring, Jose Arroyo Torres, 48, found his way to Tijuana's migrant shelter after being deported to Mexicali in March. He said he had just completed prison time for his second drunken-driving conviction.
Arroyo said he had lived in the United States since he was 18 and used to work at a Vista nursery. He said he obtained his legal residency status, which he no longer has, in 1985. He has a wife, from whom he is separated, and a 10-year-old daughter in the United States.
"I'm just trying to find my way around, but Tijuana has changed," he said. "I just want to find a job. I can work as a bricklayer or making clothes."
One of the immediate challenges faced by deportees is how to earn money.
Most Mexican employers require official identification such as a voter registration card. The shelter gives the deportees temporary identifications, which can help them get basic jobs. But after the cards expire in two weeks, the deportees are in a fix.
Obtaining a voter registration card requires documents that many criminal deportees no longer possess, such as a birth certificate.
The criminal deportees also face cultural challenges. Their tattoos scare off potential employers, and they get funny looks for speaking an urban street slang Spanish.
"Lots of them have been living in the United States since they were children, and they feel like they aren't wanted here or there," said Maria Teresa Sanchez Medrana, who oversees the Tijuana city department of migrant services. "Sometimes we have them meet with our psychologists."
In Gutierrez's case, according to Mexican court records, surviving in Mexico meant finding others like him. In Tijuana, he ran into Elias David Martinez Estrada, an L.A. gang member he recognized from his time in a California prison.
Nicknamed "The Ghost," Martinez belonged to a different L.A. gang, Gutierrez told Mexican police. But that didn't seem to matter in Tijuana.
Martinez took Gutierrez under his wing, providing him with food and setting him up in a seedy apartment near the tourist strip of Avenida Revolución. The entrance – a dark hallway separated from the street by a blue metal door – has been named "Alley of the Dead" by neighbors who say that drug overdoses and other violent acts are commonplace there.
Gutierrez became involved with a group that was selling drugs, according to several people who testified to police.
Baja California police say that on Sept. 15, 2003, Gutierrez killed Martinez and a woman, Angela Yudid Romero Rodriguez, in the apartment after an argument over a pair of tennis shoes got out of control. He was arrested this year by Mexican state investigators. They estimate that criminal deportees are involved in about 5 percent of the city's homicides.
Tijuana's city police, which conduct street patrols, have started to keep photo files of the criminal deportees they encounter.
Since last year, they have collected photos of more than 100 deportees, some from as far as Northern California and Las Vegas. Many sport intricate tattoos: an eagle on the back of one man's shaved head, gang names sprawled across a torso, and human figures etched on another's back.
"They think everyone should fear them," said Jose Alfredo Silva Perez, who oversees the Tijuana police department's anti-graffiti and gang unit. "They go around with their shirts off showing their tattoos, and sometimes if they are drugged they can be aggressive."
About 200 deported L.A. gang members have established their own gangs in at least seven neighborhoods, police said.
Police are worried they may tap into Tijuana's generally less-violent street gangs, which mostly get in trouble for tagging walls and property. They also suspect that deported U.S. gang members are being recruited by drug cartels and organized crime groups.
Criminal deportees also have been accused in some of the city's recent high-profile crimes, although they don't always turn out to be the right targets.
When a police officer was killed and his police partner seriously wounded last year, city officials blamed the violence on criminal deportees.
One of the suspects had been repeatedly deported after being arrested for robbery and migrant smuggling in the United States, according to Mexican court records. He was released after authorities determined he had no connection to the police shooting.
Some doubt Gutierrez is guilty.
"They just want someone to be guilty so they can close their case," said Jose Luis Perez, 33, another criminal deportee, who said his mother brought him illegally to San Diego when he was 3.
Perez said he dropped out of Mission Bay High School in 11th grade and got in trouble with the law. The last time he was deported, in 2003, he stayed for a short time at the same apartment where Gutierrez lived.
Police regularly cruise by the apartment, which has no running water or plumbing, while people with dazed looks wander inside and leave with mysterious packages. Some neighbors believe police are demanding payoffs from the hotel's residents in exchange for leaving them alone, something police deny.
Perez, who has since moved to a hotel that is a slightly better place to live, said he has been surviving in Tijuana by doing odd jobs, such as electrical work and construction. On a good day, he said, he earns about $15. Some of that comes from selling drugs, he admitted, but he said he's trying to stay away from other trouble.
"The reason I stay here is that I don't want to have to do more time there (in the United States)," he said. "At least I'm free here, even though I don't know what will happen today or tomorrow."
Anna Cearley: (619) 542-4595; firstname.lastname@example.org