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Feature 102416 Corcoran

Monday, October 24, 2016

Is the Upsurge of Violence in Tijuana a sign of More to Come?

By Patrick Corcoran (InSight Crime)

Tijuana's murder rate has spiked dramatically in recent months, leaving officials searching for reasons and responses to an emerging security crisis in Mexico's northern border city.

As reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune and other outlets, 2016 has been more violent than any recent year for the Baja California border city. Through the first nine months of the year, authorities had registered 636 murders. This puts it on a pace for 848 murders in the whole of the year, which, according to the Union-Tribune's statistics, would narrowly break the 2010 record of 844, the most violent year in recent memory.

Mexico's statistical agency, INEGI, shows higher numbers, with more than 1,119 murders in 2009 and 1,256 in 2010. (Retroactive increases in the murder rate are common from INEGI, which compiles a more exhaustive record.) In any event, there is little dispute that Tijuana has suffered a precipitous decline in its security situation relative to the past couple of years, and that it is on its way to its most blood-soaked year since the height of the administration of former President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012).

See also: In-depth Coverage of Homicides

Local leaders from various realms have attempted to spur a response, demonstrating a degree of foresight often lacking amid bouts of violence, but thus far they have yet to settle on a concrete strategy. Instead, per the Union-Tribune's reporting, they have focused on shortcomings in the current approach to security, including an inattention to drug addiction, a lack of collaboration among the three levels of government, and the inability to target gangs' financial structures.

InSight Crime Analysis

The rise in murders may be due to an ongoing shift in the city's criminal dynamics. In the 1990s, the Arellano Felix family built one of the hemisphere's most powerful drug trafficking organizations, the Tijuana Cartel, on the back of its control of the city. While it had a reputation for brutality, the group's control brought some measure of stability; Tijuana only averaged about 200 killings a year during the 1990s, according to INEGI.

But the Arellano Felix family's decline since the mid-2000s has vaulted the city into a period of sporadic chaos. The spate of killings in 2009 and 2010 was largely the result of the Sinaloa Cartel working with a former Arellano Felix lieutenant, Teo García, to take control of the city.

The Sinaloa Cartel appears to be losing its grip on the territory, however, with Mexican officials speculating that the Jalisco Cartel–New Generation has moved into the city. Some analysts have reported that the Jalisco Cartel, which was formed in the aftermath of former Sinaloa kingpin Ignacio Coronel's death, is now working with rump elements of the Tijuana Cartel to push Sinaloa Cartel loyalists out of the city. Analysts have also pointed to the Jalisco Cartel's movement into Baja California Sur, the state comprising the southern half of the Baja California peninsula, which appears to be part of the broader expansion that also includes Tijuana.

See also: Mexico News and Profiles

Tijuana has an annual murder rate of approximately 50 per 100,000 residents. While this is far from the worse manifestation of Mexican violence --in Juárez in 2010, for instance, the figure was almost six times that high-- it also speaks to the potential for worsening if the causes of the uptick in homicides are not addressed.

In Juárez, some combination of the naturally emerging stabilization of the local drug trade and the aggressive tactics of local police chief Julián Leyzaola brought about the dramatic improvement in the early part of this decade. Opinions vary, but the improvement probably had more to do with the former than the latter. This suggests that a brief consolidation of power by the Jalisco Cartel, rather than a prolonged struggle by a Sinaloa Cartel in decline, could actually help curb the rising violence in Tijuana.

The various attributes of the area make it of perennial importance to the nation's best-known drug gangs. A city of approximately 1.7 million, Tijuana is the largest city on the US-Mexico border, and by far the largest conduit to the US West Coast. This makes it the perfect weigh station for Mexican drugs headed for consumers in California. 

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This commentary, "Surge in Tijuana Violence Recalls Past Bloodshed," was first published in InSight Crime on Oct. 19, 2016 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization.  InSight Crime's objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Patrick Corcoran is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and received an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has worked for InSight Crime since 2011.

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