WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Feb 2013 | Commentary | News

Notes from Tijuana

On February 20th WOLA Senior Associates Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer, invited to speak at the University of California at San Diego, spent an extra day south of the U.S.-Mexico border in the city of Tijuana. With about 1.5 million people, Tijuana is the second-largest city on Mexico’s side of the border region. It is about 15 miles south of San Diego, the largest city on the U.S. side. As recently as 1997, this part of the border was the number-one crossing point for undocumented migrants, Border Patrol apprehension statistics indicate. It has since fallen to fourth place among the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border zone, with a 95 percent drop in migrant apprehensions since 1993.

Tijuana went through an alarming spike in homicides and other violent crime during 2007-2009, as the powerful Sinaloa Cartel fought the long-dominant Arrellano Felix Organization (AFO) organized-crime group for dominance of the city’s trafficking routes and other illegal activity. Tijuana has since calmed dramatically, however: the database managed by the Mexican daily newspaper Milenio documents only four organized crime-related homicides in the entire state of Baja California Norte last December.

One day gave us time for only a few meetings, so we can’t offer a comprehensive look at what has really happened in this corner of the U.S.-Mexico border zone. But here are a few highlights from our notes.

The security situation has Tijuanans feeling optimistic. But the cause for the sharp recent improvement isn’t clear. Much credit goes to the city’s municipal police, which are recovering from a near-collapse in the mid-2000s. Thoroughly corrupted by the AFO and paralyzed by the organized-crime conflict at the time, many police were believed to be working actively for the drug cartels while others simply stopped patrolling much of the city, clearing the way for extortionists, kidnappers, and common looters and thieves to operate unimpeded. In December 2008, then-President Felipe Calderón placed security in the hands of a retired army general, Julián Leyzaola, whose hard-line anti-crime approach included a sweeping “cleansing” of the municipal police. The general’s practices, according to numerous credible accounts, included the detention and torture of several police agents to elicit information about organized-crime ties — even if there was no real evidence linking these individuals to a criminal group.

The military has since withdrawn most of its personnel — though contingents from the Army and Marines remain — and the new municipal police force, with 2,200 agents, is now Tijuana’s dominant security presence. (The Federal Police and Baja California Norte state police, a municipal police official told us, each have only about thirty agents in the city.) The revitalized force is using data-driven methods to guide its deployments, stronger internal controls to weed out corruption, and community policing tactics to improve its coverage of high-crime neighborhoods.

The police changes are important, but they don’t tell the entire story of Tijuana’s newfound peace. Much also owes to a new equilibrium, or accommodation, in the city’s criminal underworld.

Tijuana’s violence is diminished, but there is little evidence that its organized crime activity is diminished. Drug trafficking hasn’t budged. The pace at which cross-border tunnels are being discovered has not slowed. Traffickers are increasingly using small “panga” fishing boats to traffic drugs and migrants up the Pacific coast: “U.S. authorities identified 210 human and drug smuggling attempts at sea during FY2012, up from 45 four years earlier,” the Associated Press reported a few days ago. In 2011, Border Patrol’s San Diego sector seized more cocaine and marijuana than in any year since at least 2001.

The drop in violence, then, does not mean that organized crime has been defeated. If anything, the criminal groups are deliberately restraining themselves. “The cartels want peace too. Violence is bad for business,” a local journalist told us.

Essentially the Sinaloa cartel, headed by most-wanted criminal Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, won its fight with the AFO, and, according to a common theory, a sort of “pact” now governs criminality in the city. Sinaloa’s victory was not complete, though. The AFO, whose roots in Tijuana go back to the 1980s, is weakened (in part because of the death or arrest of most top leaders) but allegedly continues to control the city’s traditional core, from downtown west to the Pacific ocean. But Sinaloa now controls everything else, especially the rapidly growing eastern half of the city. Sinaloa also seems to control most upstream drug flows, with AFO reduced to “living off the rents” of fees charged on anything that passes through its part of town.

With this territorial arrangement in place, the organized crime groups aren’t fighting anymore, and violence is down sharply in Tijuana. (Gen. Leyzaola seems to be presiding over a similar Pax Mafiosa in his current city of assignment, Ciudad Juárez, where an apparent Sinaloa victory over the Juárez cartel has also brought a steep drop in violence, for now at least.) But this, like all criminal equilibria, is unstable. It can flare up again — as it did in Nuevo Laredo when the Zetas brought a new wave of violent competition.

Still, Tijuana’s municipal police deserve some credit here for achieving greater control over common crime, bringing order to neighborhoods that were plainly out of control in 2007-2009. While the problem is far from eradicated, complaints of police corruption are much reduced.

With the 20-year, 95 percent drop in migrant apprehensions, migration trends in this zone have shifted so dramatically that over four times more migrants were deported to Baja California last year (125,732) than were apprehended on the U.S. side, in the San Diego sector (28,461).

With only 60 border miles to guard, the San Diego sector has been largely secured, with Border Patrol estimating in 2010 that nearly 90 percent of these miles were under “operational control,” meaning the agency believed that it could stop any illegal crossings in those areas. The border wall — a double wall in many places — is complete in Tijuana’s city limits. Would-be migrants who seek to cross between official ports of entry largely try to do so elsewhere.
Some go east, to a rugged, treacherous region known as La Rumorosa. Others are attempting the journey on the open ocean in panga boats. But such would-be migrants are fewer in number anyway, as the sluggish U.S. economy has stalled employment prospects.

Personnel at Tijuana’s migrant shelters say that they are seeing very few “first-time” migrants: new arrivals from elsewhere in Mexico, or from other countries, using the city as a staging area from which to cross into the United States. (Here, far from Central America, nearly all new arrivals are Mexican.) Instead, most of those whom the shelters receive are recent deportees, including some who have spent decades in the United States. Many are determined to return northward to be reunited with spouses and children from whom they have been separated. This is a far stronger incentive to risk the trip than a hope of finding a job.

This in turn means that migrants are now willing to pay smugglers as much as US$6,000 or US$7,000 to get them back into the United States. If they are kidnapped for ransom along the way, a practice that remains frequent in Tijuana, they may have to pay several thousand more.

Other deported migrants, including many who are not familiar with Mexico, end up lost in a sort of limbo in Tijuana. Many become addicted to drugs and form a floating population called “indigentes,” concentrated largely in the Tijuana River Canal area near the border. The police and city leadership blame them — in fact, all deportees — for most of Tijuana’s crime. They have formally requested that U.S. authorities reduce deportations to Tijuana so that the city can “consolidate” its security gains.

Crossing back from Tijuana to San Diego reveals a huge imbalance in the U.S. approach to border security. In 1993, each Border Patrol agent in the San Diego sector apprehended 536 migrants. By 2003 that number had fallen to 57 migrants, and last year it was 11 migrants apprehended per agent. Border Patrol would appear to have ample capacity.

Where that capacity is lacking is at the ports of entry between Tijuana and San Diego, through which vehicles, cargo, and all legal crossers must pass. Here, largely for lack of personnel to interview or inspect northbound crossers, wait times routinely exceed two hours.

Like a supermarket lacking enough checkers to keep all of its cash registers open, forcing shoppers to line up to the back of the store, the Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations — many of whose facilities are shabby and antiquated — cannot deal with the demand. (This agency grew by only 14 percent between 2005 and 2011, a period in which Border Patrol doubled.) The result stifles commerce, and likely makes it easier for smugglers to move drugs, migrants and other contraband through the ports of entry.

If an immigration reform bill goes through this spring, it must take note of this. The ports of entry need help far more urgently than the patrollers and fence-builders between the ports of entry.