After a particularly violent week in Tijuana that has left 54 dead in a fierce cartel power struggle, experts on both sides of the border fear the worst is yet to come.
Since early last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has deployed thousands of soldiers and federal police to drug-route battlegrounds such as Baja California, Chihuahua and Michoacan. Experts say it's clear that the recent bloodbath along the border, felt especially hard in Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo and now increasingly in Tijuana, is the backlash.
In the United States, there's a growing unease about the potential for spillover. Some sectors of the border-region economy have already suffered severe losses as a result of the violence, and others may follow.
"The Mexican government has said that their strategy is to attack the cartels and break them down to a more manageable size," said political scientist David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "The problem with breaking cartels up into smaller, supposedly more manageable pieces is that it becomes disorganized crime. You start to have people who are broken off, fractionalized, fighting among each other."
This destabilization has played out in Tijuana recently in a terrifying string of slayings. On Monday, 12 bodies were dumped outside an elementary school, some with their tongues cut out. A note left with them referred to "blabbermouths" and the Arellano Felix cartel.
The carnage continued yesterday. Authorities said the bodies of 10 men had been found between midnight and noon in neighborhoods around the city. The dead included two men who had been decapitated. Five were found in a sport utility vehicle that had been reported stolen last week in California.
More than 400 homicides have been recorded this year in Tijuana, which has an estimated population of 1.5 million. The majority of them were drug-related, Mexican authorities say. There were 337 killings citywide in 2007.
By comparison, New Orleans, one of the most violent U.S. cities, which is less than one-fifth the size of Tijuana with about 240,000 people, had 209 homicides in 2007.
The spike in violence has revived long-standing complaints in Mexico that the United States shares the blame through illicit weapons exports to Mexico and the vast appetite for drugs that creates the market in the first place.
"We demand that the United States stop the consumption of drugs," Baja California Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna said last month. "Unfortunately, as long as there is demand, many people will continue to be hurt and killed."
But in spite of the death toll, U.S. drug enforcement officials say the disarray they are observing within the cartels is a positive sign. Mexican and U.S. officials have attributed much of the violence in Tijuana to fighting within the Arellano Felix gang, which has been weakened by the arrests and deaths of its top leadership.
"What you have here are two factions of the AFO (Arellano Felix Organization), and they are feeding off of each other," said Eileen Zeidler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. "That's what we want. We want it to be disorganized. If they're not organized, they don't function. We want it to fall apart."
But this disorganization is likely to lead to more bloodshed in the short term, observers in both countries fear.
"This violence will diminish when there is a new equilibrium" among drug traffickers, said Jorge Chabat, a political analyst from the Mexico City-based research group CIDE.
The breakup of the cartels could present new challenges. The Calderon administration's strategy assumes that local and state police will be able to take care of the smaller, less-organized drug traffickers left behind, Shirk said, but "that makes an enormous presumption about the capacity of subnational governments in Mexico."
Plagued by police corruption, which is largely fueled by low pay and a lack of professional standards, local and state authorities are ill-equipped to handle the potentially more violent, low-level criminal element that could emerge in the wake of the large cartels, Shirk said.
Meanwhile, as the killings continue, the perception of lawlessness in Tijuana exacerbated last month by two prison riots that claimed at least 23 lives continues to have repercussions on both sides of the border.
Tijuana's tourism sector has been struggling as American visitors stay away. The reports of violence are only one reason, Mexican officials say, citing the struggling U.S. economy and congested border crossings as principal factors.
Despite the turmoil, Baja California's economy has continued to grow, state officials and business leaders said. The state's growth rate this year is expected to reach 5 percent, just below last year's rate of 6 percent, said Gabriel Posada Gallego, Baja's secretary of economic development.
Support for the maquiladora sector in Tijuana has held steady with about $250 million in new investments this year, said Saul GarcNa, president of the city's maquiladora association. Gov. Osuna said the state has added 32,000 jobs this year.
Baja California's business leaders, in the past sharply critical of what they said was government complacency, spoke supportively of the Calderon administration's self-styled war against the cartels.
"In the past, the government denied the problem," said Alfonso Alvarez Juan, statewide president of the Business Coordinating Council, a business umbrella group. "Today they are admitting that there is a problem and confronting it."
But if the violence isn't brought under control, "we'll see effects in 2009 or 2010," GarcNa said.
Economic experts say it's hard to quantify now, but companies could be put off by the violence and the costs of additional security.
"The biggest costs are the opportunities lost for having a climate of violence and crime," said Armando Chacon, director of research for the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Mexico City.
Places other than Mexico will become more attractive for offshore operations if the violence escalates, said Marnie Cox, the San Diego Association of Governments' chief economist.
"They start to worry about CEOs getting kidnapped," he said. "This really hurts the investment environment."
With the loss of investment in Tijuana also comes an unquantifiable loss of revenue to ancillary businesses in the San Diego region, said border business consultant Kenn Morris.
"You are talking about paper suppliers, printing companies, legal services," he said. "If a company doesn't expand in Tijuana, San Diego loses out on jobs."
As the bodies have turned up, the pace of life has continued in Tijuana, one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico. But residents lament the psychological toll of the killings.
"Of course there's an impact, because they're human beings, no matter what group they belong to," Tijuana Archbishop Rafael Romo Munoz said.
With the destabilization of cartels, opportunistic crimes such as kidnappings often carried out by underemployed and undersupervised cartel foot soldiers have become commonplace, driving some business owners and professionals north.
While casual visitors to Tijuana haven't been targeted, there has been a series of abductions involving U.S. citizens and legal residents, typically individuals who live and work on both sides of the border. Such incidents spiked last year in Baja California, where the FBI reported 26 abductions of U.S. citizens and legal residents in Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. Fifteen incidents involving U.S. citizens and residents have occurred so far this year. A small number of these abductions have been carried out on U.S. soil, with the victims transported to Mexico, according to the FBI.
Spillover across border If the drug-related killings on the Mexican side of the border continue, it shouldn't come as a surprise if more violence spills over to the U.S. side because the cartels employ residents of both countries, said Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist and drug-traffic expert at the University Texas in El Paso.
Already, hospital officials in El Paso have had to beef up security when individuals wounded in Juarez's drug war come north for treatment, fearing that cartel hit men will appear to finish them off. So far, that hasn't happened, Campbell said.
While more than 1,000 slayings have been reported this year in Juarez, the majority linked to organized crime, drug-related spillover north of the border has been minimal.
"I do think part of it is luck," Campbell said. "At some point, the Mexican cartel people may decide, what do they have to fear, really? A lot is their own perception that they can't get away with this stuff in the U.S. But sadly, I think they could. My sources in Juarez are saying the worst of the violence is yet to come."
Campbell said the Mexican effort is handicapped by law enforcement ties to the cartels at various levels.
"They can't win the war," Campbell said. "And they have to realize they are not winning it, and that they need to rethink the policy. I'm not saying let the 'narcos' claim victory, but let's rethink the policy and try not to wage war with them, because it is not working."
Others agree that Calderon is fighting with a weak hand but commend his efforts, with the violent backlash a necessary evil.
"I think it is a mistake to look at the bloodshed and say, 'Look at what Calderon is doing; it is not working,' when in fact it may just be the opposite that it is working in some way, with these unforeseen and unpleasant results," said Jeffrey Davidow, president of the Institute of the Americas at the University of California San Diego and ambassador to Mexico from 1998 to 2002.
In the past week, Calderon has introduced two proposals aimed at enhancing his anti-drug efforts, including an initiative intended to weed out corrupt police and a controversial proposal to legalize small amounts of marijuana and cocaine in order to weaken the black market.
The latter is bound to be politically unpopular in both countries. However, with U.S. consumption driving the northbound flow of narcotics, if the Calderon administration's current strategy fails, the United States will have to find a way to either curb drug use or contemplate some form of legalization, some experts say.
"That is one thing that we know would ultimately kill off these cartels. It would rob them of their oxygen, the enormous profits they make," said Shirk, who cites the end of Prohibition in 1933 as a possible precedent. "We had a similar situation in the 1920s. That is how we beat the mob."
BLOODY WEEK: BY THE NUMBERS
10: Number of bodies found yesterday in various neighborhoods of Tijuana. Two were decapitated; some were wrapped in blankets and tossed to the side of the road.
8: Bodies found Friday in Tijuana, including two that were decapitated.
9: Bodies found Thursday. Eight men were found together in an empty lot near the center of the city. They had been shot in the head. A ninth was wrapped in a blanket and found near the central bus station.
3: Bodies found in two locations Wednesday.
3: Bodies found Tuesday, including two near a water-utility tank. In addition, three barrels found outside a seafood restaurant were examined to see if they contained acid and human remains.
19: Bodies found in several locations Monday, including 12 near an elementary school. Several had their tongues cut out.
2: Bodies found wrapped in blankets Sunday.
SOURCE: Baja California Attorney General's Office
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