In a country with nearly 100 murders a day President Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador has vowed to tackle the social roots of crime but change is slow to come

Brianna Rojas seemed her usual breezy self as she set off for work.

Ill see you later! friends remember the 20-year-old calling out as she headed to her insurance companys bright yellow offices on Tijuanas Calle del Carmen.

But by lunchtime Rojas was dead shot in the head at close range by an unknown assassin whose attack pushed the number of homicides here to almost 1,800 so far this year, and nearly 26,000 nationwide.

series linker

When first responders arrived they encountered a fearful scene: the victim slumped backwards in a black swivel chair, her arms flopping downwards towards a pool of blood as if she had been caught completely by surprise.

She was a decent girl, a good-looking girl she was always smiling, said her longtime boyfriends father as shellshocked relatives gathered outside and crime scene officers prepared to transport Rojass body to the citys overburdened morgue.

Its devastating what is happening here, said the man, who asked not to be named. It is out of control.

A white forensic science van waits to remove the body of Brianna Rojas from her Tijuana workplace after she was murdered there on 8 October 2019. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

Pacifying Mexico

When Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador became Mexicos president last December he vowed to pacify one of Latin Americas most violent nations by waging war on the social roots of crime.

But nearly a year later there is scant sign of progress, as the country reels from a series of humiliating high-profile attacks and murder statistics surge to levels not seen even during the darkest days of Felipe Calderns 2006-2012 war on drugs.

Quick guide

Mexico’s evolving war on drugs

Caldern sends in the army

Mexicos war on drugs began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Caldern, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacn.

Caldern hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexicos military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.

Kingpin strategy

Simultaneously Caldern also began pursuing the so-calledkingpin strategyby which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.

That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps notably Arturo Beltrn Leyva who wasgunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.

Under Calderns successor, Enrique Pea Nieto, the governments rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the worlds most murderous mafia groups.

But Calderns policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloas Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn.

When El Chapo was arrested in early 2016, Mexicos president bragged: Mission accomplished. But the violence went on. By the time Pea Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.

“Hugs not bullets”

The leftwing populist Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. Lpez Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime,offering vocational trainingto more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.

It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare, Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his hugs not bullets doctrine.

Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong “National Guard”. But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.

Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.

Last month Mexicos security chief, Alfonso Durazo, claimed the crisis was reaching inflection point only for his upbeat message to be imploded by a week of mayhem which saw cartel gunmen slay 13 police officers and then paralyze a major city in order to free the son of Mexicos most famous drug lord, Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn.

In the first nine months of this year, Mexico suffered an average of close to 100 murders a day.

Tijuana has seen a methamphetamine-fuelled murder epidemic which produced a record 2,518 murders in 2018 and looks set to cause even more this year.

The state has lost control, said Victor Clark, a security expert and activist based in the city.

A man carrying a Mexican flag walks through downtown Tijuana to celebrate the countrys recent independence day. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

Killings that matter to no one

To explore the violence blighting Latin Americas number two economy the Guardian spent seven days reporting from Tijuana one of the worlds most deadly cities between 4 and 11 October.

The Guardians week had an unusually peacefully start, with not a single murder recorded in the first 24 hours, according to the newly elected mayor, Arturo Gonzlez Cruz.

Gonzlez, a Lpez Obrador ally, claimed that had not happened in several years and voiced frustration the media had ignored the achievement.

But by day two the slaughter had resumed. At 6am a mans body was found dumped in the eastern neighbourhood of Emperadores. At 11.35am a decomposing pair of legs were spotted on wasteland in the citys south. And at 2.45pm an unidentified killer barged into a home on Calle Tamaulipas, pulled out a gun and brought an unidentified males life to an end.


Municipal police officers mounted an operation to track down the person thought responsible for the attack, one local tabloid reported though in a country where more than 90% of crimes go unpunished there was no indication they had succeeded.

Outside Tijuanas general hospital a bullet-riddled people-carrier bore witness to the latest gunfight.

What had happened? An accident, a police investigator snapped, shooing reporters away as forensic science officers marked each of the entry holes with white cards marked A-K.

The next evening 30-year-old Jess Bernal staggered into an alley off Calle Belice, blood oozing from at least four separate gunshot wounds in his legs and wrists.

Red Cross first responders treat 30-year-old Jess Bernal after he was found with at least four separate gunshot wounds in his legs and wrists. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

As ambulance technicians strapped the blood-spattered man to a stretcher with silver duct tape, a police officer claimed he was a convicted burglar probably shot while trying to rob a local home.

Its a punishment a message, speculated one of the first responders.

But like so much of the bloodletting, the case would go unreported by newspapers, unnoticed by society and unsolved by the police.

These are killings that matter to no one, Clark said.

Tijuanas new mayor, Arturo Gonzlez Cruz, said the citys murder crisis would only be solved by rehabilitating the citys social fabric. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

An era of great psychological terror

It has been just over a decade since a savage turf war for control of drug smuggling routes into the United States made Tijuana one of the most ill-famed cities on Earth.

There was an explosion of carnage in 2008 as El Chapos Sinaloa cartel tried to muscle in on what had long been the domain of the locally based Tijuana mob.

Corpses were hung from bridges and shootouts raged, even in the citys most glitzy corners. In one of the most disturbing episodes 12 corpses were abandoned with their tongues hacked out and placed nearby in a black plastic bag.

You couldnt go out because you were scared of what might happen, recalled Dora Elena Corts, a local journalist whose Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias chronicled the butchery. It was an era of great psychological terror.

Negative headlines sparked government action and by 2012 the number of annual murders had plunged. But Tijuanas murder rate is now soaring once again with the slaughter so routine that one local newspaper features a muertmetro (deathometer) to help readers keep track.

Authorities and academics blame the new wave of violence on a largely hidden dispute for Tijuanas drug trade particularly that of crystal meth although Brianna Rojass murder did not seem to fit that mould.

These deaths arent about the fight for control of the routes into the US. Theyre fighting over the local market, said Clark.

That appeared to be what was at stake on the night of 8 October when dozens of heavily armed police descended on a petrol station after a drive-by shooting left four men injured, one critically.

Illuminated in the the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles, a half-naked man lay in a pool of blood, shot through the thigh and fighting for his life.

Police officers interrogate one of four men injured in a drive-by shooting at a Tijuana petrol station on 8 October. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

After a 10-minute race to the hospital, he was carried in past police with white skulls stamped on to their black uniforms and rifles slung from their shoulders. Investigators barked questions at the mans three accomplices as they lay bleeding in the corridor.

Mayor Gonzlez admitted it was unreal to expect an immediate end to Tijuanas murder crisis but hoped the body count could be reduced and insisted the citys economic dynamism remained unaffected.

During an interview at Tijuanas brutalist city hall he reiterated the presidents doctrine that crime would only be stopped by rehabilitating Tijuanas social fabric and eradicating corruption.

Corruption is the mother of all evils, because it affects everything, Gonzlez said.

Clark, the expert who has spent decades tracking Tijuanas security situation, was pessimistic such tactics alone would work. So far nothing has changed absolutely nothing, he said of Lpez Obradors first year in power.

I dont doubt he has good intentions. But what they are doing isnt enough.

For residents of Boulevard Fundadores, where Tijuanas public mortuary is located, change cannot come fast enough.

An addict approaches a hillside shooting gallery in Tijuana to buy drugs just minutes after a man was shot in the head inside. Photograph: Emilio Espejel/The Guardian

On the afternoon of 9 October, as Brianna Rojass mother came to recover her daughters corpse, the cloying stench of decomposing bodies hung in the air. Its horrible. Every single day we breathe death, fumed one local woman who has been campaigning to get the morgue moved.

The woman reached for her smartphone to show a series of macabre images depicting conditions inside. One showed perhaps two dozen naked corpses sprawled on the floor, a putrid tangle of bloodied limbs. At night its like there are 60 dead dogs lying out here, the woman complained of the reek. We cant open our windows.

Forty-eight hours later as the week reached a bloody peak – emergency workers from Mexicos Red Cross raced westwards to collect their latest cargo from a tumbledown community called Francisco Villa.

A man was hauled semi-conscious from a hillside shooting gallery and hoisted into the ambulance, his arms bound with bandages to prevent him lashing out. He got shot in the skull, one of the team said.

Would he survive? 50-50, they replied.

Additional reporting by Jordi Lebrija



Recommended For You

Like it? Share with your friends!


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.