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Border & Immigration

Recent Tijuana cartel violence part of a pattern that goes back decades

Just over a week ago, a drug cartel launched a campaign of terror on Tijuana – vehicles were set ablaze and gunmen blocked major thoroughfares. KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis talked to experts about the reasons behind the attacks.

The San Diego-Tijuana border region was jolted just over a week ago, when cartel members launched a campaign of terror on the streets of Tijuana, with vehicles being set ablaze and gunmen blocking major thoroughfares.

Residents on both sides of the border were shocked by the brazen attacks, and normalcy didn’t return until days later. But, for those who study the cartels, the actions were part of an all-too-familiar pattern.

To comprehend what’s happening now, you need to understand the history of the Mexican cartels, said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego. It begins in the 1970s with the Guadalajara Cartel.


The Guadalajara Cartel had sole control of drug trafficking in Mexico until members killed a DEA agent in the 1980s, Shirk said. That’s when the U.S. pressured Mexican leaders to go after them.

“In the aftermath, the Guadalajara Cartel split into three different criminal organizations that controlled different territories in Mexico,” he said. “The Arellano-Felix family controlled the city of Tijuana.”

The Arellano-Felix family control lasted until the Sinaloa Cartel challenged them in the mid-to-late 2000s. That fight for Tijuana resulted in some of the deadliest years in the city’s history.

A new brutality

Now there is another battle. The recent violence is linked to a clash between the Sinaloa Cartel and a rival organization known as Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion.


“The latest escalation is not just a repeat of the mid-2000s, but in some ways even more dramatic because of the new factor that is Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is writing a book about organized crime in Mexico.

“They try to rule through brutality, by being more brutal than anyone else,” she said. “That’s their standard modus operandi: resorting to very dramatic, very brazen violence.”

That’s exactly the kind of public show of force that Tijuana experienced August 12. Gunmen cleared public buses and set them ablaze. Cartel henchmen set up roadblocks throughout Baja California and the government imposed a curfew.

Felbab-Brown has studied the difference between how each cartel operates. While both resort to violence, the Sinaloa Cartel is viewed as more professional.

Its leaders prefer to work behind the scenes. They try to buy off government officials to amass political influence and offer free food and social programs to poor communities. Even their extortion fees are relatively low compared to their rivals.

The Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion has a different approach. Its members use social media and public spectacles of violence to terrorize communities into submission.

“Between the choice of the violence of the Sinaloa Cartel and the violence of Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, life tends to be much more brutal, much more difficult under Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion’s rule,” Felbab-Brown said.

Failed efforts

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador addressed last week’s violence during a pre-scheduled visit to Tijuana Friday.

The president downplayed recent violence and said the Mexican National Guard is taking care of the issue. There are currently more than 3,000 members of the National Guard patrolling the streets of Tijuana.

A number of experts say that strategy doesn’t work.

Every Mexican president since Felipe Calderon in 2006 has responded to cartel violence by sending the military. During that time, homicides in Mexico have increased significantly and the cartels have not slowed down.

“Unfortunately, what we have seen over the past 10 to 15 years is a lot of repetition of the same go-to strategies, which consists largely of military deployment,” said Stephanie Brewer, Director for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA.

Lopez Obrador seems to be doubling down on this failed strategy, Brewer said.

“Despite all of the evidence that shows us that this military deployment is not an effective strategy, it has remained at the centerpiece of the Mexican federal government’s response to crime and violence,” she added.

“Unfortunately, what we have seen over the past 10 to 15 years is a lot of repetition of the same go-to strategies, which consists largely of military deployment ... Despite all of the evidence that shows us that this military deployment is not an effective strategy, it has remained at the centerpiece of the Mexican federal government’s response to crime and violence."
Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America

The fact that a cartel was able to bring Tijuana to a standstill by burning a few buses and blocking off roads makes the government look weak, experts said.

“In terms of what does this mean, this means that the state increasingly looks weaker in relation to criminal groups,” said Cecilia Farfan-Mendez, co-founder of the Mexico Violence Resource Project.

Farfan-Mendez said government officials didn’t help themselves by trying to downplay the cartel attacks.

“Another thing that happened in the aftermath of these events is that the government is saying that their strategy is working,” she said. “But everyone else is saying: 'How can you say that, have you not seen what is happening?’”

There is no way to know for sure whether the recent violence is a sign of things to come or if it was an outlier, the experts say. And that’s by design.

“As is often the case, what’s going on in this criminal underworld, in the shadows, is impossible for us to really know what’s going on,” Shirk said. “It’s like shadow puppetry. So you think you’re seeing something, you think you understand what’s going on but you have no way to confirm.”

Yet, a couple of things are clear. As long as rival groups fight for control of Tijuana, we should expect the violence to continue until one comes out on top. And even then, it won’t be a lasting peace.

“Presumably one of the criminal groups of a coalition could win,” Felbab-Brown said. “But we will perpetually be in a situation where any peace is really just a narco-peace. It’s a peace that is totally at the discretion of criminal groups. It is not because the state has developed effective policies.”