Tijuana is facing a new trend in kidnapping. Unlike the wave of indiscriminate abductions for ransom that hit this Mexican city in 2008, this time the kidnappings seem more of a way of doing business.
At dawn on May 16, a group of armed men burst into the Tijuana apartment of a woman and her 17-year-old son and abducted them both using “extreme violence,” according to media reports. Three days later a body was found, bearing signs of strangulation and wrapped in a blanket, which police said might be that of the mother.
This story dredged up painful memories for the citizens of Tijuana, which suffered a wave of kidnappings and general violence in 2008 that nearly brought the city to its knees. But the recent incident was not all that it initially appeared, and may represent a new trend in abductions in the city. The case was quickly taken over by the anti-kidnapping unit of the Baja California State Attorney General’s office. According to their conversations with InSight, press releases, and reports in the newspaper El Mexicano, this kidnapping was not a simple extortion tactic, but a settling of drug debts. And not just any drug debts but drug debts related to local trafficking.
This local drug trafficking, or “narcomenudeo” as it is known in Mexico, has been on the rise across the country over the last decade. In the 1990s, Mexican criminal syndicates were simply a transport service moving drugs to the lucrative U.S. market. As one Tijuana businessman put it, “Mexico used to be DHL.”
But as the U.S. “hardened” the border over the last two decades, spurred by post-September 11 fears, moving drugs into the country became more difficult. As a consequence, drug trafficking organizations embarked upon the task of building up domestic demand. Now, Mexico is a drug consuming nation, with a valuable domestic market, as the rise of rehabilitation services for drug addicts attests.
Most of this trafficking is controlled by small groups who work closely with police. But large drug trafficking organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel have also worked to increase sales of “cristal,” or methamphetamine, in the Tijuana area. This served both as a profitable activity and as a strategy to gain market-share in Tijuana, against rivals the Arellano Felix Organization (also known as the Tijuana Cartel) in the early 2000s.
Methamphetamine can be produced in domestic labs, and has become a new scourge in Mexico. The drug is cheap and highly addictive. It has helped to create a drug consumption market in Mexico which has its own “dispute resolution mechanisms,” namely kidnapping to settle drug debts.
Kidnapping in Tijuana 2008-2010
The new spate of kidnappings does not compare to the events of Tijuana’s darkest years. In April 2008, the Arellano Felix family, long-time drug kingpins in Tijuana, began to lose their grip on power. One of their lieutenants, Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo,” split the organization in two, starting a violent civil war. One of the issues at stake was kidnapping. The leader of the opposing faction and inheritor of the organization, Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” had ordered Garcia and his men to minimize kidnapping because it was “heating up the plaza,” i.e., attracting the attention of the authorities, and making drug trafficking through the area more difficult.
The Garcia group refused, as kidnapping was a valuable revenue source, and the stage for the worst violence Tijuana had ever experienced was set. Once the leash was off the Garcia faction, kidnapping became rampant, following a business model pioneered by Garcia’s older brother Marco Antonio Garcia Simental, alias “El Cris” (arrested in 2004).
During the cartel’s civil war, which lasted close to two years, kidnapping extended into the lower middle classes. Victims were taken almost at random. It was not just the wealthy who were abducted, but the owners of small businesses and their family members. Victims were often raped, and sometimes killed. The kidnappings were not particularly sophisticated. They employed “mugrosos,” teenagers who would do the dirty work of the criminal syndicate, who worked in safe-houses where victims were held for short and sometimes long periods of time. Communications were handled through hard-to-trace “pay as you go” cell phones.
The typical kidnap victim in this period was a professional or a member of the lower middle class. An array of people uninvolved in drug trafficking were snatched, including doctors, engineers, and small-business owners. Sometimes the kidnappers did not know the identities of their victims until they had taken them captive, a marked departure from more sophisticated groups in both Mexico and Colombia, which gathered intelligence before taking high profile kidnap victims. The indiscriminate nature of the crime was deeply disturbing to the citizens of Tijuana, who feared they would be next.
Kidnapping is notoriously under-reported because of victims’ fear of organized criminal groups. Official statistics do show a spike in kidnappings in this period, but it is likely the real number was many times greater. In response to this wave of abductions, the Baja California State Police set up a specialized anti-kidnap unit.
Kidnapping in Tijuana Post-2010
The situation in Tijuana did not improve until early 2010, when the combined efforts of the Mexican military, Tijuana civil society, and the municipal police force resulted in the capture of Garcia in La Paz Baja California Sur in January, and his top lieutenant Raydel Lopez Uriarte, alias “El Muletas,” or “crutches” (so named for the injuries he would inflict on his victims), about a month later.
Since then Tijuana has breathed a sigh of relief, despite what appears to be the onset of a new kind of kidnapping: abductions to settle drug scores. The function of these kidnappings, which are called “levantones” in Mexico, is not to extract money from the victims as a revenue stream, but to enforce drug business-related obligations.
This is a more decentralized form of kidnapping, carried out among retail drug sellers. Its victims usually have links to the drug trade, however indirect, and society appears to be more able to tolerate this kind of kidnapping than the indiscriminate abductions of the Tijuana Cartel civil war epoch.
Officials from the Baja California Anti-Kidnapping Unit have also pointed out that surviving Garcia cells may still be kidnapping for ransom, and that it will take time to get rid of them all.
The chart above illustrates the trends. Kidnappings spiked in the period of the Tijuana Cartel’s internal battles, between 2008 and 2010. They have since dropped significantly, but continue to remain higher than in the years before the civil war (February 2011 being one noticeable spike).
This suggests that kidnappings in Tijuana have reached a “new normal,” one which can best be explained by the rise of retail drug sales and the use of kidnapping as a means of enforcing drug debts. This new trend suggests that drug violence and drug related kidnappings will continue to rise with the domestic drug market.
From the perspective of the average Tijuana citizen this is a tremendous improvement — those not involved with the drug trade can consider themselves relatively safe. But for how long? The proliferation of any organized criminal activity is often a prelude for activities such as kidnapping. As illustrated in the Tijuana case, it takes just a small detonator.
Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of California Irvine. He is currently doing field work in Tijuana, Mexico.