Mexican border city Tijuana saw a grisly weekend of eight murders, raising fears that the city is returning to the days of decapitated bodies hanging from bridges. The continued unrest, though, is probably not a harbinger of fresh violence to come but rather the result of spasms in the reorganization of the various cartels with a presence in this key trafficking location.
The latest killings, including that of a 7-year-old boy gunned down next to his father, bring the city’s murder toll to 117 so far this year. This further undermines President Calderon’s hailing of Tijuana as a much-needed success story in the country’s drug war.
However, the latest murders likely do not signal a return to the wave of horrific violence which swamped the city in 2008, but are rather aftershocks from the major realignment that took place within the region’s dominant cartel at that time.
The Tijuana Cartel (a.k.a. the Arellano Felix Cartel) fractured in early 2008. Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias ‘El Ingeniero,’ kept control of one part, creating a non-aggression pact with the Zetas and an alliance with the Beltran Leyva Organziation, while Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias ‘El Teo’ or ‘Tres Letras,’ formed a new faction, allied with the Sinaloa Cartel.
This fracturing of command, along with the increased presence of powerful outside groups in the region’s organized crime, sparked a bloodbath in the city. It was the scene of pitched battles between rival factions, and the discovery of mutilated bodies in public places became a regular occurrence. Murders related to organized crime jumped six-fold between the third and fourth quarters of 2008, rising to 614 in only three months, before falling back just as quickly almost to their previous level in the first quarter of 2009, with the reestablishment of some kind of order once the two factions had split.
Despite the government’s vaunted security increases, little has changed in terms of the murder rate since then. The federal government’s figures show a 12 percent rise in murders caused by organized crime in 2010, while one newspaper’s figures show a slight fall during the period. What has changed is the style of the killings – there are far fewer of the violent spectacles designed to spread fear. This may be due to the cartels ordering their operatives to keep a low profile and not attract too much attention from law enforcement.
The spate of killings in the first months of 2011, while alarming, mark a significantly lower murder rate than the same months in 2010. A spike in violence in those three months, with 146 organized crime-related murders, signified another period of fast readjustment following the arrest of Garcia Simental in January 2010.
This year’s murders can be blamed on the different factions continuing to settle their shifting alliances in the wake of the 2008 split, and then Garcia Simental’s arrest, after which the Tijuana Cartel began dealing directly with the Sinaloa Cartel. Some reports say that the recent deaths are due to frictions around this developing alliance, which is opposed by some of Sanchez Arellano’s men, while there are internal disputes between Sinaloa Cartel’s operatives in the region, such as Alfredo Arteaga, alias ‘El Aquiles.’
With the break up of the once-mighty Tijuana Cartel other groups have moved in as well as the Sinaloa Cartel, such as the Familia Michoacana, drawn by the fact that the security forces pay relatively little attention to the city compared to the area around Ciudad Juarez. Still, authorities say the Familia still pays the Tijuana Cartel “rent,” or what’s known as ‘piso’ in Mexico, in order to use the area as a corridor to move drugs north, a sign that the group remains a force.
The fracturing of the old command in Tijuana has also led to a rise in micro-trafficking, i.e., the small-scale selling of drugs at the local level. To many, this is the principal factor behind the violence as different groups war over the territory they control. Local paper Zeta identifies disputes between microtraffickers as the main cause for the rash of executions that have taken place in the state of Baja California this year.
InSight has highlighted this trend towards fragmentation in organized criminal groups across the Americas, and noted that groups breaking down into smaller factions can cause more crime due to vicious in-fighting over small bits of territory and over more localized businesses like microtrafficking. This phenomenon can be observed in the rising violence in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez and less dramatically in Medellin, Colombia.
In sum, the break-up of the Tijuana Cartel and accompanying encroachment of the Sinaloa Cartel do more to explain the continuing violence than the government’s security efforts. If the city’s rival criminal groups continue in their reaccommodation of one another without anything happening to tip the balance, the relative peace could hold, even as violence amongst the smaller factions spirals.