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.