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After Tijuana experienced its most violent year on record, one border expert explains why writing off all the city’s crimes as related to the illegal drug trade could actually be making things worse.
Tijuana ended 2018 with more than 2,500 homicides, its most deadly year on record. In 2017, the city saw 1,744 homicides.
So far this year, the violence has shown no signs of slowing. There were three homicides in the city on Jan. 1 alone. Tijuana police said they will double down on efforts to make sure the homicide numbers in 2019 are lower than those in 2018, the news outlet Seminario Zeta reports, but several people also told the Union-Tribune that they are counting on the federal government for help.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has proposed creating a National Guard that would be headed by Mexico’s military. The proposal has drawn criticism from human rights advocates, who say doing so would lead to abuses, crimes and more violence committed by soldiers. There’s also some doubt as to whether the proposal is legal because the Mexican Supreme Court in November overturned a law that allowed the military to act in a domestic security role.
I spoke with Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, a scholar at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and an expert in Mexico’s organized crime. Farfán-Méndez identified some of the causes of the violence that don’t get enough attention and gave me a sense of what she’ll be watching on the security front in 2019.
One of the misconceptions of the violence in Mexico, she said, is that it’s solely linked to the underground drug trade. Another is that this current wave of violence is different from the one Tijuana experienced in 2007. Indeed, the expressions of violence are different — in 2007, the violence was dramatic and showy, with bodies hanging for everyone to see. But the structural causes of the violence are the same.
“There seems to be an idea that they fixed the violence in 2007,” Farfán-Méndez said. “But I don’t think the violence today is disconnected from the violence then.”
In the past decade, she said, it has become clear that the state of Baja California is either incapable or unwilling to investigate homicides. Many people, including authorities, often assume that every violent act is related to the drug trade. The impunity has “created opportunities for other criminal activities,” she said.
Farfán-Méndez said that over the last decade, the number of crimes reported by citizens of Baja California has fallen.
“As the state is not willing to respond to violence, it creates more opportunity for other criminal groups,” she said. “You see extortions and kidnappings. Sometimes it is the same criminal groups, but it’s not always the same groups.”
To really get at the root causes of the violence, she said, homicides and other crimes need to be investigated. The prevention of crime needs to be a focus, which means that the marginalization of communities impacted by the crimes — the idea that they were probably involved in the drug trade and thus, had it coming — needs to end.
Farfán-Méndez said she’ll be watching three things on the security front in Tijuana in 2019.
The first is the expressions of violence, or the method by which killings are carried out. She said she’ll be watching whether the violence begins to resemble the “spectacular” violence of a decade ago, with more execution-style murders and bodies hanging from bridges.
Second, she’ll be looking at the victims. With the arrival of thousands of Central American migrants in Tijuana in 2018 — and possibly more to come in 2019 — she questioned whether more Central Americans will become crime victims, like two Honduran teens murdered a few weeks ago. What, she asked, will the narratives around their deaths be? Will they be blamed for their own deaths?
Finally, Farfán-Méndez said she’ll be watching the federal government. López Obrador’s top two campaign issues were ending corruption and addressing security. In November, before he took office, he put forth a plan that focused on crime prevention, including granting pardons to low-level offenders who say they will leave the illicit drug world. Now that he’s taken office, it’s become unclear how much of this will actually happen. His main move so far has been the National Guard proposal, which doesn’t seem so different from the way past administrations handled the country’s violence. It’s also clear that local officials in Tijuana and Baja California are depending on the federal government to solve the violence.
Around 160 Central American migrants remain near the border after the majority of caravan members who had been in staying in a Tijuana sports complex were relocated to the El Barretal shelter in eastern Tijuana. On Friday, police tried to evict those who remained in a warehouse near the original shelter at the Benito Juarez sports complex, citing health concerns. Those staying in the shelter said they wanted to remain close to the border and had been told they could stay until Jan. 24. Mexican attorneys filed a request to stay the eviction, but police continued to blockade the building through the weekend.