Turmoil in Tijuana

Given news reports about violence south of the Border, some have expressed concern about the safety of students traveling on Westmont's ministry trips to Mexico. The college takes those concerns seriously, has investigated them, and has put in place measures designed to reduce the risk of unfavorable outcomes. We will continue to monitor developments as they unfold.

Fall 2014 Update: As of early October, the US State Dept posting on August 15, 2014 remains current. Prior to our spring break trip in March we always further consult media reports and people of rank and/or having direct personal involvement with the security situation in Mexico. None of them presently indicate a deterioration in the relative safety level in the areas we work or traverse. We will continue to monitor developments, and be poised to adjust our plans as necessary.

 

Azusa Pacific University has prepared a thorough assessment of the security situation and the factors to consider. Although it was published in 2011, there has been no appreciable deterioration since that time in the pertinent vicinities. Please follow this link as a supplement to what you will find on our website. Also, in 2010 CNN did a spot that included Potter's Clay, found at this link.

We monitor the US State Department postings (and other sources) for security updates prior to each large-group trip to Mexico, and update this page and our procedures accordingly.

To supplement what you'll find below, parents, students and other interested parties can listen to a recording of our conference call held Tue 3/3/9. Although this event was hosted for the trip some years back, the measures put in place for that year, at the peak of the media coverage on this topic, have remained substantially similar for other trips. The 51-minute recording is in MP3 format, compatible with most computers and portable devices. After about five minutes of introductory comments including a welcome from former Dean of Students Jane Higa, Risk Manager Troy Harris gives a 15-minute summary of the college's primary decision factors regarding the trip. The balance of the program is comprised of responses to questions submitted by parents via email during the call.

If you have questions that are not addressed here or in the recording (or in our AAQ), they can be posted by email to pottersclayparent@gmail.com.

News Recap

In recent months, numerous news reports have indicated a meaningful degree of relief in the city of Tijuana as the violent pattern has, for now at least, abated significantly. Over the course of several prior years, Tijuana had been noted for sporadic outbreaks of violent activity. This was prompted by a war between two powerful drug cartels vying for control of the upper Baja region, and to some extent as a backlash against the Mexican government's crackdown on drug trafficking.

According to the State Dept travel message: "In 2013, homicide rates in Tijuana and Rosarito increased 48 percent and 67 percent compared to the previous year, according to the Baja State Secretariat for Public Security, and both cities experienced further increases in homicide rates during the first half of 2014.  While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens.  Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours."The murder rate nevertheless remains below its peak in 2008/09, and the instances of daylight harm have been fewer and farther between—with none in the areas we frequent.

There is no question that certain places in Mexico are experiencing extraordinary violence. However, the escalation of atrocities reported of late are hundreds of miles distant from Ensenada. Prior to each trip with large student groups we take a sounding of current conditions and media coverage.

Mitigating Factors

Tempering the scary side of the news are aspects that provide some counterbalance with respect to our presence in Mexico.

  • Our work is in Ensenada, 70 miles south of the border, where crime patterns have not followed those of the hot-spots such as Tijuana and other cities to the east.
  • When we cross the border we skirt the city and will not typically travel Tijuana's city streets. In a careful review of numerous news reports, none of them indicated that the violence has occurred on the perimeter route we use.
  • Notwithstanding certain notable exceptions, informed sources indicate that most of the violence occurs in the deep night, between midnight and 4am--when our students are already settled for the night, most of them on most nights inside the gated and locked Rancho Agua Viva, twelve miles east of the city.
  • Azusa Pacific University, which runs a similar but much larger program in Ensenada, Mexicali and elsewhere (and that inspired Potter's Clay in 1977), monitors the situation closely and plans to proceed this year. Here are some announcements on their website as of 2/8/12 (these no longer appear on their main Mexico Ministy site, presumably due to the overall reduction in violence): Safety Report , Firsthand Commentary, Resident Perspective.
  • Although some of the Tijuana slayings have been gruesome and thus garner media attention, it bears noting that according the the CDC, nearly 17,000 people were murdered in the United States in 2009 (the current value on their website.)
  • The US State Dept has not recommended curtailing travel to or thru Tijuana, but instead says travelers must "understand the risks of travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and whom to contact if one is a victim of crime."
  • The most recent State Dept Travel Warning for Mexico, dated 8/15/14, urges care and common sense. Westmont's plans and protocols are consistent with, and meet or exceed, the safety recommendations of the US Consulate in Tijuana.
  • Notwithstanding that some very bad things have happened, still in nearly all locations and nearly all the time, things are fundamentally safe for the general populace--even in Tijuana. Here's a quote from the mother of a Westmont student who went on Potter's Clay: "I just served with a team in Tijuana last week [February 2009, during the peak of the media blitz regarding violence in Mexico] building 5 homes, 14 cement slabs, and 8 outhouses. [W]e did not notice any violence. [There is] extra security is at the border[,] but there were no problems. ... I had a great day working hard for 'Project Mercy'. I believe helping others is so valuable and am very excited for my son who will be on your team. Thank you for showing our children that giving back and serving others is so very important!"
Sources Consulted

In addition to monitoring public news sources, we maintain contact with knowledgeable people "on site" or with expert knowledge to help inform our decisions.

  • Westmont alumni ministering in Ensenada
  • Current well-placed and known/trusted government officials in Ensenada
  • The former police chief of Tijuana, who is now a security consultant
  • A former US Border Patrol officer whose daughter attended Westmont
  • Several firmsCrisis Consulting International
    Corporate Risk International
    Safe Travel Institute
    United Educators
    World Vision
    and others
    specializing in international safety assessment
  • Other schools and ministry programs serving Mexico (Azusa Pacific, Point Loma, et al)
  • The US ConsulateOur Risk Manager met personally on 2/6/9 with the US Consul (Deputy Chief of American Citizen Services), whose recommendations for traveler safety are consistent with the plans we've put in place in Tijuana

Their consistent recommendation is to travel by day and stay in groups, which is our standard practice. They do not regard us as fitting the profile of the drug cartels' targets for violence, and none of them consider us to be facing a danger that would warrant canceling the trip.

Mitigation Strategies

Here are some of the specific procedures we've put in place to guard our participants.

Prevention

  • Routing:
    • We limit our travel in Tijuana to the extent possible. For the southbound journey, the highway we use circumnavigates the city. Northbound, we have determined that use of a main thoroughfare simplifies the passage, significantly reducing the prospect of students getting lost.
    • Students are provided with step by step routes and maps, with photos of key landmarks (the login/password are available upon request).
    • A video of the route, with live commentary, is part of the driver training plan.
    • A navigator is assigned to each car, responsible to focus on the route so that the driver can remain alert to the traffic conditions.
  • Timing:
    • We intend to not be in Tijuana after dark. We are scheduling our border crossings down and back during daylight hours. On the return trip our target is to be in the line by dusk. Because the time in line can last two or more hours we might not actually get across until well after sunset. However, we are not aware of a single instance of violence in the relative safety of the virtual gridlock there.
    • We intend to not have participants alone or isolated in Ensenada in the deep night. Students will be expected to remain in larger groups whenever possible in the evenings. This will include traveling in caravans to/from the evening events (Monday youth service; Tuesday soccer game; Wednesday community celebration).
    • Construction sites will be expected to do their work during daylight in order to reduce student travel in darkness.
    • Students not in home-stays (which mostly happen Monday and Tuesday nights) are expected to honor the curfew of 10:30pm (or one hour after the end of an evening event, whichever is later) for arrival at Rancho Agua Viva.
    • Our best intentions can be thwarted by exigencies, inadvertence, and disregard. We cannot control individual choices or circumstances.
  • Communication:
    • Each student is provided a pocket/wallet card that includes emergency contact information.
    • Each vehicle is provided a walkie-talkie to keep in contact with others in its caravan.
    • Each caravan (or group of caravans, aka "pods") is assigned a Nextel phone carried by a core team member who is familiar with the setting and the roads.
    • With our several Nextel devices set for GroupConnect we are able to have simultaneous interaction among the entire leadership team, wherever located.
    • During spring break week the last couple years we have been able to extend our Nextel network to include an additional unit for each construction site.
    • Click here for ways to reach the team leaders while in Mexico.
  • Gear & Supplies:
    • In addition to items mentioned above, each vehicle is supplied with a steering wheel lock (club) and a car kit containing basic first aid supplies, spare radio batteries, maps, etc.
    • A college Suburban carries emergency roadside assistance gear, such as a battery jumper-pack, gas can, toolkit, tire pump, and the like; and the Burb has extra seats to be used as surge space in case a vehicle is disabled en route.
    • Each car is expected to head into Tijuana--both southbound and northbound--with a full tank of gas ... as well as full stomachs and empty bladders so they won't need to go into the city.
  • Monitoring
    • Each site will designate someone to be alert for suspicious activity in the neighborhood.
    • For the spring break week we will post to Twitter a brief daily update so that parents can check how things are going overall. If a situation of general interest is unfolding, we will post updates more often as we are able.
  • Education & Training:
    • Students are expected to attend a mandatory Cultural Awareness training session which includes a safety briefing by the Director of Risk Management.
    • Despite the fact that being struck by lightning is more likely than abduction, in an abundance of caution we offer here this tip to students (hover) on the basics Prevention:
      - sanitize your wallet/purse
      - avoid isolated areas
      - be alert
      Response:
      - follow instructions
      - try to calm the situation
      - try to understand captors
      - don't aggravate
      - be truthful but succinct
      - don't incite political/religious sensitivities
      Key points:
      - calm; connect; capitalize
      - most hostages survive
      of hostage survival, as recommended by the Safe Travel Institute.
    • Drivers and navigators are given extra training that addresses: caravan techniques; vehicle security; Mexican insurance; Mexican traffic/driving/roadway conditions and rules; emergency phone call dialing patterns; and other such tips. We pay special attention to helping people not get off-track in Tijuana, and to helping them know how to get back to the designated route in case they do miss a turn.
    • All participants are asked to read and sign a document alerting them to the fact that we cannot assure them that no harm will befall them. We want our students to make heads-up choices about the risks they voluntarily undertake.
  • Government Relations:
    • Over Potter's Clay's decades of history in Ensenada we have built a strong working relationship with the local government. We are welcomed under the official aegis of the mayor, whose wife directs the welfare agency for whom we often do construction projects. In formal presentations, Potter's Clay has been given "the keys to the City of Ensenada."
    • The municipal and federal police are alerted to our presence, and have always been good to work with as needs have arisen over the years.
    • All participants for the spring break trip are registered in advance with the Mexican immigration service.
    • All inventory trucked across the border is properly declared and processed thru the Mexican customs office.
    • We have established relations with the Tijuana consulate of the US State Department, who can assist us in emergencies; and we routinely advise them of our annual spring break trip.
  • Supervision
    • The students will not be alone in Mexico. Our director of risk management Troy Harris and coordinator of student ministries and missions Jeremy Fletcher will be on-site the entire week in March.
    • Troy has participated in every Potter's Clay since 1999, and takes 3-6 trips every year to Ensenada to assist with planning and preparation for this week of ministry. Over the years he has developed knowledge and relationships to help both prevent and address problem situations.
    • Jeremy serves as advisor to the Potter's Clay core team, meeting weekly with the leadership to support them in their planning and administration of this complex undertaking. He has also been to Ensenada numerous times to become acquainted with the setting and resources there. Jeremy has traveled abroad extensively, and has lived in foreign cultures.
    • Our standard is for Troy and/or Jeremy to be the last to crosssubject to routing, traffic or other exigent circumstances going down and coming home, so that they will be near at hand for any need for the group crossings at either Tijuana border (San Ysidro or Otay).
    • Other mature Westmont staffers often attend as well. For years, Westmont has allowed staff members to participate as an employment benefit; that is, with approval of their supervisor they are able to take paid time off to attend PC and not have it charged against vacation.
    • As always, numerous volunteer professionals from the US with a wealth of cumulative life experience are on hand for the week, including physicians, dentists, nurses, opticians and construction contractors.

Response

  • Teams:
    • PC Core Team: The 13-member student leadership team has every year invested time working through emergency response scenarios, helping each person understand and embrace their role in the plan.
    • SRT: The college's Situation Readiness & Response Team meets 20 or more times each year to plan, prepare and practice for a swift and measured response to whatever misfortune may arise. The SRT has been briefed on these issues, and will be on standby alert during the spring break week for immediate action if needed. We trust that information found at and linked from our Emergency Planning page will provide some reassurance about how seriously we take the need for careful management of risks.
  • External Resources
    • Bi-National Emergency Medical Care Committee: PC has arranged for this firm's services to be available in the event of a serious medical emergency. They can also help us with legal or political circumstances.
    • Crisis Consulting International: This organization specializes in guiding Christian ministries in their preparedness and response to unfavorable events.
    • Control Risks: The specialists at Control Risks (one of the world's premier travel security companies) are on retainer, poised to bring their practiced skills to a political evacuation or a hostage situation in the unlikely event that were necessary.
    • United Educators communication support expertise: The college's main insurance carrier has created a program that gives us access to professional incident management.
Considered Judgment

The college has decisions to make in regard to the safety risks of the Potter's Clay program, and so do the individual participants. For the college's part, as articulated in our Risk Management Philosophy, "we exercise considered judgment" in addressing the threats we face. "While we cannot disregard [these] threats, ... neither will we be governed by fear in achieving our educational vision and our spiritual calling." Among the factors we contemplate--and that we invite participants to consider as well--are these:

  • How credible and present are the threats? For instance, while the US State Department advisories serve as an important indicator that an area of the world deserves closer scrutiny, we also take into account the perspective of other sources, particularly those already "on the ground." In 2007 we made the decision to not allow a student summer mission to go to Nigeria. Our contact at Crisis Consulting Intl reported that three Christian missionary compounds had been invaded by armed rebels in the month before we posed the question about safety there. Clearly, our students would have been in a setting that fit the profile of violence. In 2001, on the other hand, news and official reports warned against travel to Nepal. A student's father living there was able to describe the circumstance to us first-hand, and reassure us that travel prospects were actually favorable. When the student team arrived, they found that the reported uprising against the government consisted of some women camped in tents outside the palace. The current situation in Mexico registers between these two examples.
  • What would be the deeper meaning of avoiding some risks? It is part of the Christian story that loss has happened to people (and their property) engaged in the work of love. Some ministry may be the first to face this particular feared loss (ie, from violence in Mexico). It could be Azusa Pacific. It could be Amor Ministries. It could be World Outreach. It could be us. But if we "pull the plug" too early, how many people--students and Mexicans alike--would miss the deep blessing that Potter's Clay has proven to offer for over 30 years? Three students were killed in a traffic accident in Ensenada in 1989. The college at that time--and thus far--has accepted that there is risk involved and has elected to continue the program.
  • We are encouraged by the following perspective from John Piper in his book “Don’t Waste your Life” (page 81):  “Risk is woven into the fabric of our finite lives. We cannot avoid risk even if we want to. Ignorance and uncertainty about tomorrow is our native air. All of our plans for tomorrow’s activities can be shattered by a thousand unknowns whether we stay at home under the covers or ride the freeways. One of my aims is to explode the myth of safety and to somehow deliver you from the enchantment of security. Because it’s a mirage. It doesn’t exist. Every direction you turn there are unknowns and things beyond your control. The tragic hypocrisy is that the enchantment of security lets us take risks every day for ourselves but paralyzes us from taking risks for others on the Calvary road of love. We are deluded and think that it may jeopardize a security that in fact does not even exist.”  (You can read more of this in Chapter 5, pages 79-98 online.)
  • Notwithstanding what we've done to minimize harm, some risks remain. As indicated above, we expect participants to use their prayerful personal judgment about whether to accept those risks.