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

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.

GarcĂ­a said he and the other command center staffers work for the city of Tijuana. The contracting company's duties, he said, involve installation, fixing technological glitches and training.

Critics say the company's exact role and access to the system is unclear. Global Corp. has an office in the same building as the command center, even though GarcĂ­a said it worked off-site.

Speaking from Mexico City, Pedro Flores said he oversees a consortium of security companies including the one in Tijuana, but he couldn't say who owns them.

"Our company is funded by different institutions, and I wouldn't be able to say who benefits from that," Flores said.

He said the companies are registered in Mexico City and declined to comment on specifics of the contract, citing confidentiality agreements.

None of the city officials in Tijuana contacted this week mentioned any confidentiality clause.

"I'm just interested in the results," said Kurt Honold, the interim mayor who is a close associate of Hank. "It's a very good project."

The company's name first showed up in a city budget report from December 2004, when Hank became mayor. At that time, about 9 million pesos -- or $835,000 -- was earmarked for the company.

Hank said this week that the city hired the company during his mayoral campaign "to do the design and everything." After he was elected, "We had a bid and they won," he said.

PAN council members said there was no public bid for the bulk of the project, in part because the PRI majority rewrote city codes in 2005 to bypass the bidding process for public security systems.

Hank said the Electronic Government Program was paid for by shifting funds in the city's budget, though some of the cameras were donated by local businesses such as his own.

Tijuana had an annual budget of about $282 million in 2006, according to the city's Web site.

PAN officials said no one ever explained to them how the equivalent of 6 percent of the city's annual budget was found for the program.

Budget documents show that about $7 million has gone to Global Sight since 2004, but PAN council members said additional money may be listed in different budget categories.

Frustrated with the lack of information, they voted against motions that paved the way for the program's implementation, such as one that changed traffic codes to include the use of technology.

The motions nonetheless passed, because the PRI has a majority on the council.

In December 2006, the PRI majority voted to extend the contract -- this time naming Global Corp. -- to 10 years. A copy of the motion says this was needed to guarantee "the legal certainty in regard to investments, capital recuperation terms, and to avoid the actualization of damages."

No further information was provided. Hank said the company was receiving a portion of the collected speeding fines, but he didn't know how much.

"The law gives the mayor certain abilities to make these decisions, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't inform us," said Raúl Castañeda Pomposo, a PAN councilman who is a member of the City Council's Public Security Commission.

The San Diego Union-Tribune filed a public information request regarding part of the program: handheld computers that police use to record traffic infractions and collect payments through credit cards.

In a written response, Tijuana officials said the computers were acquired at "no cost." When asked if they were donations, the city didn't answer. Instead, officials wrote back that the computers are part of the Electronic Government Program.

Allegations of government secrecy in public matters aren't limited to the PRI in Tijuana. In 2002, a Baja California newspaper, La CrĂłnica, reported that the Mexicali city government bought cars from a dealership owned by Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther without conducting a thorough bidding process, as well as other alleged misdeeds by PAN governments.

César René Blanco Villalón, co-editor of Zeta, a Tijuana weekly that regularly does investigative reporting, said such stories don't typically lead to changes, in part because a disillusioned public doesn't push for them. Zeta has written two stories about the surveillance company's secrecy.

"It's a scandal for a week, and the people get angry, but then they forget about it as the next scandal takes over," he said.

His colleague Adela Navarro said lack of government transparency is a frustrating reality in Mexico, "and here in particular."

Luis Javier Algorri Franco, the city's top public security official, said that perhaps people aren't looking for information with the right city department.

He and other city officials directed questions about the program's funding to one of the administration's top officials, Victor Raul Padilla Fitch, who didn't respond to phone calls or visits.

Meanwhile, the command center has been receiving visitors from Russia, Canada, England, China and the United States, where such programs are expanding.

In San Diego, police have 14 surveillance cameras that were obtained through government grants and private donations. But the Police Department doesn't have the resources to operate 24 hours, as in Tijuana.

"It's very impressive," said San Diego police Sgt. Juan Gonzalez, who visited the Tijuana center this week. "It just shows that the technology is available and it's just about finding the resources to implement some of that here."

Additional government grants could be used to extend San Diego's program, Gonzalez said. But he added that it's unlikely the city of San Diego -- with a budget of about $1.1 billion -- would have the means to pay for it on its own.