A version of this article originally appeared on VICE en Español.
In Tijuana’s only morgue, 150 bodies fill 150 refrigerators, and on the blackboard where tomorrow’s autopsies are scheduled in tiny lettering, there is no room for another name. For a week now, Melina Moreno—the deputy director of the city's common grave for unclaimed bodies—has been anxiously waiting for authorization from the central morgue in Mexicali to bury all the unidentified bodies, which make up the majority of the corpses the Tijuana facility receives. In the lobby, a handful of family members are waiting to identity their deceased relative. Sometimes there are so many bodies that the facility’s courtyard serves as extra storage for the dead. On those days, the residents of the luxury building next door complain about the putrid smell of death.
Never in the history of Tijuana has there been so much murder: In 2018 alone, over 2,300 people have been killed, an increase from the 1,647 homicides in 2017. The city has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, at 125.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the National Public Safety System. But while residents of Tijuana have adapted to the violence that permeates the city, the crowds of tourists who visit—11.5 million in 2017 alone—hardly notice it. In fact, that number is projected to increase by 9 percent by the end of 2018, even with intensified militarization at the border in response to the thousands of migrants awaiting asylum in the US and the possibility of hours-long crossing waits.
There have already been twice as many homicides in 2018 as there were in the entirety of 2008, which saw a total death toll of 843—the bloodiest year of the drug war between the Sinaloa and Arellano Félix cartels. That murder rate evidently doesn't trouble the tourists sitting among the food trucks of the Telefónica Gastro Park, a sprawling space where they can savor regional surf-and-turf fare alongside craft beer, or the guests occupying the 12 floors of the Hong Kong Gentlemen's Club, a luxury strip joint that markets itself as “The Ultimate Exotic Getaway” (it offers direct pick-up and drop-off at the US border). In the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, a real estate boom promises the local elite and Americans the same architecture and lifestyle of San Diego, its immediate neighbor across the US border, for half the price.
A drug dealer sat in a bar, drinking a lemonade. He asked to be referred to as “Fer” to protect his identity, and said that in order to understand what’s happening in Tijuana, one must distinguish between the "upper level"—international drug traffic—and the "bottom level"—small-scale drug trade.
The Sinaloa Cartel arrived in Tijuana approximately 12 years ago and began stripping power from the Arellano Félix Cartel, who were the city’s biggest traffickers at the time. Their war prompted a bloody period of murders, kidnappings, and shootings at tourist sites. The violence reached its peak in 2008. "Now it's a war to control the street corners as part of the local market," Fer explained, adding that Tijuana’s tourists are included in the city’s small-scale trade.
In 2008, Fer was incarcerated in a US federal prison after being convicted of smuggling migrants over the border. In prison, he said, he learned how to survive in the drug trade from veteran dealers. But like many dealers in Tijuana, Fer is just trying to make a respectable living without getting killed. It's a constant worry these days: The Sinaloa Cartel’s new war with the Nueva Generacíon Jalisco and Tijuana cartels is directly responsible for the record-breaking death toll of 2018 and the two years that preceded it. As Fer explained, many of those deaths were due to local conflict—a small-scale clash that, unlike the large-scale cartel war a decade ago, many people on the wealthier side of Tijuana don't ever think about.
A few days before meeting with Fer in August, VICE met Eduardo Rodríguez, the director of the State Preventive Police, at a security command center. He had come to the same conclusion: "International trafficking continues and will continue, and our duty is to control it from both sides of the border. But now there is a war in small-scale drug trade—drug-selling points in the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods," he said. "If you don’t sell drugs, it’s very likely that you will die of old age. [July] was probably the most violent month in history, but in my opinion, there's less violence now than in 2008 because back then, it was urban terrorism. I call it terrorism due to the fact that citizens were afraid of stepping out on the streets because something could happen to them, or out of fear, tourists weren't coming to the city."
At noon on Tuesday, August 21, a man prepared his car to smuggle pounds of crystal meth across the busiest border in the world. A woman from Sinaloa desperately looked for the body of her brother who was murdered a month earlier. Dozens of people addicted to heroin lined the dried river canal to get clean needles and Naloxone capsules in the event of a possible overdose. On the outskirts of the city, the finishing touches were put on a memorial for the people whose bodies were dissolved in acid by Santiago Meza, a.k.a. El Pozolero, nine years earlier. Two men oversaw the project: Both are named Fernando and both have a missing son. Twelve hours passed without a single murder and the authorities held a press conference to announce the feat. Moments later, hitmen killed a pollero (someone who guides and smuggles migrants across the US border) in downtown Tijuana.
Two days earlier, in a tall, modern building located about ten minutes from the border, Javier Plascencia prepared a private dinner for a group of wine-tasters at his restaurant Misión 19, one of the most cosmopolitan restaurants in Tijuana. It’s located in the city’s financial district, Zona Rio. Its proximity to the US border and plethora of luxury hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, and corporate buildings make it an attractive area for wealthy Americans, like executives from San Diego who often cross the border for business dinners.
Plascencia initially fled to San Diego a decade earlier after witnessing the horrors of the 2008 drug war firsthand: Someone got shot six feet away from him, several of his customers and friends were murdered, and his own brother survived an attempted kidnapping. He returned to Tijuana in 2010. “Statistically, [the violence] is worse but it’s less noticeable. Tourist sites and schools weren't respected before. There were murders everywhere. There are still massacres today, but there are no more kidnappings of business people. We're all calm now,” is aid.
“[In 2008], the Avenida Revolución was a ghost town; everything was shut down with ‘for lease’ and ‘for sale’ signs. Our business operations dropped 40 percent," he recalled.
Plascencia's story helps explain how certain parts of the city are more plagued by violence than others. When the cartel war ended in 2010, a group of entrepreneurs—including members of Plascencia’s own family—decided to revamp Tijuana’s image and take advantage of its gastronomy and culture. The initiative inspired other young restaurant owners to reinvest in the city. The Plascencias took over the famous Caesar's Restaurant, which has since returned to its former tourist-filled glory, and Avenida Revolución took a turn for the better. The craft beer industry took off and spots like Cine Tonalá, a multipurpose cultural center, revived the scene. This new wave of culinary tourism offered a valuable alternative to the city's long-promoted hedonistic side.
“Violence will always exist in a border city with so many drugs,” Plascencia cautioned. “You have to get used to it and take care of the tourists.”
We thought of that quote a couple days later as we walked around zona Este, the east side of the city. A drug trafficker chatted nervously with the person who was about to cross the border with meth. He told VICE that the previous weekend one of his drivers was detained with a shipment, and that he couldn't afford to lose another one as the list of kidnappings, revenge plots, and murders in recent months continued to grow.
We were in a two-story white house when a car arrived. The drug trafficker opened the gate and a man delivered another another 11 pounds of crystal meth produced in a laboratory in Sinaloa, which he usually buys for less than $500 per kilo. When the drugs cross the border, the price immediately doubles. Once they’re cut up and divided into doses, the value could triple. As he showed us pounds of drugs on the dining room table, he let out a sigh of relief when he was informed that the man who had been preparing to cross the border this morning made it through.
Before the second iteration of Tijuana’s drug war in December 2016, doctors would scream in outrage when ten bodies arrived at the morgue, Melina Moreno remembers. Now ten bodies would count as a quiet day. Tijuana's morgue currently intakes an average of around 20 bodies a day, the majority of which are homicide victims. Despite the increase, the coroner's office has only hired one additional doctor to perform autopsies. Even a simple autopsy can last anywhere between two and three hours, explained Mercedes Quiroz, director of the Servicio Médico Forense (Forensic Medical Service, or SEMEFO in Spanish), whereas a complex one can take up to three days. Almost all the homicides in Tijuana are committed with firearms; most of the bodies have multiple bullet wounds and doctors have to study the trajectory of each bullet. SEMEFO has even received decapitated bodies whose heads eventually arrive later (or vice versa).
"Even if they don’t pay you overtime, you stay here working because you know that the next day could be worse," said Moreno, who has worked at SEMEFO for a decade. She remembers that in 2008 many of the corpses were societal elites like lawyers or business people. Now the majority of them are young people, she said, "who look like drug dealers." To her, the current wave of violence is the worst. "There are many more [corpses]."
Moreover, the bodies arrive but do not leave. Where are the families? she wondered one day when the refrigerators were full and the waiting room was almost empty.
To answer this question, sources in law enforcement, activism, and the drug trade provided two theories. The first is that many of the dead are not from Tijuana, nor do they have family in the city. The second is that the deceased are from poor neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city, and SEMEFO, located in a wealthy area, is too long a distance to travel for their destitute relatives. Perhaps a family could pay for a one-way trip, but can’t afford a return ticket or accommodations if they have to stay overnight.
But when contacted by VICE, the president of the Asociación Unidos por los Desaparecidos (United Association for the Disappeared), Fernando Ocegueda, pointed to a third theory: legislative changes that allow bodies to be transported to a common grave after five days to alleviate overcrowding at the morgue. With so many dead bodies, some simply disappear in the paperwork, and their loved ones struggle to find them.
One such example is Marisol Quintero, who had tried for weeks to retrieve her brother’s body so she could take it to their hometown of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, where their deceased family members are buried. A year and a half ago, her brother lived in Tijuana working as a construction worker or carpenter, according to what he told their family. But on June 26, he disappeared. Quintero traveled to Tijuana and looked for him in jails and hospitals until some of his friends told her he was dead.
Quintero went to look for him at SEMEFO. There, she was shown an album with dozens of faces and body parts from the previous month’s arrivals. Some bodies were badly burned or in an advanced state of decomposition. Quintero looked for her brother’s tattoos, the first of which read "Sorry for your tears, mother," in English, and the second in Spanish, “Seamos libres, lo demás no importa nada” ("Let's be free, the rest doesn’t matter at all”). She found nothing.
A month later on August 9, SEMEFO called to tell her that they had found him. Quintero returned to Tijuana immediately, but when she arrived at SEMEFO, she found only her brother’s photograph—there was no body. Fernando Quintero’s corpse appeared a month and a half after his death in a mass grave with 15 bodies on top of him. His sister needed between $1,800 to $2,600 USD to exhume her brother and bury him in a proper grave.
Derrik Chinn knows the number of murders in the city has reached an unprecedented level, but business is still booming. The founder of Turista Libre (“Free Tourist”) Tours is driving a former chicken coop truck in 86-degree heat with cumbia blasting from the speakers. He’s shuttling 18 Americans who are eager to see US President Donald Trump’s border wall prototypes, which are only visible from the Mexican side of the border.
Chinn occasionally takes his charges through more traditionally touristic routes—the vineyards of Valle de Guadalupe, the beaches of Ensenada, luxury restaurants, craft breweries, or markets—but he also takes them to spots where they can mingle with locals, such as wrestling matches or baseball games. The “wall” tour is his latest and riskiest creation: The tourists explore several access points along the fence, some near dusty, mountainous terrain, others near residential communities. The idea is for them to touch the wall and hear stories of migrants who’ve attempted to cross the border; in doing so, they can be disabused of the Trump administration’s narrative that those seeking asylum in the US are rapists and criminals.
“Everyone wants to live the ‘real Tijuana’ experience,” he said, echoing the company’s slogan, Experience Mexico Like a Local. But living the true experience of Tijuana isn’t exactly possible if you’re a tourist: Modern Tijuana and violent Tijuana coexist but rarely intersect. Many of Chinn’s tourists ask him to procure drugs for them or shuttle them to the Hong Kong, but he always refuses, he says, suggesting the company’s slogan has more to do with respect for the city than it does the services it offers.
Chinn is originally from Ohio. When he moved to San Diego in 2006, his friends told him terrible things about Tijuana: They’re going to kidnap you, they’re going to kill you, you’re going to get robbed. But it was hard for him to believe it. Tijuana’s brand was that of a prohibition-era city filled with violence and vice, but he wanted to discover it for himself. The first time he crossed the border into Mexico, he found something entirely different: a cosmopolitan city filled with electric energy and endless things to do. In 2010, when the first wave of drug-related violence ended, he moved to the city. Back then, his friends refused to visit him. But today—even as the homicide rate has more than doubled—the dynamic has reversed.
“It’s ironic that tourists aren’t afraid even though the violence is worse than ever. They aren’t aware of what’s happening,” Chinn said with an easy smile. “Those of us who live here are frustrated and hurting, but it’s like being sick with a chronic illness. We live with it constantly and it always comes back. So, you have to adapt.”
Moments before starting the tour of the day, he disclosed Tijuana’s homicide rate to the group. People seemed mildly shocked, but nobody was scared.