A convoy of three hundred military troops joined the elements of Mexico’s National Guard at the Tijuana International Airport, on Saturday, Aug.13, 2022, in response to Friday’s simultaneous attacks on public transit and vehicles from armed crime organizations all over Baja California. / Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for Voice of San Diego
A convoy of three hundred military troops joined the elements of Mexico’s National Guard at the Tijuana International Airport, on Saturday, Aug.13, 2022, in response to Friday’s simultaneous attacks on public transit and vehicles from armed crime organizations all over Baja California. / Photo by Carlos A. Moreno for Voice of San Diego

From a distance, watching the images on my cellphone, Tijuana looked like Armageddon — flames rising from burning vehicles, groups of heavily armed soldiers, and the famed Avenida Revolucion eerily deserted on a Friday night earlier this month. I’d been visiting a friend in Mexico City when the fires were set across Baja California — according to authorities on orders of a drug trafficking group, the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación.

Now, more than a week later, I’m sitting in my favorite café in Tijuana’s upscale Rio Zone, watching the streets packed with cars again on a Monday afternoon. The city has quickly resumed its rhythms, as students statewide go back to school this month. Life seems back to normal in many respects. And yet so many questions linger. Why were the fires set, and what message were they meant to send? What’s to prevent this from happening again?

First, a summary: On Friday, Aug. 12, criminals set fire to cars, buses and trucks in the municipalities of Tijuana, Mexicali, Tecate and Rosarito Beach. Unconfirmed social media messages, supposedly from the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, announced a curfew through the weekend. That same night, Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero issued a video message saying Tijuana would remain open, drawing criticism as she called on criminal groups “to settle their debts with those who didn’t pay, not with families and hard-working citizens.”

On Saturday, federal reinforcements landed in Tijuana — 350 army soldiers and 50 members of the national guard, to strengthen the force of 2,000 municipal police officers and 3,000 guard members already on the ground.

Also Saturday, eight suspects were flown to Mexico City, to face federal charges of organized crime and terrorism. The following Monday, Aug. 15, six suspects accused of setting fires in Baja California were arrested in the state of Sinaloa.

On Wednesday, Baja California Attorney General Ricardo Carpio stated that the Jalisco Cartel instigated the fires, in order to create fear so that “they can impose their own rules.” He said a total of 42 vehicles had been burned statewide. He also confirmed a report by the Mexican network Milenio of a suspect who confessed he was paid 3,000 pesos — about $150 —  for every vehicle set afire.

On Friday, The Tijuana newsweekly Zeta reported a total of 20 detainees in connection with the incidents. But the two main leaders, identified members of a CJNG homicide cell, reportedly remained at large, according to the report.

The fallout: In the immediate aftermath of the fires, more than half of the city’s maquiladora factories reported partial or total closures. Public transportation was scarce. The U.S. Consulate urged its citizens to shelter in place.  Cross-border medical visits to the city plummeted. But it was those whose vehicles were burned who suffered the greatest harm.

Still, farther south the annual Vendimia festival in the Guadalupe Valley and Baja Beach Fest in Rosarito Beach went on without incident.

Political firestorm: Five days after the fires were set, Jaime Bonilla, the state’s former governor and currently a senator representing Baja California, made national headlines as he took to the floor of the Senate in Mexico City and blamed the violence on his successor, Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila, saying the fires were a message to her government from the cartel — a warning for her failure to follow an agreement. Both Avila and Bonilla are members of Mexico’s ruling party, but have become bitter adversaries. Party leaders — including Morena governors and Morena members of the Baja California legislature — defended Avila against the accusations. So did Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador who offered the governor his full support when he visited the city on Friday. Yet the president also expressed his appreciation for Bonilla, a longtime friend and political ally.

Perspective: The battle for control of the Tijuana plaza, on a major drug route to the U.S., has been playing out for decades. In recent years, rivalries among neighborhood drug dealers in the city have led to some of Mexico’s highest homicide rates with much of this violence occurring in impoverished neighborhoods.

But the deliberate torching of vehicles that took place earlier this month was something previously unseen in the region, and raised alarm at all levels of society,  leaving many residents wondering who really is in charge. While drug trafficking groups have used burning vehicles to create blockades or send signals in other parts of Mexico, this was a first for Baja California.

López Obrador dismissed the fires as “acts of propaganda” by criminal groups that have been magnified by his political opponents. But the head of a Baja California citizens advisory council said “we cannot minimize the situation.”

“August 12 will go down in history for the damage caused, for the fear that was spread among members of society,” said Roberto Quijano Sosa, an attorney, former independent Tijuana City Council member and currently the head of the Baja California Citizens Public Safety Council. 

Quijano’s message: “In the absence of leadership, in the absence of clear and assertive communications, authorities were overridden by social media.”

I attended the Council’s news conference on Wednesday, hoping to gain some perspective on a confusing situation. Quijano has been closely following the city’s security situation for years. He was a leading private sector spokesman in the 2008-2010 period that saw an unprecedented spike in kidnappings and homicides — and a growing role of Mexico’s military in coordinating the state’s battle against organized crime.

That earlier spirit of cooperation with members of civil society to confront criminal groups has been lost, Quijano said. He called on the state government to develop a strategy. “Where are we going in terms of public security?” he asked.

“You’ve got municipal police, state police, the army, the national guard and the navy? Where are they heading? What are their plans? Who is coordinating them?”

Quijano said someone needs to step up, “whichever man or woman has the capacity and the will to coordinate…if it’s the military, the national guard, the attorney general, the public safety secretary, the governor.” At the moment, “the perception of the Council that there is no leadership on the issue of public safety,” Quijano said.

At the University of California San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, Cecilia Farfán-Méndez is co-founder of the Mexico Violence Resource Project. While Quijano focused on local efforts, Farfán-Méndez has also been looking at a national picture.

“I think for a lot of us the question still is, ‘What exactly is the strategy?’” Farfán-Méndez asked of López-Obrador’s approach to security. “It’s like ‘abrazos no balazos,’ (hugs not bullets) how does that play out? The interesting thing about Tijuana is that they already had a large deployment of national guard in the city, and this did not necessarily stop violence.”

Like Quijano, she had more questions than answers. The burning of the vehicles represented a cost to the group behind the operation — but to what end? “What was it that they were expecting to get and from whom? And I think that is not something we can know right away, but I think it’s something we should be paying attention to.”

For residents of the Tijuana region, she said, “I think the challenge is that we don’t know if this was sort of an outlier within what we have seen in Tijuana in recent years, or if we’re seeing the beginning of something worse.”

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this reporting. This was a frightening experience for those of us living in northern Baja but not a reason to move back across the border where there is violence also — just not so dramatically enacted.

  2. Sandra, thank you for this thorough coverage, helping all of us to make sense of what it happening. You have fantastic insight and the experience to understand it, and we really appreciate your work.

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