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Tijuana violence slows as one cartel takes control

Sep 5, 2011, 10:10 p.m.
A soldier stands in the middle of a marijuana plantation in San Quintin, 300 km (186 miles) south of Tijuana, July 13, 2011. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico's famously seedy border city of Tijuana is enjoying a lull in drug murders as the country's most powerful cartel gains the upper hand over its rivals.

While other parts of Mexico are hit by an increase in drugs violence, the beheadings and massacres familiar a few years ago are now rare in Tijuana, a key battleground on one of the most lucrative drug smuggling corridors to the United States.

Nightclubs and restaurants that shut down during a peak in violence in 2008 have cautiously begun to reopen their doors over the last year and officials say investment is picking up.

Long one of Mexico's most vibrant border cities, lying just across from San Diego, Tijuana is home not just to sleazy bars and brothels but also to a cutting edge electronic music scene and internationally renowned contemporary artists.

Much of that changed, however, when battles between rival drug gangs sparked daytime shootouts and many brutal murders.

Residents remember how one day more than a dozen corpses were dumped opposite a school. Another day brought the capture of the "stew maker," who dissolved hundreds of bodies in acid to hide evidence of murders committed by his gang.

"I'm still worried about the violence, but it's nothing like as horrible it was," said the elderly owner of an elegant Japanese cafe on a lively strip of gourmet restaurants.

"Before you had to zigzag around the city to avoid getting kidnapped, which is what happened to several people I know," she said over the din of teenagers enjoying a birthday party in downtown Tijuana. "It's a different Tijuana now."

So far in 2011, there have been 349 homicides in Tijuana, way down from the peaks of 820 in 2010 and 844 in 2008.

Mexico's government claims credit for the improvements after flooding the state of Baja California with police and soldiers in 2009 and helping to dismantle the once-dominant Arellano Felix cartel by capturing several of its leaders.

"Until recently Tijuana suffered extreme violence, but commitment from the local police, the governor, has led to a drastic drop," President Felipe Calderon said last week.

He says Tijuana is an example of the way forward, even as violence has mushroomed in other areas in the country, including the once-safe industrial city of Monterrey, hit by a dramatic surge in killings over the past two years.

Suspected cartel members torched an up-market Monterrey casino in late August, killing 52 people in one of the worst atrocities of the drugs war.

SINALOA CARTEL IN CONTROL

Tijuana's recovery is a rare bright spot for the government but analysts say there is a more subtle reality -- the decline of the Arellano Felix gang has allowed the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's strongest, to move in and take control.

With a clear winner emerging from a turf war, violence has slowed, but the drugs trade is still flourishing here.

"The drugs continue flowing, without a doubt. What has diminished is violence between criminal groups," said Edgardo Buscaglia, an security expert at Mexico's ITAM university.

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