Tijuana, BC - Five victims were shot inside a seafood restaurant, four were decapitated, one was shot and hung from a bridge. A surge in gangland-style killings in Tijuana is being linked to two rival drug trafficking groups vying for control of the region.
Since last month, the death toll has been mounting rapidly: Of 71 homicides reported so far in the last month, 24 took place on last Tuesday and Wednesday. Many recent victims were men in their 20s, though the youngest was 14 and the oldest appeared to be close to 60, authorities said.
“We are witnessing a war between drug traffickers,” said Rommel Moreno Manjarrez, Baja California’s attorney general. Many of those who have been killed are low-level operatives in the trafficking organizations, he said, and many have criminal records.
“From every angle, this points to organized crime,” Rommel said.
Among the most recent victims are five men killed when hooded and heavily armed men sprayed gunfire at Wichos Tacos in the Otay Mesa section of Tijuana about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Samuel Garcia Cervantes, 25, Jorge Alejandro Felix Gutierrez, 25, Javier Garcia Sevilla, 35 and an unidentified victim died at the restaurant. A fifth victim, Gerardo de Jesus Lopez, 30, was pronounced dead at a hospital.
In several instances, the killers left messages suggesting an act of retaliation against the rival drug group. Authorities said one was left by the body of the unidentified man between the ages of 40 and 45 found shot in the head and left hanging early Monday from a bridge in the southern district of La Gloria.
But some may have died as bystanders. On Saturday, a 14-year-old died inside a taxi sprayed with gunfire. Police found a 19-year-old man dead inside the vehicle and a 27-year-old man dead on the adjacent sidewalk.
The violence follows a series of recent blows to the drug-trafficking gangs, including the discovery of two incomplete drug-trafficking tunnels in Tijuana and the seizure of large sums of cash in Tijuana and Mexicali.
Moreno, the attorney general, said authorities believe the most recent violence could have been triggered by the seizure of $2.1 million from a Mexicali warehouse by the Mexican military Dec. 9.
As the killings continued Wednesday, authorities announced the arrest of seven suspects in two other incidents they said were related to drug gangs.
Six suspected members of Garcia Simental’s gang, including two minors, were detained and one suspected gang member was killed Tuesday night when authorities confronted a group that was allegedly preparing to assault a billiard hall.
In another case, a 22-year-old suspect linked to the rival group headed by Sanchez Arellano, was “meeting with suspicious persons with the aim of carrying out an attack against rival groups,” said a statement released Wednesday by the military in Tijuana.
Despite the surge in violence in the year’s final days, Tijuana’s 657 killings in 2009 represent a 20 percent drop from 2008
TIJUANA DEATHSDrug-related killings hit 5,200 across Mexico in 2008, according to a tally by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma. In 2009, they rose even higher, with 6,500 victims registered through December 25, Reforma’s figures show.
By the numbers
106: Murders in December
657: Murders in 2009
844: Murders in 2008
Baja California has run counter to the national trend, dropping by about half, from 617 drug-related killings in 2008 to 316 through Dec. 25 of this year, according to Reforma. Gomez, the deputy state attorney general, estimates that about half of Tijuana’s killings in 2009 were connected to organized crime, reaching close to 330.
Gomez said 31 of this year’s victims were Tijuana police officers. Some have had ties to organized crime, but others were killed in the line of duty.
Baja California is a key transit point for illicit drugs being smuggled to the United States and has developed its own drug demand problem. Gov. José Guadalupe Osuna Millán said he opposes legalization of any now-illicit drugs and has repeatedly insisted that the ultimate solution is reducing demand in the United States and Mexico.
For Osuna Millán, 2009 marked a year of unprecedented efforts against criminal groups operating in the state. He touts Rosarito Beach as a success story, saying crime rates there have dropped dramatically since 2008.
In an interview this week, Osuna Millán said the state must keep following its current course: “I would continue with the frontal battle, with the participation of the military, with the purging of the police forces that for so many years have been infiltrated” by organized crime.”
Others say the recent spike in homicides is worrisome.
“I think for 2010 we need to rethink the strategy,” said Roberto Quijano Sosa, head of the business group, Coparmex. Coordination among police agencies has improved, and “we recognize the seizures, and important numbers of arrests,” he said. “More than ever, we need to develop better intelligence.”