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Tijuana Violence Ticks Up, But Don't Blame Cartels

In a Q-and-A, David Shirk, director of USD’s Mexico Justice Project and co-author of a new report on drug violence, talks about the effects of violence on ordinary residents of Tijuana and why the mayhem hasn’t crossed over to the American side of the border.

Outside of poverty levels, crime statistics may be the most visceral indicator of the huge divide between San Diego and Tijuana, both cities of 1.3 million.

On the U.S. side of the border, crime rates are low, with San Diego and Chula Vista ranking among the safest cities of their size in the country.

It’s a bad year on the homicide front in San Diego if more than 60 people are murdered. In Tijuana, a hot spot for bloody violence during the drug wars of the late 2000s, relief comes when the annual number of homicides dip into the triple digits.

But now, for most of Mexico at least, the days of extreme drug violence are on the wane. A new report by a team at the University of San Diego finds that violence in the country peaked in 2011, and intentional killings declined by an estimated 15 percent last year.

Tijuana bucked the trend, with 492 homicides reported in 2013. That’s up from 320 in 2012, but still far from the worst 1,000-plus numbers just a few years ago.

For perspective, I turned to David Shirk, a political science professor at USD and director of the Justice in Mexico Project. He is a co-author of the new report, which analyzes drug violence in Mexico.

We talked about the effects of violence on ordinary residents of Tijuana, the evolving nature of killings in the city and why the mayhem hasn’t crossed over to the American side of the border.

How does use of illegal drugs in the U.S. affect violence in Mexico?

We’re the largest market for drugs in the world, and we consume at a higher rate than many other countries.

If Americans stopped illegal drug use, you’d have a very different organization of crime in Mexico. You wouldn’t have highly profitable, extremely well-financed and well-armed drug cartels and organized crime groups in the way that you do now. That’s undeniable.

And if you took that market away, you could see an annual homicide rate as low as 7 or 8 per 100,000 people in Mexico, which is not dissimilar from our own.

The drug wars in Mexico heated up about 25 years ago as cartels began competing for market share. What happened?

The Mexican government was basically forced by the United States to stop protecting the Guadalajara Cartel and allowing it to operate with impunity. The dismantling of the Guadalajara Cartel led to a fragmentation into three regionally based organized crime groups that began to fight against each other.

Why did violence suddenly explode in 2008, a year after Mexico saw a record-low homicide rate?

The Sinaloa Cartel and its former partners suddenly began to fight against each other. We’re not sure why the feud broke out between those organizations, but it led to a no-holds-barred attempt to take over major zones of control in different parts of Mexico, especially along the border.

As a result, we saw an explosion of violence in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and (the Mexican state of) Nuevo Leon from 2008-2010.

But in 2011, things had begun to shift. There were 418 homicides in Tijuana that year, and people were already talking about how good things were.

Of course, 10-15 years ago, no one would have found close to 500 homicides to be an acceptable level.

How has violence in Tijuana evolved from the worst days of the drug-war period?

It’s a different kind of violence now.

You don’t see bodies hanging from bridges, decapitated heads, running gun battles in the streets of Tijuana.

Instead, there’s more localized, street-corner violence among local criminals fighting over turf, nothing like what we saw in 2008 and 2009.

What does the current level of violence mean for residents of Tijuana who aren’t criminals?

I don’t think the change in the level of violence — 160 additional homicides — has the same direct effect on daily lives as the 2008 violence, which was really terrifying for people in Tijuana.

For ordinary citizens, for schoolkids, for housewives, for businesspeople, this does not mean a major change in their day-to-day lifestyle. If you’re driving your kids to school every day, this year is no different than last year.

In 2008, you were much more likely to be directly confronted with a sign of this violence.

You were driving under those bridges and seeing those guys hanging from them. I had Mexican students who’d go shopping at Costco and see someone run out with an automatic weapon in front of their car.

I don’t think what we saw last year entered the radar screen of ordinary people.

What calmed the drug wars?

Part of the reason we’re seeing things calm down is that competition has largely eroded. The Sinaloa Cartel largely won. You have one big organization that calls the shots, and nobody really challenges them.

The cartel is still very strong even after the arrest of leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. It’s still the largest and most powerful organization, and his business partners who are at large still have effective control of the organization’s drug operations.

When there’s no competition in the black market, it’s a terrible thing if you’re trying to stop the flow of drugs. But it’s a great thing if you want peace.

Why hasn’t violence in Mexico spread to the U.S.? Several American border cities, like San Diego and El Paso, are among the safest in the country.

If you kill someone in Mexico, there an 80 percent chance you go free. If you kill someone in the U.S., the odds are at least reversed.

The impunity — the lack of punishment for people who commit crimes, the inability to enforce the law — is what leads to criminal behavior and bad behavior in Mexico.

If there were real and immediate consequences for assassins and murderers, you’d have a lot fewer murderers on the street, and they wouldn’t be able to continue to murder people. And it would provide a serious disincentive to anyone thinking about committing a crime.

Why should San Diego-area residents care about violence in Tijuana if they don’t visit Mexico?

If you like margaritas, you don’t have to cross the border to get a margarita. But you probably care about the price of limes. The Mexican state of Michoacan has had such elevated levels of violence and such uncertainty that it’s driven up the price of limes in the Mexico and the United States.

You might say, “So what? I’ll drink my tequila straight.”

But our economy is intimately and directly tied to Mexico’s economy. And half of the Americans who live outside our borders around the world live in Mexico, about a million people.

We are much more dependent on Mexico than any of us realize, and more than many of us would like to admit. What happens in Mexico affects us.

Beyond that, there’s been a massive loss of human life just south of our border. The cause is the drugs that we buy and the drugs that we sell.

For humanitarian reasons, we need to pay attention and attempt to mitigate the violence that we’re partially responsible for.

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