Police fight narcos during Tijuana's 2008 drug war violence

A new report examines the factors behind Tijuana's relative lack of violence compared to other northern Mexico cities, and raises questions about whether the recent peace experienced in the city is sustainable.

In a report from Rice University's Baker Institute, Mexico drug war expert Nathan Jones describes Tijuana as an oasis of relative calm among the chaos plaguing much of Mexico's north.

Between 2008 and 2010, Tijuana endured a prolonged war between the Arellano Felix Organization, also known as the Tijuana Cartel, and factions loyal to the Sinaloa Cartel. As a result, in 2010, Tijuana registered a murder rate of 57 per every 100,000. However, by 2012 it registered a rate of just 28, making the notorious border city safer than many American cities, at least in terms of murders. The local kidnapping rate also plummeted, from 5.67 to just 2 over the same period.

Much of the public credit for this improvement went to former police chief Julian Leyzaola, an army colonel who earned fame, not to mention a New Yorker profile, for his tough talk and for the accusations of abuses directed his way. Leyzaola helped increase the role of the local police, just as he has since being posted to Ciudad Juarez, where his tenure has also coincided with a drop in the crime rate and an increase in reports of police abuse.

SEE ALSO: Tijuana Cartel Profile

Jones points to the end of the cartel war as equally important in establishing Tijuana as something of a safe haven. A key element in the city’s pacification was the arrest of Teo Garcia, a brutal former Arellano Felix lieutenant who briefly allied with the Sinaloa Cartel before falling afoul of them as well. Federal troops detained Garcia, who embraced kidnapping as revenue-generator and was perhaps best known for dissolving the bodies of his enemies in acid, in January 2010, setting the stage for a less violent Tijuana. 

The current year, however, has brought about a reverse in recent years' positive trends. The annual murder rate now exceeds 40 per 100,000, though the kidnapping rate remains low. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

Jones attributes this year's bump in murders to rivalries in the local drug trade, rather than a new dispute between the larger groups. The fact that smaller dealers could generate such an increase is attributable to the low level of organizational control exercised by the Sinaloa Cartel, the most significant criminal organization in the city. Instead of sending direct subordinates to run the city’s drug trade, Sinaloa bosses Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada have preferred to operate through loose affiliates.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel Profile

However, notwithstanding the increase in murders in 2013, this unusual characteristic of Tijuana's underworld is largely a force for peace: the Sinaloa Cartel operates the city largely as an open plaza, in which any gang (with some key exceptions) willing to pay a fee is permitted to use the city. As a result of this policy, gangs are discouraged from attacking the hegemon that allows them all to profit; it serves essentially as a safety valve. A key element of this approach is the list of gangs not allowed entry into Tijuana: the Zetas, the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO), and other allied groups. The presence of these gangs, whose disputes with the Sinaloa Cartel run much deeper, would likely make any pax narco impossible, and may again spark a deterioration in Tijuana's security.

While its grip may be loosen, the regime controlling organized crime in Tijuana today has managed to establish a taboo against extortion and kidnapping. Because these crimes typically target law-abiding citizens, this provides the city with a further sense of security, above and beyond the drop in the murder rate. Indeed, even as the murder rate has bounced back, extortion and kidnapping complaints have largely remained stable.

In this sense, Tijuana may represent something like the best-case scenario for northern Mexican cities, at least over the medium term. Population centers near major ports of entry into the United States are going to have substantial drug trafficking markets for as long as a widespread drug prohibition exists, and this, in turn, will always generate some degree of competition among different groups. The goal for the government is to manage this competition while balancing two goals that can often be conflicting: limiting the impact of violence stemming from organized crime on the population as a whole, and avoiding degradation of state institutions by criminal actors.  

It is not conclusively clear that the improvements since 2010 will prove enduring, and declines in institutional integrity are usually not visible until they have become grave problems. In other words, public security has not been solved in Tijuana. Yet, as Jones details, thanks to a handful of unusual elements of the local drug trade, a virtuous cycle has replaced the spiral of violence that plagues much of the North.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

Ricardo Mauricio Menesses Orellana liked horses, and the Pasaquina rodeo was a great opportunity to enjoy a party. He was joined at the event -- which was taking place in the heart of territory controlled by El Salvador's most powerful drug transport group, the Perrones -- by the...

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

The United States -- which through its antinarcotics, judicial and police attaches was very familiar with the routes used for smuggling, and especially those used for people trafficking and understood that those traffickers are often one and the same -- greeted the new government of Elias Antonio...

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...