When former President Felipe Calderón first announced in 2007 what would be an endless war against cartels in Mexico, Tijuana was one of the first ground-zeroes. No doubt, leading up to 2006, the increased brazenness of the confrontation between the government and the then dominant Arellano Felix Cartel had already prepped the site as a staging-ground for the war.
And when the war then began, the city became casted as a no-man’s land – the site of what appeared to be an unending back-and-forth between cartels and the state. Municipal police forces were purged and federal forces were brought in. They conducted raids and established roadblocks and mobile command centers, thus militarizing everyday life through occupation. And the violence of the cartels, once contained in the working-class neighborhoods themselves defined by disposable life, spilled into the city center where life was considered not disposable.
Such was the state of things before the war began. Between 2007 and 2011 Tijuana lived some of its darkest years. It completely changed the composition of the city as the last of the vestiges of its tourist heydays of the 1990s closed shop.
But suddenly, over the next four years, a new cycle came about defined by the relative calm the government had claimed to establish. More likely that a truce developed between two unstoppable forces – the state’s forces and the Sinaloa cartell – at the cost of smaller cells who had vied for pole position.
But this kind of truce could hardly hold. While Tijuana’s center experienced a revival expressed through fine and culinary arts, the untenable truce gave way to new competitions and rivalries. When the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación exploded onto the scene in Guadalajara, breaking the peaceful lay-of-the-land that governed between the cartels before, it would only be a matter of time before that same force would flow to the biggest port in the north.
Of course, at the very heart of the matter is power and force. Narco organizations are capable of drawing their power from the massive disposability of entire populations throughout Mexico. It is this very disposability that gives them their ability to fill their ranks. They are capable of offering meaning as well as an economic outcome where the legitimate road cannot.
Over the past years we have heard about the nation states which are unable to take in refugees and migrants but what tends to be forgotten is the fact that those people fleeing violence do not arrive in the nation state – a rather abstract place if one thinks about it – but arrive in cities and communities. It is these local place places where they seek to find a new home – only in the case of Tijuana there is not too much to offer.
The Mexican state is at an impossible crossroads. In the same way that all governments aim for social cohesion, it has the impossible task to bring into the fold entire sectors of the social population which it had actively abandoned for decades. Namely the former small-scale agricultural communities, that made the bulk of society and was forced of their small farms in the restructuring process following the implementation of NAFTA. These group of people now finds itself jumping from boomtown to boomtown, looking for an angry buck. It seems that currently, the most effective way for the state that maintains the status quo is to conduct an endless civil war on this excess population.
Cities, in the meantime, are doomed to live through repetitive cycles, wherein narcos (like transnational corporations) move from location to location in search of favorable business climates. They are organized and informed enough to understand that this may mean laying low in one particular city for a limited time while scaling up operations elsewhere, until conditions are favorable enough to return once more.