Killings rise anew in Tijuana, a city haunted by years of violence

School was in session for 350 junior high school students in a gritty, working-class section of Tijuana on a recent afternoon when shots rang out next door. By the time it was over, the assailants had fled and two people were dead: the owner of a small Clamato and car wash business, and a 17-year-old customer.

Homicides have been back in the headlines in Tijuana, casting a pall over a period of economic hope. They come as the city has seen a rise in maquiladora employment, plans for a new bus rapid-transit system,  a boom in high-end residential construction, the flourishing of a craft beer scene, the opening of new bars and restaurants, and the staging of numerous festivals where crowds celebrate everything from opera to art to tequila to Caesar salad.

With 636 killings in Tijuana through the end of September, 2016 is shaping up to be the most violent year since 2010, and last month’s 89 homicides made it the most violent so far this year.

Law enforcement authorities have said the great majority of victims and perpetrators are members of Tijuana’s neighborhood drug underworld, often street dealers with addictions and criminal records. But even so, the rising tally is an uncomfortable reminder of the unprecedented violence that gripped the city eight years ago as rival trafficking groups waged a brutal battle for control of the plaza.

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“It’s what all the reporters keep asking me, ‘Are we going back to the way we were in 2008?’” said Miguel Angel Guerrero, head of special investigations in Tijuana for the Baja California Attorney General’s Office. “God save us from going back to what we went through in 2008.”

A rise in homicides in different parts of Mexico has been a source of growing concern. Because of its high numbers, Tijuana is among 50 cities nationwide targeted by a federal anti-crime initiative launched this month and being implemented gradually over the coming months. 

A series of incidents in recent weeks have helped draw renewed attention to the issue in Tijuana. 

On Sept. 3, a driver on Bulevar Benítez crashed after her windshield was struck by a dismembered corpse that fell from a bridge. At the scene, police found two other dismembered bodies and a sign with a threatening message ostensibly from members of the Sinaloa cartel to members of another group, Cartel Tijuana Nueva Generacion.

On Sept. 7, an 18-year-old Imperial Beach resident named Desteny Hernandez turned up shot repeatedly in eastern Tijuana off the busy Vía Rapida highway. Investigators are looking into the dead teenager’s boyfriend and his connections to organized crime.

On Sept. 24, Jesus Armando Martinez Escobar, a 35-year-old Tijuana police officer, was shot dead while making a routine traffic stop in the city’s Zona Norte, or red light district. Two arrested suspects in their 20s said they had just driven across the border from San Diego with two AR-15 assault rifles that they claimed they planned to sell in Tijuana, according to the Baja California Attorney General’s Office.

The owner of the Clamato and car wash business was with four young customers when an assailant with a .40-caliber pistol got out of a car and opened fire, authorities said. The target was the owner, they said, but the clients were also shot, one of them fatally.

Hearing the gunfire, administrators at Escuela Secundaria Tecnica Numero 11 quickly locked the front door and ordered students to the floor, a practice already in place after a shooting near the school last year. 

Just a few years ago, Tijuana was held up as a national model for combating crime, with a strategy that involved the close collaboration of members of the military with civilian law enforcement agencies, and the involvement of business leaders, and other groups from civil society. Critics say the collaboration forged during that period of adversity has weakened, and the three levels of government are not working together as they should.

“There is no strategy, there is no coordination, they’re not talking to each other, and they haven’t been able to do the cleansing that’s been necessary in the police department,” said Juan Manuel Hernandez, a former Tijuana business leader who now writes a column in the Tijuana daily newspaper, Frontera.

Alvaro Gonzalez, a criminal defense attorney, sees the need for a long-term strategy addressing the root causes of crime, one that would place a strong emphasis on preventing and treating drug addiction.  

“With the constant changes in government, one party coming in, then another party coming in, there is no continuity,” said Gonzalez.

Guerrero, head of special investigations, believes the key is taking down the financial structure of criminal organizations.

Later this month, the Tijuana Chamber of Commerce is hoping to bring together church, civic and business groups with military and government officials to form a common front against the violence.

“Government on its own can’t do it,” said Gilberto Leyva, the chamber’s president.

The killings that culminated in 2008 with 844 homicides did not spike up overnight. Members of the private sector group, Coparmex, were among those sounding the alarm as early as 2006.

Two years later, the crisis became overwhelmingly apparent as shootouts and grisly scenes of dismembered corpses with threatening messages became commonplace.

The Arellano Felix Organization, which long dominated the drug trade in Baja California, was fighting an unprecedented challenge from one of its top lieutenants, Teodoro Garcia Simental, who found backing from the rival Sinaloa cartel. Police themselves were frequent targets of the violence — some for their links to organized crime, others for refusing to give in. 

With civilian law enforcement agencies struggling against internal corruption and the better-armed and better-financed drug groups, the Mexican military stepped in, even taking over top roles in civilian law enforcement agencies such as the Tijuana police department. 

In the meantime, world recession hit, jobs were lost, tourists stayed away, restaurants went empty.

Tijuana today is a different city than it was in 2008, more hopeful and economically stronger.

“A lot of the violence we’re seeing is at the lower levels, not necessarily at the cartel levels,” said William Sherman, special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. “It tends to be more street dealers battling over turf.”

The violence dropped as the Sinaloa cartel became the dominant drug trafficking organization in the region, according to law enforcement accounts. 

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But now a new force, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion from central Mexico, has come on the scene, joining forces with remnants of the Arellano Felix Cartel to form the Cartel Tijuana Nueva Generacion and challenging Sinaloa’s control of the market.

Guerrero said that with leaders of the various groups staying away from Tijuana, there has been a lack of control in the underworld.

“A lot of times, there is no order to kill, and they end up killing just to kill,” Guerrero said.

But while homicides have risen, the DEA’s Sherman has seen no signs of a return to the past.

“If the level starts to get back to what it was in 2008, we’re going to know before it happens,” Sherman said. “We’ve got enough sources who would say, ‘There’s going to be a war,’ and we’re not hearing that right now.”

Dibble writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune. This article originally public on the Union-Tribune’s site on Oct. 4.

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