A $15.5M Surveillance System for Tijuana, But Who Paid for It?

City-wide security system is enviable design, but question surrounds who paid, who did the work

Tijuana has installed a sophisticated public-security system that is the envy of police departments around the world, but city officials don't seem to know details about how it is funded or the background of the company that supplied it.

The system is a high-tech combination of cameras, emergency call buttons on red posts and handheld computers for police officers on the street.

Information is routed through a central command center that is equipped with 60 video screens and staffed 24 hours a day. A map of the city displays the location of patrol cars tracked by Global Positioning System devices.

Estimated to cost at least $15.5 million to start, the program has been touted as a major initiative under the administration of former Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, a wealthy businessman who is running for governor of Baja California.

Despite much publicity, questions remain over how Tijuana, a city with limited funds and pressing community needs, managed to pay for what is considered a costly endeavor even for U.S. cities.

It's also unclear who exactly is behind the company that provided the system, which became operational in late 2005, and continues to have a role in its operations. Global Corp. Tijuana S.A. de C.V. is not registered with the state and has no listed phone number.

The company is connected with Global Sight, a security-system distributor based out of Chihuahua, Mexico. Records of who registered the business weren't available.

City Council members who are part of the minority National Action Party, or PAN, say they support modernizing public security but oppose secrecy.

"We don't know what is the background of the company," said RaĂşl Soria Mercado. "We have always been asking for transparency in this administration, and it doesn't exist."

The lack of information raises questions over who could be benefiting financially from the project.

It also illustrates that despite steps to improve government transparency, such as the formation of an office at City Hall to respond to public records requests, Mexico is still bound by old habits that undercut the democratic process.

Despite having pushed for the program, Hank said this week that he didn't know who owned Global Corp. or what the company's contractual arrangement was with the city.

The electronic brains behind much of the security system is in the city's command center in Zona Rio, a Tijuana business district. About 36 people staff the 24-hour operation. They control the movement of more than 400 surveillance cameras mounted around the city. The images show up on the center's 65-foot-by-13-foot montage of screens. Staffers report suspicious activities or emergencies to police.

The city is continuing to add cameras to the system, which has a capacity for 3,000, said Javier GarcĂ­a Gastelum, director of the center. GarcĂ­a said the project cost $15.5 million; Hank said it cost $18.6 million.

The outcome of the project is expected to reflect on Hank, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, candidate who is in a hotly contested race for governor against PAN candidate José Guadalupe Osuna Millán.

Hank, who oversees a gaming empire in Mexico called Grupo Caliente, comes from a wealthy family with deep political roots and connections.

His apparent lack of a need to raid city coffers -- as other Tijuana politicians had done -- was one reason why people supported him for mayor. Although Hank has been dogged by allegations of illicit activities in the past, he has never been charged.

City officials say the public-security program has benefited the community. One command center operator said it has assisted in 12,800 detentions from April 2006 to April 2007. GarcĂ­a said a 70 percent decline in traffic accidents can be attributed to people driving more cautiously under the watchful eye of the speed radar cameras.

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