In revived Tijuana, a new calm delights - and mystifies

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 27, 2012 

TIJUANA, Mexico — This border city, once as violent as any in Mexico's drug-fueled trafficking wars, appears to have shaken off narco-related mayhem, allowing an explosion of new music halls, art galleries and world-class restaurants.

Tijuana's 1.6 million residents are grateful for the calm, which allows them once again to dine out at night, visit nightclubs and generally exist without fear of the sudden, random violence that had become so much a part of Mexican life.

But behind the relative peace is a nagging question: Why did it occur? Residents admit that they don't know.

"It's not very clear what happened," said Luis Ituarte, an artist and promoter. "It's just not as bad as it used to be."

Security officials credit better policing and the arrival of army patrols. Activists say that emboldened citizens began ratting out gangsters.

But some experts cite a more sinister reason. They say the calm is because Mexico's most powerful crime group has seized control of Tijuana's key drug-trafficking corridor and now enforces the peace. Rival drug gangs that used to gun down one another simply are working together now.

The issue goes beyond Tijuana's boundaries. Some Mexicans in the nation's interior hail Tijuana as a model for how to combat runaway violence. If, however, the calm is owed to once-feuding drug lords having settled their battles, any effort to replicate it elsewhere will only muddle a law-and-order problem.

Whatever the case, relief is palpable. In a city long known for forbidden pursuits such as gambling and prostitution, residents wear their fame for perdition lightly, enjoying nights out on the town. Few delve into the reasons for the calm.

"People are feeling confident again to walk in the streets," said Rosa Aida Garcia, who's operated the Dandy del Sur cantina for 36 years.

Her establishment is on 6th Avenue, ground zero in the renaissance of Tijuana's music scene. Dozens of bars have opened along a few blocks of the street, catering to locals. The musical outpouring is wildly creative, fusing rock and Mexico's own nortena style, with accordion and violin riffs overlaying the sounds of electric guitars.

"It's like very rabid regional Mexican music mixed with, like, insane electronica," said Derrik Chinn, an American transplant who leads tourists on day trips to explore Tijuana's off-the-beaten-path revival.

"It's paradoxical that amid all the violence there's been such a boom in cultural activities. There are art galleries, book fairs, expositions and the like," said Victor Clark Alfaro, an anthropologist and human rights activist in Tijuana.

Tijuana, a city across the border from San Diego with barely a century of history, has long had its fate linked to the tourist trade. Americans began coming here during Prohibition, when cantinas boomed. In subsequent cycles, tourists were drawn for gambling, abortions, and quickie marriages and divorces.

The tourist flow slowed with stricter border controls after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and ebbed further as the once-powerful Arellano Felix gang disintegrated in internecine feuding.

The Arellano Felix brothers — at least five were involved in narcotics trafficking — had allied with Colombian traffickers in the 1980s and 1990s to smuggle cocaine into California, the most lucrative U.S. drug market. For years, the cartel imposed control by murdering prosecutors, police and judges.

But in the past decade, the group began to disintegrate, and different factions fought with one another. One faction even employed a body disposal expert, "El Pozolero," or "The Stew Maker," who dissolved victims in barrels of lye.

Mutilated bodies hung from bridges and turned up in empty lots. The number of murders soared, from a reported 300 or so annually in the years just before to 844 in 2008 and 1,250 in 2009, the worst year. In 2010, it dropped back to 809, and it fell last year to 479.

Police Chief Alberto Capella Ibarra said Tijuana's once deeply corrupt force had undergone "total, radical change."

Since 2007, about 500 officers have been removed from their jobs, mostly for suspicion of links to organized crime, and 80 to 100 are in prison, said Capella, who served as chief in 2007-08 and returned to the job last year.

"People speak of us as a hopeful model in which citizens have become very active, and institutions have become more brave. This is what is offering us tranquillity," Capella said.

Development officials aim for the greater Tijuana area to resume its position as one of Mexico's economic engines. The region hosts 700 assembly plants, or maquilas, with specialties in electronics and medical devices. Some 40 companies specialize in components for the aerospace industry.

"I'm not going to lie. There are still drugs and shootings," said Mario C. Lopez, the executive director of the Tijuana Economic Development Council. "But the reduction in homicides is dramatic."

"If you measure how bad it is on a scale of one to 10, and 10 were like Baghdad or the Middle East or Gaza Strip, Tijuana got to a seven or eight at some point. Probably right now, we're at a three or four," Lopez said.

Most of the murders today are in marginal neighborhoods on Tijuana's periphery, leaving the financial and tourist areas largely free of violence.

Throughout the city, murals with hopeful slogans brighten walls. Many of them are the work of Reacciona Tijuana, a citizen movement founded by a publicist, Gabriela Posada del Real. More than half of Tijuana's population was born elsewhere, and social class plays a smaller role here than in other Mexican cities, she said.

"There's more freedom here, maybe because we don't reject the 'black legend' of Tijuana. We are more permissive," Posada del Real said.

That open-mindedness has found its way into the kitchens of restaurants in an area designated as Tijuana's gastronomic district.

One chef, Javier Plascencia, and his restaurant Mision 19 were written up last month in The New Yorker magazine, highlighting Tijuana's culinary renaissance. It said the city's talented chefs and unique "Baja Med" cuisine were rehabilitating the city's reputation one bite at a time.

But Tijuana's apparent tranquillity doesn't satisfy everyone. Adela Navarro Bello, the director of the muckraking weekly magazine Zeta, is one of those.

"Look, there isn't high-impact violence," she acknowledged. "We don't have shootouts at noon next to a nursery school, and they aren't throwing the bodies of 12 execution victims on patios."

But still she calls the calm "a fiction."

"It is a tranquillity that has arisen from an evident agreement between criminal organizations and those who are in power," she said. "Drug trafficking is still going on, and the authorities aren't identifying the traffickers, not pursuing them."

Law enforcement experts said today's calm dated from events after the splintering of the Arellano Felix clan, which had controlled Tijuana's trafficking routes for two decades. Then in 2007, the powerful Sinaloa Cartel moved in. It recruited an Arellano Felix capo, Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, to its ranks, prompting an all-out turf war. Garcia was arrested in 2010.

Peace came when Luis Fernando Sanchez Arellano, nephew of the Arellano Felix patriarch and leader of the weakened clan, apparently decided to cooperate with the Sinaloa Cartel rather than battle it.

Through "narco diplomacy," the two gangs agreed to bundle drugs in shipments, with the Sanchez Arellano side receiving a minority stake. Some bales of marijuana seized in the past two years bore stickers of both the Sinaloa Cartel and of Sanchez Arellano, who's known as "El Ingeniero," or "The Engineer."

Some observers see the detente as fragile and likely to last only as long as the Sinaloa Cartel wants it that way.

Ituarte, the artist, said that as long as calm endured, Tijuana's creative animal spirits would thrive, thrusting the city in new directions.

"I have never been more hopeful about Tijuana than now," he said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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