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What's Behind Tijuana's Violence?

January 31, 2019 1:40 p.m.

GUEST: Kate Linthicum, reporter, Los Angeles Times

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A new kind of drug war has made Tijuana one of the deadliest cities on earth. That's the headline of a new L.A. Times investigation looking at the unprecedented levels of violence in Tijuana in 2018. Twenty five hundred people were killed. That's a record high and nearly SEVEN times the total in 2012. Meanwhile in San Diego there were 34 homicides last year. So what's driving the violence and what kind of impact is it having. Kate Linthicum is a Los Angeles Times reporter based in Mexico City and she's joining us via Skype to answer some of those questions.

Kate welcome. Thank you. I know you've been covering this for a while. It wasn't that long ago that Tijuana was experiencing a revival and celebrating of reduction in violence but now homicides are surpassing previous records. What's changed.

What's changed I think is the quantity of meth that is available in Tijuana. Basically what we see and see wanted right now is is a very new phenomenon. It's this thriving booming local drug market in which dealers are selling to Mexicans whereas what we saw in the past and I think what we tend to think about when we talk about violence in Mexico is you know drug traffickers from powerful cartels battling over access to move their drugs to the United States which is traditionally where the clients were. But a number of factors have contributed to making Tijuana now a rogue blessed local drug market.

You know for a long time meth was produced in the United States but about 10 years ago the United States started to really crack down on what was available for sale you couldn't go into a drugstore and buy the precursor chemicals necessary to make meth so easily. So a lot of the production moves south of the border at the same time. You had events like 9/11 that created more border security. That made it a lot more difficult for the cartels to cross their drugs. Law enforcement officials say that cartels started offloading some of their product paying you know local affiliates in Tijuana with meth instead of money while those local affiliates wanted money.

So they started selling the drugs to Mexicans.

And tell me what about El Chapo whose trial is wrapping up in the U.S.. Did his capture change the dynamics in the city.

I mean I think his capture has has changed dynamics across Mexico.

What we saw after El Chapo was arrest in 2014 was a newly ascendant group the police going to a generation cartel moving into Tijuana to try to take control of the trafficking routes to the U.S. but they also got it involved in the local drug trade and have been I think driving a lot of the historic levels of killing that we've been seeing and what's been the impact of all this violence on the rest of the city.

To hear Tijuana officials talk about it there is no crisis. I talked to the city's police chief last year who said to me that the city is not on fire. The people who are dying are the people who are choosing to get involved in this kind of underworld. They point to statistics that show that robbery and kidnappings and other markers of violence are actually down across the city. They say that the violence is entering a.

It's just happening within this criminal underworld. These drug users these drug dealers and that it's not impacting the wealthier or even middle class members of society. You know we mapped the homicides from 2018 and found that yes they they were concentrated in some of the poorer neighborhoods but they were also happening all over the city and methods available all over the city. And it's also kind of a problematic kind of argument that that I think that you want to officials are making because I just don't think you can have violence at this rate and have it not eventually impact other aspects of city life like the economy.

And right now the morgue is overcapacity correct.

Yeah I mean at times throughout 2013 the morgue would just be receiving more bodies than it had space to hold. So officials there told me that at times they were putting bodies on the ground the smell is really awful. Neighbors you know a block two blocks away we're complaining about it. There was just more death than city officials knew what to do with.

In fact there were some pretty graphic images of cadavers stacked up inside to one is morgue. Why did you feel it was important to include those images in the story.

We thought it was important in part because Tijuana officials just don't seem willing to acknowledge that this is a problem when it so clearly is. I mean the homicide rate in Tijuana last year was about one hundred and forty killings per 100000 residents. Compare that to the rate in the United States which is about five killings per 100000 residents. This is violence on an on a mass scale. It's made the city one of the most dangerous in the world. And even if it's hasn't yet affected trade with the US or you can still go to fancy shopping malls or to show let's quickly game with without fear of violence it's a big problem for a big chunk of the population.

And we just wanted to get people's attention to what is new record violence. It comes as the city is dealing with an influx of Central American migrants who are seeking asylum in the US. Is there any sign the violence will slow down anytime soon or that help is on the way from the new Lopez Obrador administration.

So January was the most violent January on record in Tijuana. So we're off to a pretty bleak start this year. I do think the Lopez I thought Ivorian administration is going to be really interesting he said this week actually he's not interested in pursuing the El Chapo was of the Mexican drug world if he doesn't want to go after cartel leaders. He wants to try to reduce these metrics of violence like homicide and others you know whether or not that approach works remains to be seen there are a lot of challenges obviously.

You know Mexico's police forces are notoriously kind of corrupt and and not particularly effective. You know the military led approach has come under criticism a lot in recent years because of you know accusations of human rights abuses. You know the influx of guns from the US every single day and to Mexico you know two thirds of the homicides in Mexico are committed with guns that were bought in the United States. So there are tremendous challenges. But I do think a lot of people are optimistic because the new president is talking in a different way about this stuff and seems interested in taking a new approach.

I've been speaking with Kate Linthicum from the Los Angeles Times. Kate thanks for joining us. Thank you.