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Baja California: A Test for Mexico's Pax-Mafioso?

A Tijuana murder scene A Tijuana murder scene Zeta magazine

In one indication that the Sinaloa Cartel may be wary of attracting federal government attention back to Tijuana, one of the cartel's top leaders reportedly told other criminal bosses to keep homicide levels low in Baja California state. The message seems to fit a pattern in which there may be a move towards a more peaceful coexistence in some traditionally critical hotspots.

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According to a new report by Zeta magazine, one of the Sinaloa Cartel's top leaders, Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias "El Mayo," issued a warning to at least eight sub-commanders responsible for overseeing drug trafficking operations in Baja California to "stop heating up the plaza" – that is, clamp down on homicides that could be disrupting the international drug trade and attracting too much of the government's attention. 

During the first 100 days of President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration (December 1 to March 10), Baja California saw 161 homicides, making it the tenth most violent state in the country. This is only a slight increase from a similar time period last year (January 1 to March 31, or 90 days), when the state registered 145 murders.

According to Zeta magazine, a band of assassins led by Luis Mendoza, alias "El Güero Chompas," is behind the uptick in violence. Baja California's largest city, Tijuana, where the violence is concentrated, saw 42 homicides in January alone. The magazine says that Mendoza's group is no longer following orders from the upper ranks of the Sinaloa Cartel leadership, and are aggressively assassinating small-time drug dealers in order to take over their business. 

Zambada's order to slow the fighting may be hard to enact. Zeta says that none of the eight Sinaloa Cartel lieutenants warned by Zambada are currently based in Baja California, having set up expensive hideouts in Sinaloa, Guadalajara, and Sonora states. As a result, the day-to-day running of their Baja California operations has been left in the hands of more undisciplined and inexperienced family members, who are more prone to using violence as a way to resolve disputes. 

Zeta magazine notes that even though the Baja California State Security Council and the state and national Attorney General's Office have identified these eight Sinaloa Cartel sub-commanders, no arrest warrants have been issued against any of them. Only two of the eight suspects have ever been targeted in police operations, and both managed to escape. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Baja California may be the country's first test of a whether a pax-mafioso is even sustainable. Violence has dropped overall in Baja California in part due to government efforts, but also thanks to an uneasy peace enforced between rival criminal organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel, a.k.a. the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), in Tijuana.

With violence levels slipping downwards, federal forces have scaled back their efforts in Baja California.The military has shut down at least six road checkpoints in the state so far this year. Meanwhile, the controversial and combative security chief Julian Leyzaola, who was praised for helping pacify Tijuana, has since been transferred to Ciudad Juarez.

What's more, as Zeta magazine points out, the fact that the Sinaloa Cartel's operatives in Baja California have all committed federal crimes -- yet have no federal arrest warrants issued against them (which would make it easier to pursue them in states outside of Baja California) -- supports the theory that the Mexican government, under new Peña Nieto, is scaling back its attacks on drug trafficking groups in an effort to lower the intensity of the state-cartel conflict. Peña Nieto took power December 1, after which there has been a significant drop in prosecutions of drug trafficking crimes. According to data from the Ministry of the Interior (pdf), government prosecutors opened an average of 2,322 criminal cases per month during 2012 for what are known as "crimes against health," which are mostly drug trafficking crimes; while during the first two months of 2013, government prosecutors opened an average of 821 cases per month for "crimes against health."

To be fair, this tendency towards less drug prosecutions was already in motion prior to December 1, but it is exactly what an international drug trafficking syndicate like the Sinaloa Cartel wants and may be willing to trade for enforcing a policy of less violence. And it may help explain why El Mayo saw fit to warn his sub-commanders about letting the violence in Baja California get out of control.

There are certainly counterarguments to this theory. The other Sinaloa Cartel strongholds, including Chihuahua (417 murders during Peña Nieto's first 100 days in office) and Sinaloa (324 murders) are among the tops in murder rates. And the government maintains troop and federal police levels in most of Mexico

But it is also clear that it is in both the Sinaloa Cartel's and the government's interest to keep the peace in Tijuana, an area that has a history of organized crime-related violence but could be a model for criminal-state coexistence. The current homicide rate in Baja California still represents a marked improvement in security compared to five years ago, when the state was the third-most violent in Mexico, registering a total of 1,019 deaths for the entire year. 

However, it is a difficult balance to strike. Nationwide, the government recently reported a slight drop in homicides. But the atomization of these criminal groups, as evidenced in Tijuana, may be a dynamic that neither the government nor the strongest criminal groups can counteract.

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