The cartels flexed their power in Tijuana — and now the battle for influence is on
TIJUANA, Mexico — Moses Zazueta Ramirez was at home last Friday when he started getting messages from his mom and seeing the chaos unfold on social media.
A drug cartel had hijacked and burned more than a dozen vehicles across his home city of Tijuana, and rumors spread that they had announced a curfew. Step outside tonight and there would be trouble, was the story doing the rounds.
It was the third time that week that widespread arson and shootings by drug cartels had been seen in cities across northern Mexico. Shops and bystanders were being targeted, with some officials saying it was in retaliation to arrests of high-level cartel leaders and others attributing it to disputes between gangs.
"I got really scared," Ramirez said. "I don't feel safe."
The rumor about the cartel imposing a curfew on Tijuana wasn't true, but the 23-year-old decided to skip his work at a local restaurant that weekend anyway and stay at home with his girlfriend.
"My coworkers told me that, hey, you got to come ... and I said, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to risk myself to just get some money," he said.
Many others in Tijuana felt the same, and despite assurances of safety from local authorities, the normally bustling border city was eerily quiet on Saturday.
The drug cartels had flexed their power in Tijuana in a way not seen for more than a decade and reignited fear and debate over who is it that really wields influence in the country: the government or the gangs.
In the days since the attacks, military reinforcements have been sent into Tijuana to bolster security. And on Friday, Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador visited and gave a national address from a military base, flanked by senior defense officials.
"Work is underway," he said from inside. "The most important thing is that the causes that lead to insecurity and violence throughout the country and in Baja California are being addressed."
Yet outside, hundreds of Tijuana residents gathered, encouraged to come by Carlos Atilano Peña — a local politician from an opposing political party who is using the moment to spread a very different message.
"Federal authorities say there was no terrorism, but we say we had terrorism here in Tijuana," he told NPR. "Because they gained what they were seeking: to have a lot of problems and fear in the population."
Peña is tapping into a sentiment felt by many. One mother at the rally outside the military base said violence had become a part of life in the region, but the scale of the attack last week still surprised her.
Six people have been arrested in the week since, according to the president. State officials say 17 people were detained and suspects include members of the Jalisco cartel.
Authorities hope the arrests prove they are in control and that they make people feel safe. But it's a hard sell.
"The population had to follow [rumors of a curfew] from criminal groups, whether or not these were verified," said Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, the head of security research at the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at UC San Diego. "This aligns really well with data that we have on the perception that criminal groups have the firepower capacity to effectively confront the state."
"It tells you a lot about how the population perceives the effectiveness of the state, either federal or locally, in terms of their response to what is happening."
Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero says she understands that many residents do take their cues from the cartels, and she is determined to change that.
"It's an unfortunate question of culture, narcos culture," she told NPR. "And I cannot allow a cartel to rule my citizens. I cannot allow citizens to pay the consequences of these criminal acts ... we need them to trust our police."
A 2021 study by the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies found that 64% of Mexicans think organized crime or drug trafficking groups buy public officials. Part of the problem, Caballero said, was previous political leaders in Mexico had either accepted the cartel violence or looked the other way when it happened.
"It has happened a lot, some of their leaders have had these pacts. It's very clear and everyone knows it," Caballero said. "But in this government, there is no pact with criminals. And I'm going to protect the good citizens, the law-abiding citizens."
She also downplayed the severity of last week's attack, saying burning a dozen cars in a city of two million people "statistically does not make it an act of terrorism."
"The situation is serious, but it is not dire. Take precautions if you want to come to Tijuana, but know ... the city remained safe because we contained the situation," she said.
Tijuana hasn't seen this type of violence in its streets since the mid-2000s, when the federal government took a hardline approach on the cartels.
"It was definitely a flashback of other times where you saw this spectacular violence playing out in the city," said Farfán-Méndez, the security expert.
The response today has a similar flavor to back then, as Tijuana is blanketed with military protection. Checkpoints have been set up in some areas and troops can be seen stopping and inspecting cars close to where one of the vehicles was set on fire last Friday.
Yet Farfán-Méndez questioned whether increased military force was the answer, and she pushed back against the focus on cartels. It's easy for politicians to say the violence is just gangs fighting each other, she said, when there were other indicators of problems — like homicides being more common in poorer neighborhoods, and rates remaining stubbornly high for women.
"I think we should really abandon these narco narratives that, even though they can be very sexy and very appealing, do very little in serving us to understand why is it that a place like Tijuana has not been able to reduce levels of violence," she said. "I think these events should encourage us to really think seriously, precisely about what are these structural conditions that allowed this violence to take place."
"I think there's a concern that rather than developing civilian institutions that are devoted to law enforcement, we're seeing increasingly the armed forces getting more duties."
What's more, this model of sending in the National Guard might not do much to calm residents who are resigned to violence.
"Let me put it as an example where I live," said Ramirez, the restaurant worker. "There's a park with a community center and the military people took the place to use it as a base. And right next to that park ... there's this crowd of drug dealers. And the people just walk past and come out with bags full of drugs."
"So nah, I don't think I'm really secure. I don't feel safe at all."
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