As Mexican National Guard troops patrolled the streets of Tijuana and cruise lines canceled moorings in Ensenada over fears of violence, residents of Baja California struggled to resume normal lives on Sunday after hooded bandits associated with criminal cartels effectively shut down much of the region on Friday.
State officials said the attackers hijacked and set fire to at least two dozen vehicles and set up roadblocks around the state on Friday night. Posts also began circulating on social media, allegedly from the Jalisco New Generation cartel, declaring a curfew in Tijuana and warning residents to go home or risk being attacked. Many have done so, turning the normally frenetic area of restaurants and bars around Avenida Revolución into a virtual ghost town.
By Saturday afternoon, hundreds of soldiers and special forces had arrived in Tijuana to help restore order and bolster security. Some 300 soldiers, along with 50 members of the National Guard, were flown in to support 3,000 National Guard troops and the 2,000 Tijuana police officers the mayor said were already patrolling.
Just before noon on Sunday, the US consulate in Tijuana announced on Twitter that it had rescinded an order issued Friday evening that US government personnel shelter in place.
One person was reportedly injured in the violence but no one was killed, according to government officials and news reports. It was the third time in a week that cartels had unleashed widespread chaos in cities across Mexico.
A few days earlier, at less than 11 people were killed in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, in a series of attacks that targeted convenience stores, gas stations and a pizzeria. Drug cartels also torched dozens of shops, buses and cars and blocked major roads in the states of Jalisco and Guanajuato. Authorities in those states reported one death.
Federal officials said 17 suspects have been arrested in connection with the violence, including seven people in Tijuana and four in Rosarito and Mexicali.
It was not clear how, or if, the events were related. Officials said the rampage in Ciudad Juárez came in retaliation for a prison riot, while chaos in Jalisco and Guanajuato was sparked by Jalisco cartel leaders angry at plans to arrest them.
The Baja closures, which affected Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, Ensenada and Rosarito Beach, were reportedly in the hands of the same cartel, but other links were not immediately known.
Local officials have vowed not to be intimidated.
“Today we say to the organized crime groups that commit these crimes that Tijuana will stay open and take care of its citizens,” Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero said in a video message on Saturday. She also called on “organized crime”, the term used in Mexico to refer to drug cartels, “to settle their debts with those who have not paid what they owe, and not with the families and citizens who work hard”.
On Saturday, the morning after much of the violence, many streets in Tijuana seemed virtually empty. Many buses had stopped running, leaving workers stranded.
In Rosarito, attendees of a popular music festival, the Baja Beach Fest, were caught up in the chaos.
“I left Baja Beach Fest about an hour ago,” Alexis Hodoyan, Remezcla’s music editor, said on Twitter just after midnight Saturday. “There was no signal. Festival goers probably don’t know what’s going on. It’s impossible for everyone at the festival to stay in Rosarito. Taxis don’t go to Tijuana… it’s going to be chaos.
About 12 hours later, she reported driving through Tijuana on her way back to San Diego. “Most businesses are open and things seem normal,” she tweeted, “except for the drastic reduction in car traffic, which has been notoriously horrendous in the city for the past two years.”
José Rodriguez, a taxi driver in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, felt safe enough Saturday afternoon to return to work.
“We are really scared of what happened and the possibility of losing a vehicle, having it burnt, but we also believe that public transport is a responsibility that we have,” he said, adding that it appeared that the criminal groups were not looking to hurt anyone, but rather trying to make a statement or issue a warning.
As of Sunday, many restaurants that are part of Tijuana’s famed food scene had reopened.
“We are open; everything is normal,” said a woman answering the phone at La Espadaña, a popular restaurant in Tijuana. She added, however, that the restaurant would close earlier than usual due to the chaos.
At the Casa Tijuana Project restaurant, a person answering the phone seemed confused with questions about the chaos. The restaurant was open; was a reservation desired or not?
Still, life was far from normal – a clear fact for cruise ships scheduled to dock at Ensenada.
“Is the Radiance docking in Ensenada today?” one person asked on Twitter. “My parents are on the boat.”
Carnival Cruise Line’s Twitter account responded within minutes. “Due to recent local unrest,” he wrote, “Carnival Radiance will be canceling the call to Ensenada.”
“LOL,” someone else added. “I’m on a cruise to Ensenada for work and they won’t let us off the ship now.”
David Shirk, a University of San Diego professor who tracks organized crime in Mexico, said these kinds of events underscore the idea that, in many ways, organized crime is the master of security in Lower -California.
While no one was killed, the violence, Shirk said, is further eroding public trust in the government and law enforcement authorities designated to protect them and fight organized crime.
“The authorities are not able to establish order, and they are not able to hold people to account,” Shirk said.
Times writer Garrison reported from Sacramento. San Diego Union-Tribune reporters Fry and Mendoza reported from Tijuana. The Associated Press contributed to this report.