MEXICO CITY (AP) — A recent killing spree in the Mexican border city of Tijuana could have been lifted from a TV script: enraged drug lords hunting down corrupt police officers who stole a drug shipment.
Two of the officers suspected of the theft have been killed, prosecutors say. But so have at least three other officers, according to the city’s former police chief, suggesting the cartel believed to have owned the drugs may have launched a generalized retribution.
It is the latest blow for Tijuana which has the most homicides of any city in Mexico, with about double the number of the place that comes second — the border city of Ciudad Juarez. Tijuana, situated in the border state of Baja California and with a population of over 2.1 million, has for several years seen around 2,000 murders annually. By comparison, Houston, Texas, which has about the same population, saw 435 killings in 2022.
According to prosecutors, in mid-November, a half-dozen local and state police officers in Tijuana allegedly hatched a plot to steal a large shipment of drugs from a warehouse where traffickers were storing it.
Video emerged last week of the officers’ pickup truck pulling out of the building with big, plastic-wrapped bales of cocaine filling the truck bed.
State Prosecutor Maria Elena Andrade confirmed this week that three state detectives were under investigation in the case, along with a similar number of Tijuana municipal police.
Alberto Capella, the former head of Tijuana’s police force from 2007 to 2008 and again from 2011 to 2013, told The Associated Press that the cache of drugs appeared to have belonged to the Sinaloa cartel, specifically the wing controlled by drug lord Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, probably the most powerful gang in town.
Apparently, the cartel knew almost immediately who had pulled off the heist.
On Nov. 18, just hours after the theft, gunmen sprayed the federal prosecutors’ office in Tijuana with at least 30 rounds, pockmarking the building’s façade. Within an hour, one of the municipal police officers allegedly involved in the heist was gunned down on a street in Tijuana.
On Nov. 24, gunmen targeted the state prosecutors’ office with a barrage of gunfire; nobody was injured.
On Nov. 27, a state detective under investigation for the theft was gunned down in his car while filling it with gas at a station in Tijuana. It seemed the officer saw the attack coming, and was able to start his car and advance a few feet before hitting a column and collapsing dead at the wheel. The attackers fled on a motorcycle.
An employee of the state prosecutors’ office — who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk publicly about the case — confirmed this week that two of the officers under investigation in the scandal had been shot and killed in broad daylight on the city’s streets, in apparent gangland revenge.
The employee said the second officer declined an offer for a spot in the state witness protection program in return for testifying in the case.
Capella, the former police chief, said at least three other police officers have been killed since the heist, suggesting the cartel may have launched a generalized retribution for the theft.
Tijuana is no stranger to violence or corruption.
When he took over the police department, Capella recalls, he had to fire about a quarter of the force’s officers and he survived an assassination attempt. But police stealing a cartel’s whole drug shipment is a new low.
“This is very worrisome,” Capella said. “Tijuana has never seen anything of this scale and that’s saying a lot.”
The roots of Tijuana’s current round of violence date back to 2017, when murders practically doubled, rising from 919 in 2016 to 1,782 in 2017. Observers say turf battles between the Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa cartels, and other groups — like remnants of the old Arellano Felix gang — are largely to blame.
And so pervasive is the violence in Tijuana that anyone, from singers to journalists, can fall victim to the killings. In January 2022, two journalists were shot to death in two separate attacks in one week.
On Nov. 20, the Tijuana city council voted to ban performances of drug ballads known as “narco corridos,” which glorify traffickers.
“If they come to sing other kinds of songs, they are welcome,” said Mayor Montserrat Caballero, threatening those who performed the ballads with fines of up to $57,000.
That followed the cancellation of a concert in October by well-known narco corrido singer Peso Pluma. His organization called off the performance “for everyone’s safety” after hand-lettered banners appeared in the city signed by the Jalisco cartel, which may have been angered by songs praising rivals.
“Don’t even think about performing on Oct. 14 because that will be your last performance,” according to the banner. “You show up and we will destroy you.”
In June, Caballero, the mayor, announced she had decided to live at an army base for her own safety after receiving threats she didn’t specify, but which everyone assumed came from cartels.
Caballero rose to fame in 2022 when she made a direct public appeal to cartels to stop targeting civilians after gangs carjacked and burned at least 15 vehicles throughout the city.
In the broadcast at the time, she said: “Today we are saying to the organized crime groups that are committing these crimes that Tijuana is going to remain open and take care of its citizens.” She then asked “organized crime,” the term used in Mexico for drug cartels, to ”settle their debts with those who didn’t pay what they owe, not with families and hard-working citizens.”
But it is not just government officials or police who are running scared; Tijuana is a hub for everyone from businessmen and tourists to immigrants seeking to reach the United States. The city’s persistent violence problem threatens all.