Posted on January 30, 2019

Meth and Murder: A New Kind of Drug War Has Made Tijuana One of the Deadliest Cities on Earth

Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2019


Tijuana, a city of 1.8 million that not long ago was celebrating a major reduction in violence, is in the grip of an unprecedented homicide crisis.

A record 2,518 people were killed here in 2018 — nearly seven times the total in 2012. With 140 killings per 100,000 people, Tijuana is now one of the deadliest cities in the world.

Across the border in San Diego, there were 34 homicides last year, or just over 2 killings per 100,000 people.

The root cause of the bloodshed is fundamentally different from previous iterations of violence in Tijuana.

In the past, the body count was driven by powerful drug cartels battling over lucrative trafficking routes to the United States. Now the main cause is competition in a growing local drug trade, with low-level dealers sometimes dying over the right to sell drugs on a single street corner.

Local and state officials estimate that up to 90% of the city’s homicides are linked to local drug sales, and authorities say they are seeing a similar pattern in Juarez, Cancun and other Mexican cities at the forefront of a nationwide rise in killings, which have nearly doubled over the last three years.


Morgue workers burn incense, run air purifiers and dispense dust masks to visitors to battle the stench of death, but at times bodies pile up on the floor and the smell seeps outside, sickening neighbors down the street.

To understand the violence and its impact on the city, The Times conducted more than three dozen interviews over the last nine months with law enforcement officials, criminal justice experts, gang members, victims and their families.

They blamed one drug for the growing carnage: methamphetamine, or as it is known in Spanish, cristal.

At $2 a dose — and falling as manufacturers create cheaper production methods — it is sold by thousands of competing dealers scattered across the city, from the dusty slums to wealthier parts of town, such as Buena Vista {snip}.


9/11 upends the drug market

Twenty years ago, when Castillo was a kid, the cartels that operated in Tijuana followed an established code.

Drugs — mostly marijuana and cocaine back then — were peddled to tourists in the seedy red-light district or exported to the U.S.

The buyers were gringos, not Mexicans. Tijuana was what experts refer to as a trampoline, a strategic border point used to vault drugs north.

Then, after 9/11, the deadliest attack by foreign terrorists on American soil, the U.S. began to invest billions in border security.

New surveillance technologies and a doubling of the number of Border Patrol staff made it much harder to smuggle drugs into the U.S.

Industrious traffickers responded by digging tunnels under the border and packing more vehicles with smaller shipments of drugs, knowing that many would get caught but some would get through.

Crucially, traffickers also began offloading some of their product in Tijuana, paying local affiliates in drugs, which wound up on the streets for sale.

Its substance of choice was cristal, which the cartels began making in larger quantities when the U.S. passed new restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter medicines that contain precursor chemicals.

Cristal offered a cheap high, and for many Tijuana residents who came from other parts of the country to work in the city’s hundreds of low-slung border factories known as maquiladoras, a way to cope with the loneliness of living far from home.

Public health officials started noticing a rise in meth addiction about a decade ago. Today, nearly 3% of people in the state of Baja California, or about 100,000 people, say they have used the drug, more than any state in Mexico, according to a study by the federal government.


New cartel brings new level of horror

The Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, had tried to take over trafficking routes controlled by the Tijuana cartel and the results were deadly.

Brutal fighting erupted between the cartels — and between the cartels and police and the hundreds of soldiers that then-President Felipe Calderon had sent to Tijuana as part of his new U.S.-backed war on drugs.

The city had never experienced anything like it. Assassins hung bodies from bridges and rolled dismembered heads down city streets. One day, seven police officers were ambushed and killed in the span of 45 minutes. Even wealthy areas were not safe from shootouts.

Warfare was expensive, so gang leaders began kidnapping residents for ransom, spurring an exodus of the city’s upper class. Tourism, on which the economy depended, dried up.

By 2012, the number of homicides had fallen to 367, and Tijuana was blossoming into a tourist destination known for its craft breweries, art and music scene and haute cuisine.

With the Sinaloa cartel beset by infighting after Guzman’s arrest in 2014, other cartels saw opportunity.

Soon the newly ascendant Jalisco New Generation Cartel muscled into Tijuana. It wanted access to the border, and also sought control of the city’s local drug trade.