On Location at a Narco-Film Shoot

Once populated by Americans looking for a good time, TJ now stands near empty because of drug violence. In step the B-movie makers

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Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images for TIME

Shooting the scene Cast and crew in Tijuana on the set of Baja Films' Eagles Fly Alone

It's a hazy morning, and I'm standing outside a McDonald's just a few yards from the U.S. border. The fast-food joint seems to be the favorite place in Tijuana for assignations of every kind. Near me linger a pair of mismatched lovers, some drug pushers and a giant of a man crosshatched with scars, as if somebody has played tic-tac-toe on his face with a knife. He eyes me briefly ­before stepping forward. "America," he says, nodding toward a concrete and steel tunnel full of shuffling foreigners waiting to clear U.S. immigration. "You want to cross?" He is a coyote, a human trafficker, and because of my complexion and my gear — jeans, a grubby cotton shirt, a ­backpack — he apparently mistakes me for an Eastern European, a Pole perhaps.

I am due to meet with a director who makes gory shoot-'em-up flicks about the Mexican drug cartels. ­Tijuana — both on film and in real life — is their battleground. My ride to the film shoot, a steel gray van, pulls up, and the scarred giant turns away, scowling. Cruising down La Sexta, the heart of the tawdry tourist district, my driver points out all the once famous restaurants and clubs, now shuttered. The wide boulevard is empty save for a man leading a donkey painted like a zebra. Most of the traffic in Tijuana these days is one-way, heading north. While a trip to TJ's nightclubs and sleazy bars used to be a rite of passage for every teenage boy from Southern California, that is no longer the case. A ferocious war between the drug cartels and the army litters ­Tijuana's streets with a few dead bodies every night. "Why have the American turistas stopped coming?" my driver grumbles. "Don't they know that these gunmen only kill each other?"

The van stops in front of a cemetery — colorful, chaotic and overpopulated, much like Tijuana itself. A stray dog laps water from a vase of wilted flowers beside a tomb. Many victims of the drug killings are buried here. Graffiti slashed across a marble headstone serves as a final insult from a gloating enemy.

Amid the tombstones stands Mexican film director Enrique Murillo, shooting a scene in which a suave drug runner howls for revenge as he collapses on the grave of his murdered girlfriend. "This is a violent tale with hot women and plenty of heart," Murillo says, grinning. These themes are typical of Tijuana's film industry, which produces quickie movies celebrating the fast and furious lives of the drug lords. The most successful venture, Baja Films, can crank out a $20,000 movie in two weeks and market it throughout Mexico and to the huge Hispanic market in the U.S. Since the mid-'90s, Baja has produced over 130 films, a mini-Hollywood of tackiness and violence.

"We usually kill off about 50 guys," says Murillo. In the film he is shooting, the hero dies, and along the way, the ­audience gets to revel in the glamorous life of a drug runner who outwits and outguns the cops until the very end. Mario ­Valenzuela, who plays the villain, shrugs off accusations by the Mexican government and press that these films glorify the drug cartels. He says, ­"Violence is as much a part of our daily life as bread."

The action shifts to a junkyard in the ravines outside Tijuana. A gleaming white Dodge arrives, and its brawny driver hands the keys over to Baja Films producer Oscar Lopez. "He's one of the real ones," whispers a film crewman, nodding to the driver. It's not unusual, says Lopez, for actual drug traffickers to demand cameos in these films, lend their flashy cars or open their many homes in Tijuana for location shoots. It confers a kind of fugitive celebrity. "We were ­invited to a mansion that had everything — lawns, swimming pool, fountains, even a tiger," recalls Lopez. "We were allowed to film everywhere except the basement. The guy tells me, 'If you go into the basement, I'll have to kill you. And I'm not kidding. I really will have to kill you.' So we stayed away from the basement." Whether aboveground or below, Tijuana has more than its share of dangers.