Once peaceful Baja California at frontline of Mexico’s murder crisis

New wave of violence in La Paz has resulted in killings of human rights defenders and journalists

For years, the sparsely-populated Baja California peninsula in northwestern Mexico was untouched by the cartel-fuelled violence that afflicted much of the rest of the country.

As recently as seven years ago, Baja California Sur state, which occupies the peninsula's southern half, ranked as Mexico's least-violent. The Los Cabos district in the south of Baja California Sur is home to tourist mecca Cabo San Lucas and has for decades drawn North Americans seeking sun-kissed beaches and deep-sea fishing; more than a million US tourists descend on its resorts every year.

But in recent years that peace has been shattered. The Baja California peninsula is now at the centre of an unprecedented spate of murders.

Such is the high level of violence and inter-cartel feuding that increasing numbers of high-ranking Mexican drug traffickers are surrendering to US police for protection

That’s according to an annual study by a Mexico City-based advocacy group, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCPSCJ), which tracks murders in cities around the world that are not at war.


Its findings show that in 2017, Los Cabos had a higher per capita homicide rate than any other city in the world, increasing by 500 per cent from the previous year to 365 killings. While last year's figures are expected to see a fall from 2017's record high, El Universal newspaper reports this may be down to local businesses contributing millions of pesos towards housing federal police now deployed in Los Cabos.

La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur state and a two-hour drive from Los Cabos, was ranked the sixth most-violent city in the world in the CCPSCJ study, despite having never previously appeared in the top 50 list.

Lack resources

There, a new wave of violence has resulted in killings of noted human rights defenders and radio journalists as well as low-level drug dealers. Analysts say state and local police lack the resources to deal with such extreme levels of violence, which are not normally experienced in the region.

That, coupled with the splintering of several once-dominant drug cartels in northwestern Mexico, has led to ghastly crimes such as the murder by suspected drug gangs of six men whose bodies were found hanging from three bridges in La Paz and Los Cabos in December 2017.

"The Sinaloa cartel continues to attempt to fend off a challenge to its control of Tijuana, the rest of Baja California and Baja California Sur by a faction of the Tijuana cartel," the intelligence publisher Stratfor reported last year.

Mexico experienced a record 33,241 murders nationwide in 2018, a 30 per cent increase on the previous year.

Tijuana is in the midst of its worst series of murders – 2,513 recorded killings last year

The capture in 2016 of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the ex-leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, sparked a struggle for control of northwestern Mexico’s crime and trafficking underworld. Guzman has been on trial in New York city, where the jury was deliberating for a fourth day on Thursday.

Such is the high level of violence and inter-cartel feuding that increasing numbers of high-ranking Mexican drug traffickers are surrendering to US police for protection.

Seedy underbelly

The CCPSCJ report ranks Tijuana, at the northern end of the Baja California peninsula, as having the world’s fifth-highest homicide rate. On a recent evening drive through its northern and western districts, the city seems calm.

Families mingle and stroll along the city’s beach-side boardwalk overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A 10-minute drive east, in the city centre, street food stands are thronged with customers dining on beef tacos and intestines.

But in adjacent side alleys, Tijuana’s seedy underbelly is in full view. Prostitutes waiting for customers can be seen outside a line of casinos and clubs, and large military SUVs crammed with armed soldiers speed through the streets.

Tijuana is in the midst of its worst series of murders – 2,513 recorded killings last year – since records began in 1996, fuelled by a surge in the local demand for illicit methamphetamine drugs.

"There are three cartels fighting for the retail sale of drugs in the city: the Sinaloa cartel, the Jalisco New Generation cartel and the Arellano cartel," says Adela Navarro Bello, the editor of Zeta, a weekly magazine in Tijuana that reports extensively on local government affairs and cartel activity.

Several of the magazine’s editors and columnists have been assassinated in the past. “Corruption and a lack of capacity and will on the behalf of the state attorney general’s office have created a climate of impunity,” he says.

Situated next to the US border, Tijuana has always been closely linked to its giant neighbour to the north.

The intercartel violence of a decade ago having been quelled, the years that followed saw Tijuana become a hub for international manufacturing companies that settled in the city for its cheap labour and ready access to the US market.


For decades the city has attracted American tourists looking to experience a slice of Mexican life.

But now locally-made drugs laced with opioids such as fentanyl are taking hold in Tijuana communities, and everyday life is beginning to break down again.

“Shops and small businesses have begun to feel the effects of the violence, which means that they have to seek security systems to protect themselves, and invest in physical security for their homes and businesses.

“Assaults and burglaries have also become common,” says Navarro Bello, who estimates that 91 per cent of murders in Tijuana go unpunished.