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Border & Immigration

Thousands of National Guard troops are in Tijuana, but residents still feel unsafe

Maria Cortes was initially relieved to see Mexican National Guard troops deployed to her working-class neighborhood of Camino Verde in Tijuana.

There were nearly 2,000 homicides in Mexico’s largest border city last year. Residents no longer trusted the local or state police forces to protect them.

So in January, when thousands of National Guard troops arrived in Baja California, the rifle-toting soldiers dressed in fatigues, riding on the back of pickup trucks were a welcome sight.

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“They were intimidating when they first got here,” Cortes, who makes her living selling second-hand clothes at Tijuana’s various flea markets, said. “They had a real presence. We thought, ‘wow, how cool, now we’re protected.’”

Matthew Bowler
/
KPBS
Maria Cortes selling second-hand clothes in a Tijuana flea market in November 2022.

Yet, as the year draws to a close, the increased militarization in Tijuana has so far done little to slow the violence.

Homicides are on pace to surpass last year’s total. Tijuana has recorded more than 1,700 homicides so far this year — including a particularly deadly June that saw an average of seven murders per day.

Over the past two decades, the Mexican government has decided that local law enforcement agencies lack the skill and professionalism to combat violent crime and increasingly relied on the military.

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It started in the 2000s as a temporary solution to combat cartel violence, said Cecilia Farfan Mendez, head of security research programs for the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.

“The argument that was made in 2006 was that because there was corruption in civilian law enforcement institutions, we needed to deploy the armed forces until these institutions were developed and corruption was rooted out of them,” Farfan Mendez said.

But, in the past two decades, it’s become a permanent solution. Since 2006, the amount of defense spending in Mexico has more than tripled — from $1.6 billion to $5.3 billion pesos, according to The Wilson Center.

Current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has invested more into militarization than the previous two administrations, deploying a record-setting 80,000 troops for crime reduction. His administration has also expanded the scope of the military’s work by deploying troops to work in immigration enforcement and building large infrastructure projects like a train in the Yucatan.

In September, López Obrador went a step further by passing a law that formally made the federal police force part of the military. So far, however, he has little to show for his efforts, experts who track Mexico’s militarization say.

“Despite these deployments, we don’t see security conditions improving in Mexico,” Farfan Mendez said “So the argument that more boots deployed around the country provide security, the evidence is really not there.”

Soldiers shopping

In Tijuana, the honeymoon with the National Guard is over. Residents say the military presence has gone from being welcome to being a punchline.

“Now when you see them, they are mostly in the way,” Cortes said, referring to sporadic traffic checkpoints that cause traffic.

Currently, a meme is circulating around town making fun of the fact that National Guard troops like to shop at flea markets during their patrols.

They’ve stopped by Cortes’ stall at multiple flea markets.

“They come from places like Guerrero and Oaxaca, where it’s difficult to buy American brands,” she said. “So when they come to Tijuana and enter the flea markets they find Nike shoes and do a double take.”

Critics also argue that the soldiers not only do a poor job of fighting violent crime, but also violate human rights during their domestic deployments.

The most infamous example is the Mexican military’s involvement — and subsequent cover up — in the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in southern Mexico.

“What has been documented over the years, especially by human rights activists, is that unfortunately these deployments tend to really erode human rights in these areas where the armed forces are deployed,” Farfan Mendez said.

However, those concerns still take a back seat to the cartel violence.

Mexican drug cartels have disrupted the lives of Tijuana’s working-class communities so much that residents are not particularly worried about troops violating their rights, according to Teresa Martinez, a researcher who has spent months conducting field interviews in Tijuana’s working-class neighborhoods.

“Citizens will say, ‘my rights have been violated every single minute of every single day by organized crime, so I don’t care about human rights," Martinez said. "If the army is going to violate human rights, those are going to be the human rights of the criminals who have been violating mine and my family’s.’”

Cortes said she would like to see the National Guard be more aggressive in her neighborhood — to go after the criminals instead of shopping in the flea markets or setting up roadblocks.

“There is no one here with the authority to really do something about what is going on here,” she said.

Cortez does, however, see one silver lining regarding the troops and her livelihood at the flea market.

“They are good customers,” she said.