Spike in drug-related murders in Tijuana could threaten border city's revival

It was the symbol of Tijuana’s cultural renaissance – Verde y Crema, an upscale restaurant by Jair Téllez, a famous chef, that opened two years ago. The restaurant quickly established a cult following with foodies from all over North America clamoring for a table.

It opened as the city, once one of the most violent in the world, was experiencing a dip in drug trade-related carnage. During that lull, a burgeoning arts and culinary scene popped up in Tijuana, and for the first time people were talking about the border city as an international destination.

But soon after Verde y Crema opened, two members of a Mexican cartel entered the high-end restaurant – one of them had a gold-plated gun – and opened fire, nearly killing a patron as he sat at a table with his wife. That shooting underscored how even as Tijuana was finally shedding its negative image, its violent history was coming back to haunt it.

And now Tijuana’s gastronomical and tourist rebirth is coming under even greater threat as drug cartel-related violence has again become part of daily life in the city.

In 2012, its safest recent year, there were 362 killings in the city. But the Baja California attorney general's office said that number nearly doubled by 2015, when there were 670 homicides, 80 percent of them drug related. It was the highest number in five years. And, with 71 slayings in January 2016, the city experienced its deadliest month since 2010.

Experts say that a big reason for the rise in violence is the breaking apart of the major cartels in Mexico into smaller, warring factions.

“We have seen a fragmentation of organized crime in Mexico,” David Shirk, a political science professor at the University of San Diego and director of the Justice in Mexico project, told Fox News Latino. “When you fragment organized crime, you democratize violence, and you bring the violence closer to ordinary people.”

Shirk said that much of the violent crime in Tijuana is caused by rival drug gangs vying for turf in the city but added that major groups like the growing Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel could be waging a proxy war with these street-level gangs.

While the Sinaloa Cartel has controlled the Tijuana and cross-border drug trade in the region for a number of years, the capture of its leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, has led to a weakening in the group. This has apparently emboldened the CJNG to make a power grab in the city.

Emerging in 2009 from the chaos and power struggles among drug traffickers in the country's central region, the CJNG is a relatively new group on the Mexican drug scene, but it has become known for grisly displays to announce their arrival in new territories. Severed heads, mutilated corpses and ominous signs hung from highway bridges have become the group’s calling cards.

“The Sinaloa Cartel [was] the last cartel standing,” Shirk said. “But now that its power is perceived to be wavering, this may create opportunities for other groups to assert themselves.”

The rising violence in Tijuana is bad news for local government officials, restaurant owners and tour operators – as the city has tried to polish its image from the late 2000s, when it frequently surpassed 1,000 murders a year.

Over the last few years, Tijuana has experienced a culinary explosion with renowned chefs like Javier Plascencia and Miguel Angel Guerrero showcasing their Baja Med cuisine to an increasingly international audience.

Both experts and people involved in the Tijuana food and tourism trade are quick to point out that the drug violence rarely affects visitors or the city’s cultural scene.

“The crimes are happening in the more seedy areas, but that’s the same as any other city,” Kristen Diaz de Sandi, one of the founders of Life and Food, which runs culinary tours of the city, told FNL. “I haven’t heard anyone come back with any concerns.”

While extortion and kidnapping are frequent occurrences in northern Mexico, experts say that these types of crimes mainly focus on local business owners and the city’s growing middle class, not tourists. Tijuana may still be one of Mexico’s most violent cities, but the level in nowhere near what it once was.

“This is a far cry from what saw eight years ago,” Shirk said. “It’s not a return to the past, but it still is something to be concerned about.”