Must Reads: Meth and murder: A new kind of drug war has made Tijuana one of the deadliest cities on Earth

A paramedic and police officer look at the body of a man found with five gunshot wounds in Tijuana on Dec. 30, 2018.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

It seemed like everyone in Christian Castillo’s life was getting killed or running from death.

Two neighbors on his block were gunned down, along with the taco vendor at the end of the street. Then came a childhood friend of Castillo’s mother who had started selling drugs and was shot dead with her husband. Soon their son was executed, too.

Castillo, who until a few years ago held a good job at a Tijuana insurance company, didn’t attend any of the funerals. He was too busy getting high and trying not to be killed next.

“It felt like death was following me,” he said.

Tijuana, a city of 1.8 million that not long ago was celebrating a major reduction in violence, is in the grip of an unprecedented homicide crisis.

A record 2,518 people were killed here in 2018 — nearly seven times the total in 2012. With 140 killings per 100,000 people, Tijuana is now one of the deadliest cities in the world.

Across the border in San Diego, there were 34 homicides last year, or just over 2 killings per 100,000 people.

The root cause of the bloodshed is fundamentally different from previous iterations of violence in Tijuana.

In the past, the body count was driven by powerful drug cartels battling over lucrative trafficking routes to the United States. Now the main cause is competition in a growing local drug trade, with low-level dealers sometimes dying over the right to sell drugs on a single street corner.

Local and state officials estimate that up to 90% of the city’s homicides are linked to local drug sales, and authorities say they are seeing a similar pattern in Juarez, Cancun and other Mexican cities at the forefront of a nationwide rise in killings, which have nearly doubled over the last three years.

“We’re at war,” said Jesus Escajadillo, a medical examiner at Tijuana’s morgue, who one morning last summer was stooped over a tattooed body in a Lakers jersey, using forceps to dig out the bullet that had destroyed the man’s face. “We are living through a civil war.”

Morgue workers burn incense, run air purifiers and dispense dust masks to visitors to battle the stench of death, but at times bodies pile up on the floor and the smell seeps outside, sickening neighbors down the street.

Cadavers lay stacked in a Tijuana morgue. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Cadavers lay stacked in a Tijuana morgue. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Top, cadavers lay stacked in a Tijuana morgue. Bottom left, the body of a man who was shot execution style lies on a table awaiting an autopsy. Bottom right, a notebook containing photographs of unidentified people — the majority of them homicide victims — is used by families searching for missing relatives. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

To understand the violence and its impact on the city, The Times conducted more than three dozen interviews over the last nine months with law enforcement officials, criminal justice experts, gang members, victims and their families.

They blamed one drug for the growing carnage: methamphetamine, or as it is known in Spanish, cristal.

At $2 a dose — and falling as manufacturers create cheaper production methods — it is sold by thousands of competing dealers scattered across the city, from the dusty slums to wealthier parts of town, such as Buena Vista, where Castillo grew up.

Castillo first tried meth as a teenager in San Diego, where he spent part of his childhood in the early aughts. His friends told him it would allow him to stay up playing video games longer.

‘We are living through a civil war.’

— Jesus Escajadillo, medical examiner

By the time he returned to Tijuana in 2010 at age 18, cristal was starting to course through the streets, wrapped in little balloons or bits of plastic whose color signaled which cartel had produced it.

“The lady on the corner sells,” Castillo said. “The guy you see standing on the sidewalk with his kid, he sells.”

Soon he was using and dealing, being paid in meth — four doses for every six that he sold — and trading his clothes and furniture for more drugs. He grew gaunt and began hallucinating that he was being chased by monsters.

He was terrified that he might slip up and deal meth in the wrong place or smoke the drugs he was supposed to sell — both capital offenses in the drug industry here.

“I’m so used to people just dying because they don’t pay, because they’re selling without permission, because they owed money,” Castillo said.

At 26, he had already lived longer than many — and he wondered how long his luck would last.

9/11 upends the drug market

Twenty years ago, when Castillo was a kid, the cartels that operated in Tijuana followed an established code.

Drugs — mostly marijuana and cocaine back then — were peddled to tourists in the seedy red-light district or exported to the U.S.

The buyers were gringos, not Mexicans. Tijuana was what experts refer to as a trampoline, a strategic border point used to vault drugs north.

Then, after 9/11, the deadliest attack by foreign terrorists on American soil, the U.S. began to invest billions in border security.

New surveillance technologies and a doubling of the number of Border Patrol staff made it much harder to smuggle drugs into the U.S.

Industrious traffickers responded by digging tunnels under the border and packing more vehicles with smaller shipments of drugs, knowing that many would get caught but some would get through.

Crucially, traffickers also began offloading some of their product in Tijuana, paying local affiliates in drugs, which wound up on the streets for sale.

Cartels still prized trafficking routes to the U.S., but Tijuana emerged as a fledgling new market.

Its substance of choice was cristal, which the cartels began making in larger quantities when the U.S. passed new restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter medicines that contain precursor chemicals.

Cristal offered a cheap high, and for many Tijuana residents who came from other parts of the country to work in the city’s hundreds of low-slung border factories known as maquiladoras, a way to cope with the loneliness of living far from home.

Public health officials started noticing a rise in meth addiction about a decade ago. Today, nearly 3% of people in the state of Baja California, or about 100,000 people, say they have used the drug, more than any state in Mexico, according to a study by the federal government.

Dealers are aggressive in recruiting potential customers.

In the poor hillside neighborhood known as El Florido, men on street corners call out to Antonio Zambrano — a Catholic priest in a clerical collar — if he goes out after dark, offering hits of cristal.

‘One gets used to living among the bullets.’

— Antonio Zambrano, priest

Two years ago, a junkie tried to burglarize Zambrano’s humble parish and stabbed him with a screwdriver.

The Archdiocese of Tijuana offered him the opportunity to move to a new church, but Zambrano chose to stay, citing the community’s “spiritual need.” Each month he presides over several drug-related funerals.

“One gets used to living among the bullets,” he said.

A losing battle to save lives

Sirens wailing, paramedic Juan Carlos Mendez sped through the barren foothills of eastern Tijuana, past garbage dumps and dirt roads lined with crumbling concrete shacks.

He turned his vehicle down a small lane, where a crowd pointed him toward an abandoned house covered in graffiti. Mendez grabbed his medical bag and broke into a sprint.

Behind the house, in a dusty alley, lay a young man dressed in shorts and dirty sneakers. Flies circled a pool of blood that had seeped from his head onto the sand.

“He’s dead,” Mendez said, panting.

As a supervisor with the Tijuana Red Cross, Mendez is trained to save lives. But in just over an hour that day last summer, he declared three young men dead.

Left, Tijuana Red Cross responds to the scene of a homicide where a roughly 35-year-old man was shot in the back of the head. Right, Tijuana Red Cross paramedics transport Abel Arenas Enriquez, 55, who was shot four times — twice in the back and once in each arm — to Tijuana General Hospital, where he died. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Growing up here in the 1980s, Mendez used to stay out late playing in the streets, coming in only if there was a San Diego Padres baseball game on television.

Today, grisly images from homicide scenes — which he documents as part of his job — are stored on his cellphone alongside photographs of his family. There is his curly haired 4-year-old daughter at a birthday party. There is a body burned beyond recognition. There is his wife, smiling in a dress. There is a corpse in a ditch.

Back at Red Cross headquarters that night, just after Mendez asked a friend for a pill to soothe his stomach ulcers, the radio on his hip squawked to life.

“Cinco bravo,” a dispatcher said. The code for a gunshot wound.

In a poor neighborhood not far from the border, Mendez found a shirtless man with tattoos on his chest who had been shot twice in the back and once in each hand. Mendez dropped to his knees and listened.

“He’s alive!” Mendez shouted. “Bring a stretcher!”

As he loaded the man into an ambulance, the victim’s teenage daughter appeared, shoeless and in shock.

“Stay cool,” Mendez said as he guided her into the front seat and buckled her seat belt. “Stay calm.”

Her father was alert and moaning when staffers wheeled him into the hospital.

A few hours later, he was dead.

New cartel brings new level of horror

In 2008, homicides in Tijuana hit a new high of 825.

The Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, had tried to take over trafficking routes controlled by the Tijuana cartel and the results were deadly.

Brutal fighting erupted between the cartels — and between the cartels and police and the hundreds of soldiers that then-President Felipe Calderon had sent to Tijuana as part of his new U.S.-backed war on drugs.

The city had never experienced anything like it. Assassins hung bodies from bridges and rolled dismembered heads down city streets. One day, seven police officers were ambushed and killed in the span of 45 minutes. Even wealthy areas were not safe from shootouts.

Warfare was expensive, so gang leaders began kidnapping residents for ransom, spurring an exodus of the city’s upper class. Tourism, on which the economy depended, dried up.

But by late 2010, the killings had begun to subside and peace seemed to have returned.

Calderon said his government was winning the war on drugs — and that Tijuana was proof.

Speaking to a crowd of civic and business leaders that year, he credited his government’s “kingpin strategy,” which targeted cartel leaders.

Tijuana, he said, was “a clear, concrete example … that the challenge of security has a solution.”

When he mentioned Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica, who had been leading the fight against the cartels in Tijuana, the crowd burst into applause.

By 2012, the number of homicides had fallen to 367, and Tijuana was blossoming into a tourist destination known for its craft breweries, art and music scene and haute cuisine.

But the peace did not last.

With the Sinaloa cartel beset by infighting after Guzman’s arrest in 2014, other cartels saw opportunity.

Soon the newly ascendant Jalisco New Generation Cartel muscled into Tijuana. It wanted access to the border, and also sought control of the city’s local drug trade.

Between 2014 and 2016, the annual body count jumped from 493 to 919. But that was only a prelude to a bigger explosion in violence.

What the children see in Tijuana

Caught in the middle of the chaos were men like Rafael Noriega Peña.

Noriega came to Tijuana as a teenager from the coast of Sonora state, where the only decent work was overnight fishing on the Sea of Cortez.

His parents, who toiled in the maquiladoras, warned him and his siblings to stay away from the narcos.

“If you go out with wolves, they will teach you to howl,” his mother used to say.

By the time he was in his 30s, Noriega had five children with two women, a factory job he hated and a raging addiction to cristal.

His siblings pooled their meager factory wages so he could enter a rehabilitation facility in late 2017. Each weekend, they brought him homemade chile rellenos.

Noriega left the program in March, but his sobriety didn’t last.

Shortly before dawn one morning in May, his mother awoke to the sound of five gunshots. She stumbled, screaming, to his room off the back of the house. He was slumped in a chair, dead.

His relatives don’t know who killed him or why. The night of the shooting, they gathered in the kitchen while their children played outside with strips of crime scene tape.

Tomas, who was now his mother’s only son, put his arms around her.

“You have four other children to live for,” he said as she sobbed.

His 6-year-old daughter, Michel, entered the house with a toy gun. She pointed it at him and pretended to shoot.

“I’m a narco!” she said, giggling.

He shook her by the shoulders. “Where did you learn that?” he asked angrily.

He released her. He knew the answer.

“As a child ... what do you see here?” he said, with tears in his eyes. “Pure violence.”

Police raids seem futile

The police officers locked eyes, nodded, then stormed into the squalid apartment building on a hunt for drug dealers.

They moved down a corridor with flashlights, kicking open doors of cell-like rooms strewn with used needles, mattresses and cups of urine.

There were no dealers, just sprawled-out junkies who barely noticed the intrusion.

The police moved on to their next target, a dimly lighted watering hole called Norteno Bar tucked amid the strip clubs and taco shops of Tijuana’s Zona Norte.

Police frisked more than a dozen patrons and found only a single dose of meth, in the pocket of a man in his 70s.

Raids like these, conducted one night in December, are among the city’s primary tactics to reduce violence. But many here believe they are futile, and that time and resources would be better spent on intelligence-driven policing to identify those likely to carry out violence.

State investigators and prosecutors also have a role to play: More than 9 out of 10 of Tijuana’s killings go unsolved.

Critics say the homicide crisis has gotten short shrift because most of the victims are addicts and dealers.

“It’s sad to watch them not manage the problem and just wait for them to kill themselves,” said Jaime Arredondo, a researcher at the British Columbia Center on Substance Use who has spent years studying Tijuana’s local drug trade.

The city’s police chief, Marco Antonio Sotomayor, has said repeatedly that tourists and most residents shouldn’t worry about the violence.

“Those who are dying are young people and criminals who get into a world where they know that part of the risk of that business is … that they will lose their lives,” he said.

“We have to understand the city is not on fire,” he said.

Adela Navarro Bello, the director of Zeta magazine, which has long chronicled cartel activity in Tijuana, said such a view was shortsighted.

The 2008 spike in violence proved that battles between the cartels hurt society as a whole, she said. “If we don’t put an end to this fight, this is going to grow.”

A high-ranking state police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said cartel leaders might themselves be unable to control the violence, which is fueled by easy access to guns smuggled from the U.S. and assassins who will kill for as little as $50 or a few hits of meth.

“If we can’t control it,” the official said, “they can’t control it.”

Kidnapped, tortured, killed

Two years ago, Antolin Tinajero was kidnapped in a meth lab by members of an opposing gang, tortured and left dead on the side of a road.

His brother Lucio, who was also at the lab that day, escaped and went into hiding.

Later that year, his brother Cipriano was shot and killed in an altercation outside his house.

His brother Mario was also shot — at the local tiendita — but survived.

Their sister Esperanza Navarro, the lone girl of 10 siblings, went to the hospital or the morgue each time because her mother, a migrant from Guadalajara who cleaned houses for a living, was illiterate and could not fill out the paperwork.

Esperanza pleaded with her brothers to leave drugs behind: “All you do is cause pain,” she told them.

Esperanza Navarro, 35, with her nephews, visits the grave of her brother Cipriano, who was shot and killed in front of his home on Sept. 7, 2017. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Top, a cluster of mass graves where unidentified bodies — the majority of them homicide victims — are buried in Tijuana after they are transported from the city’s Medical Forensic Service morgue. Bottom left, Concepcion Ventura, left, with her arm around her daughter Aidali Jeronimo, 21, in front of their Tijuana home where Ventura's son Jonathan Ventura Citalan, 18, was shot and killed on a June day. Bottom right, Esperanza Navarro, 35, with her nephews, visits the grave of her brother Cipriano, who was shot and killed in front of his home on Sept. 7, 2017. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Last year, her brother Francisco decided she was right and tried to get clean.

As a local dealer in a dangerous neighborhood called Camino Verde, he knew that if he crossed from the hill where he lived to another one about half a mile away, he could be killed. “The violence is with the low-level people,” he said. “Not the chiefs.”

One day in August, he went to pick up his son, who was with his mother on the other hill.

He was ambushed by a gunman, who shot him in the face, the top of the head and the arm.

He survived, though his speech is now slurred. His sister thinks he is using drugs again.

She wishes she could leave Tijuana with her three children but is too poor: “You want to grab your family and go as far as you can.”

Trying to get clean — again

Drug rehab is a growing industry in Tijuana, with 98 state-certified centers in the city compared with 60 in 2007.

At Una Nueva Vida — or A New Life — roughly 70% of 170 residents are being treated for meth addiction, said its director, Ernesto Chavez Gutierrez, a former lawyer who is also a recovering addict.

One of the youngest, a 14-year-old, was brought to the center several months ago by his weeping father. Local gang members had come to the house to try to kill the boy, who had begun hallucinating and stealing cars.

The father couldn’t afford the $370 a month treatment fee, so Chavez gave him a break.

A few months later, the father returned and checked himself into the program. He, too, was addicted to meth.

Christian Castillo checked himself into Una Nueva Vida last summer, spending the first week locked in a room with a television to detox. He is now seven months clean and is doing so well that he has been given a leadership role. He carries a walkie-talkie and keeps the peace among residents, whose cravings can sometimes make them violent.

Castillo plans to wait an additional five months before he leaves rehab.

He has gone through this twice before. The last time, he was on the streets for two hours before he started using again.

Times staff photographer Gary Coronado and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Produced by Jessica Perez and Kelly Corrigan.