Aug. 19, 2008— -- In Mexico, the "war on drugs" isn't just an expression people use. Half an hour drive from San Diego in frontier towns like Tijuana, it's a war zone.
Authorities are fighting a bloody battle against the drug lords. Since the beginning of the year, more than 1,500 people have been killed, a third of them members of the military and police officers.
"This is a war, and in a war, you have tragedies," Tijuana Police Chief Alberto Capella said. "And we are not finished paying the costs."
Capella had a near miss, himself, when drug lords showed up at his home in November. He said 20 gunmen laid siege to his house in the middle of the night, firing 250 shots.
"The noise is incredible, incredible noise," he said. "They start shooting, and when I saw my room, it [was] illuminated from the bullets."
Capella shot back at them and survived, earning the nickname "Tijuana's Rambo" for his bravery.
The violence has been fierce for 18 months, ever since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels. Calderon has said that drug trafficking is more than a crime -- it is a national security threat that affects the safety of the country's institutions and people.
He has enlisted the army, deploying 25,000 troops along the border with the United States, to stop smugglers. It is estimated that $40 billion worth of narcotics are moved across the border and hit America's streets each year.
But "this is a two-way street," Mexican criminal justice expert Jorge Chabat said.
"We send drugs and you send arms to Mexico, which are used by drug traffickers. Obviously, they commit a lot of crimes with these arms," he said.
While the violence between traffickers and the authorities is on the rise, that is just one aspect of the increasingly bloody drug war in the region. Traffickers have been killing one another and there has also been fighting within cartels, themselves.
"If you give a ton of cocaine to somebody and he has not paid, you kill him," Chabat said. "Big cartels are in the process of fragmentation, and they are fighting each other ... re-accommodat[ing] themselves to register with the power."
Mexican authorities have invested heavily in trying to break up the drug cartels. A new police command center was built in Tijuana that authorities use to monitor the anti-drug efforts in every policy department in Mexico.
Mexico's Undersecretary of Public Security Facundo Rosas is in charge of the base, where agents respond to calls and deploy troops to try to stop the flow of drugs. He said the difference in the fight on drugs will be substantial, with the police stopping both the drugs' flow and use.
But the crackdown has stirred up a hornet's nest. The police initiatives might eventually work to stop trafficking; in the meantime, there have been serious consequences for many of those involved in the fight.
"Tijuana's Rambo" now needs 20 bodyguards. Since that night in November, he said, traffickers have shot at him four or five times.
The danger has forced Capella's entire extended family to go into hiding. Similarly, thousands of families have left Tijuana, going to places like San Diego to escape the violence.
"It's a huge pressure, but God gave me a second chance and he gave the opportunity to do something," Capella said. "My life changed a lot, but I'm hoping, someday, my kids, they are going to be proud about [their] father."
Despite the violence, Capella said he is convinced Mexico will someday win its war on drugs. He's just not sure he'll live to see it.