Aug. 26-- TIJUANA, Mexico-By the time the Red Cross ambulance pulled into a crowded apartment complex known as Torres del Lago, the man lying face down on a dirt lot was already dead.
Neighbors leaned out their windows on this warm Friday evening, taking in the activity below: flashing lights of patrol cars, forensic specialists dressed in white, members of the ambulance crew checking for vital signals. And outside the cordoned crime scene, two young women clasped in a tight embrace, one crying out for her brother: "Mi hermano, mi hermano."
Such scenes have been playing out largely in Tijuana's vast working-class neighborhoods in recent months as the violence rises to record levels. So far this year, there have been more than 1,025 victims, according to the Baja California Attorney General's Office, many of them believed to be connected in some way to the neighborhood drug trade.
The sum surpasses last year's total of 910, which had set a record for this city of some 1.8 million residents. During just one week in August, 48 people lost their lives in homicides, nearly the same total of homicide victims in the city of San Diego all of last year.
The flood of victims has overwhelmed homicide investigators, leaving nearly 9 out of 10 crimes unsolved. The state medical examiner's office is struggling with too little space and too few staff as the bodies don't stop arriving and often linger for too long. The city's Red Cross, which responds to 98 percent of Tijuana's ambulance calls, has handled twice as many shootings as last year. In many cases, the victims are already dead by the time the ambulance arrives.
The factors leading to this unprecedented bloodshed are a lethal combination: Rampant infighting among street-level dealers; growing local demand for methamphetamine, a cheap and highly addictive synthetic drug; the rise of a new cartel in Mexico and its bid for the Tijuana plaza; an unfettered flow of illegal firearms from the U.S.; and law enforcement agencies struggling with corruption and lack of funding-or both-that allow too many crimes to go unpunished. And police complain Mexico's new criminal justice system makes it harder to keep suspects behind bars.
"How many millions of pesos have we spent on security, and yet the results are not there," asked Juan Manuel Hernandez, head of the statewide Citizens Public Safety Committee during a forum in August. "How do we go from indignation to action?"
On one question there is no dispute: Most of the violence of recent decades has been closely tied to the drug trade. The city's location on the California border has long made it a coveted corridor for trafficking organizations vying to control routes to the lucrative U.S. market. But as it has become harder to cross the contraband, Tijuana developed its own growing internal market.
Marco Antonio Sotomayor, the city's public safety secretary, said this widespread availability of drugs is at the core of the rising violence.
"The heart of all of this is addictions," Sotomayor said from his office in Tijuana's Rio Zone. "Before we didn't have such a strong addiction problem in Tijuana, in Mexico. We were a country where drugs passed through, but now it's also business to sell."
Homicides nationally have been hitting record levels in Mexico in 2017, with May and June registering the highest numbers of any months in the past two decades. David Shirk, a professor at University of San Diego who studies organized crime in Mexico, says this rise in violence has paralleled the emergence of a new drug trafficking group, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion, and Tijuana is no exception.
"The answer is always a question of what are the areas that are now subject to competition between rival organizations or factions within the organization," he said. "To me, that's where Tijuana fits in. It's one of several places around the country, perhaps the most valuable, where we see competition between rival organizations."
Violence in Tijuana spiked a decade ago when the long-dominant Arellano Felix Organization suffered a challenge from a splinter group backed by the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. The Sinaloa group ultimately prevailed, but not before the battle led to open confrontations, gruesome scenes of beheadings and bodies hung from overpasses. Extortions and kidnappings drove well-to-do residents to San Diego, and restaurants emptied as patrons grew fearful of getting caught in crossfires.
Today, there is once again no clear control of the Tijuana plaza-but nor is there an all-out battle among leaders. Law enforcement officials have noted the presence both of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion that has forged an alliance with remnants of the Arellano Felix Organization.
"It's not the ones at the top that are killing each other," said Victor Clark, a human rights activist and longtime observer of Tijuana's drug violence. "What's happening is that the one at the top cannot control the ones at the bottom."
Compared with a decade ago, extortions and kidnappings are down, authorities say, and homicides are largely relegated to vast outlying working-class neighborhoods. These are places with too few parks and police but too many guns, drugs and profound social needs.
Their names appear with regularity on the daily homicide list: El Florido, Villa del Campo, Villa del Prado, Camino Verde. They are neighborhoods where families crowd together in vast developments of tiny mass-produced houses, or up steep canyons cut off from the bustling boulevards down below. With parents working, too many children are left to fend for themselves.
These are areas a far cry from the upscale neighborhoods on the other side of town where tourists and residents can find a flourishing scene of concerts and festivals, art galleries, cutting edge restaurants, new residential high-rises, and a growing offering of breweries and upscale cafes. Business leaders report that tourism numbers and investments in the city are up. Visitors are not being targeted.
The violence has risen in neighborhoods cut off from opportunity, places that authorities say are havens for methamphetamine, a drug whose use has grown on both sides of the border. In Tijuana, a dose sells on the street for 50 pesos, under $3, said Clark, the human rights activist. "There is an enormous population of addicts because there is an enormous supply of drugs," he said.
Authorities contend that a majority of victims and perpetrators are narcomenudistas, street dealers fighting over city blocks. They are described as "gente de poca monta"-small-fry at the bottom of the hierarchy of drug trafficking organizations who can be easily replaced.
"The big capos, they're not going to show their faces," said Miguel Angel Guerrero, head of the state's homicide investigations unit in Tijuana. "They're not going to come and fight over the tienditas, the little shops." And these top leaders care little about the fate of those at the bottom of the pyramid. "You could kill off 1,000 or 2,000 of these sellers of crystal meth, and they can replace them with others."
Too many killings take place in daylight hours, as schoolchildren return home, shops are busy, and colorful open-air markets draw crowds of customers to the remotest corners of the city.
One August afternoon, in the eastern Tijuana neighborhood known as El Florido Primera Seccion, the body of a man shot to death lay beneath a tree in one corner of the neighborhood's Calimax supermarket parking lot, drawing onlookers just outside the yellow police tape, and a small silent group that stood apart-the man's family members. Others simply continued their shopping, undeterred.
"This is very common, people just don't get spooked anymore," said a taxi driver who lives in a development nearby. "A lot of what happens doesn't even get reported in the newspapers."
Other communities in Mexico have higher homicide rates, but few if any can surpass this year's numbers for Tijuana, the largest city on Mexico's northern border. Chicago is often cited as the murder capital of the U.S., but with nearly a million more people, its 762 murders last year will be less than half of what Tijuana total would be if it killings continue at the current rate.
In marked contrast, Baja California's capital and second-largest city, Mexicali, has about half the population of Tijuana-but only a tenth of the murders, just over 100 so far this year. Authorities say the majority are not drug-related.
During the first week of August, Tijuana's victims reflected the over-all trend: most were male, and between 20 and 40 years of age, according to an analysis of initial reports by the Baja California Attorney General's office. Most were shot to death, a handful dying of their injuries in a hospital. One body was found wrapped in clear plastic material, another in an ice chest. Two bodies were found burned, one left by the side of a road, another inside the trunk of a car. But the victims of that first week also included people caught in the crossfire, including a 17-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl who took a bullet to the chest but survived.
Jorge Luis Gonzalez Lopez, 31, was among those killed that week, pursued late on a Friday afternoon by a gunman who shot him in the head. The assault took place in full view of the victim's neighbors at Torres del Lago, a collection of brightly colored buildings off a major thoroughfare known as Gato Bronco. "At the moment this happened, there were many children, they saw the whole thing, they were running, running, running," said a neighbor, Claudia Velazquez, who works in the day-care center of a maquiladora.
Another victim in early August was Jose Luis Nunez Lopez, 27, a police officer shot to death in broad daylight early on a Tuesday afternoon as he left his house two blocks from a police substation in a middle class neighborhood uphill from downtown, Jardines del Rubi.
The officer had a good record, according to the department. Though two suspects have been arrested, one of them 16 years old, and both have given statements, authorities said their investigation is continuing and have yet to announce a motive for the crime.
Also killed in August was Romelia Lucero Quinonez, a woman in her late 40s gunned down in the impoverished eastern community of Valle Verde on a Wednesday afternoon while playing pinball games outside a small grocery store.
She was a regular at Abarrotes Alma, a small neighborhood grocery, and stopped by several times a day to buy food and play las maquinitas, employees said.
Lucero was not a member of the drug trade-but her son was, said Guerrero, the head of Tijuana's homicide unit. Convicted of homicide, he is now behind bars.
The mother's murder was a revenge killing, payback for her son's collaboration with authorities following his own conviction of killing a rival drug dealer, Guerrero said. But she was not the only casualty.
Two days later, on Friday morning, another woman was gunned down in the same neighborhood eating tacos at an outdoor market. The reason: She had been a witness to Lucero's murder, Guerrero said. In that same incident, two by-standers were struck by gunfire, a 17-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl who was shot in the chest but survived.
Several hours later, Edgar Guerrero Cervantes, who had just turned 18, was struck down at Infonavit Capistrano, a complex of grim brown apartment buildings at the foot of Cerro Colorado, Tijuana's tallest hill. He had been hanging out with friends outside Gasmart Stadium, hoping to attend a post-game concert, his father said.
But as lights shone and music pounded from the stadium's speakers, dozens of heavily armed officers converged on the darkened courtyard where the teenager's lifeless body lay face up, his head in a pool of blood. Nearby, two shaken suspects lay on the ground, face down, their hands bound; they were later released, found unconnected to the crime, according to police.
The teenager had grown up in the complex, the youngest of five children; his father drives a bus that picks up maquiladora workers, and his mother works as a factory seamstress. Though the family had moved away to a different neighborhood, the teen often returned to visit his grandmother and childhood friends. "He was bien curado, really cool, not the kind of guy to pick a fight," said one of those friends," a 17-year-old high school student who said he was with Guerrero when an assailant fired three shots, striking his friend once.
At the funeral home where he was making preparations to bury his son the teenager's father, Raymundo Guerrero, said he believed his son was shot by police who mistook him for a suspect who had opened fire at them. Homicide investigators agree that there was much confusion that night-but don't believe the bullet came from a police officer's gun. "The caliber doesn't correspond to those of the police weapons," said Guerrero, the homicide chief.
His son was a hardworking teenager who left school after ninth grade, but had found work at a landfill, the father said. He was already the father of a 1-year-old, "and wanted to make an effort for her," Raymundo Guerrero said.
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Authorities admit the great majority of homicides are never solved. In the cases involving drug disputes, witnesses and family members often refuse to cooperate. Just identifying the victims can be a challenge. Plus, the sheer number of victims has created a crushing workload for the state's 70-member homicide investigations unit in the city.
Guerrero said the unit currently has a clearance rate of about 12 percent. That's about the same as Flint, Mich., which has the worst record in the U.S. for solving homicides. One factor that hampers many investigations is that ministeriales, as the state investigators are known, often get little collaboration from the victim's family members, who may themselves be linked to the drug trade and have something to hide
The homicide unit places priority on incidents where children are killed, no matter what the reason, including those who find themselves in harm's way when drug violence occurs. And crimes of passion, those targeting innocent victims, "we must solve these, whatever it takes," Guerrero said.
But given limited resources and the struggle to find witnesses, cases that involve the drug trade don't receive the same priority. "We don't have the luxury of spending two months to solve a case, if a case is two weeks and is getting you nowhere, drop it and grab another."
Many suspects who are detained and questioned have no idea who they are ultimately working for. They'll say, "We think we are with Sinaloa," Guerrero said. "The leaders of today protect themselves."
Guerrero said 85 percent of suspects are linked to the neighborhood drug trade. And nearly 80 percent of victims have some kind of criminal record, typically for crimes such as selling drugs, carrying a firearm, car theft, gang activity. Many of the victims are also drug abusers, he said.
The rising numbers of homicides has also been taxing on the Baja California medical examiner's office, known as SEMEFO, which conducts autopsies on all victims of violent death. In an interview, Dr. Raul Gonzalez Vaca, the state director, denied a Tijuana news report stating that the situation has gotten so dire that they have had to leave cadavers on the floor.
The Tijuana facility can store up to 120 cadavers in the refrigeration unit." We are always at our limit,' he said.
He said that when the numbers go beyond that-they've had up to 140 at a time-they resort to keeping the overflow on portable gurneys in a refrigerated autopsy chamber. The policy is that bodies still unclaimed after ten days are sent to a common grave, but state investigators must first sign off on their removal-and that can take time.
To help deal with the high workload, the Tijuana office has been assigned two more medical examiner positions, but "it's not enough," he said.
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In June, Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid launched a 47-point statewide "Crusade for Security" aimed at uniting all levels of government with the Mexican military and the state's private sector. In July, the issue got more visibility with a visit by Mexico's interior secretary, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, who called for going after the top leaders of drug trafficking organizations-in Baja California and across Mexico.
But in Tijuana, critics say the issue has yet to get the attention it deserves. "It seems as though the problem is being minimized, as though it doesn't exist," said Roberto Quijano, the only political independent on the Tijuana City Council. "The first thing you have to do is recognize the problem, because if you don't you're not going to act in consequence."
Hernandez, head of the Citizens Council for Public Safety, a statewide civic organization, said the Crusade for Public Safety has not yielded the desired results. While top leaders are getting together, "you don't see the coordination taking place at the operational level," he said.
The group is calling for a full diagnosis of the problem, with more data on addiction, and analyses of what resources are needed to address the issue. Professionalization of law enforcement agencies is key, he said, especially as many are learning a new system as Mexico transitions to U.S.-style with oral trials.
Hernandez said police officers must have better working conditions-with pensions, and guarantees that their families will be cared for if they are killed in the line of duty, Hernandez said. And careers of top police officials, he said, must transcend any changes in administrations.
For Guerrero, the head of homicides, the situation calls for a broad-based response that addresses the underlying causes. 'This is not just a problem for the homicide unit, it's a problem for all of society," he said. "This is not a problem that is going to be solved with weapons, with police, putting people in jail. That is not going to be the solution."
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In Valle Verde, few knew much about Romelia Lucero, the woman gunned down as she played pinball outside Abarrotes Alma. Or if they did, they weren't willing to say.
She had recently moved into around the corner, into a house hidden behind a fence fashioned from scrap wood and barbed wire, and had only been a customer for about a month, said the store's owner. "She would buy her tortillas in the morning, and at night, she'd buy things for dinner."
A neighbor said he saw her often at las maquinitas, the pinball machines. "Pobrecita, poor thing, he said. "She did not seem to be causing any harm."
Lucero's daughter and ex-husband claimed the body, purchasing a burial package from the state-run social assistance office that helps the city's poorest residents bury their dead.
Lucero was laid to rest in a wooden coffin in Panteon Numero 12, a city-run cemetery in a windy valley at Tijuana's eastern edge,. These days, most who are buried here arrive with paperwork showing they are homicide victims, said Jose Pardave, the cemetery's administrator. But that makes no difference to his workers.
"We just get there, lower the coffin, and fill in the dirt, and that's all there is to it," he said.
Back in Valle Verde, the floor at Abarrotes Alma was quickly cleaned up on the day after Lucero's killing, and the shop was back in business.
But the outdoor pinball machines had vanished. The only reminders of the bloodshed were the bullet-holes in a metal door frame and a small wood cross with the hand-painted words "dona Lucero."
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