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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

"Organized crime continues, not only drug trafficking but extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling and gun running. But it's under a consolidated group (Sinaloa)."

Calderon has staked his reputation on an army-led crackdown against the drug cartels but the conflict has claimed 42,000 lives since he took office in late 2006 and the bloodshed is hitting support for his conservative National Action Party, or PAN, ahead of the next presidential election in July 2012.

His campaign upset the balance of power, triggering a series of turf wars. A troubling truth is that the violence tends to ease when one cartel establishes control in an area.

Calderon insists, though, that all organized crime groups will be hit with the same force and has vowed to continue the squeeze on gangs until he leaves office in late 2012.

Better security in Tijuana has given hope to investors like Juan Pablo Arroyuelo, who is spending $50 million building upscale villas next to wineries in Ensenada south of the city.

"Right now the violence is under control. Baja California is not at all what it used to be like in recent years. That is giving us confidence to invest," said Arroyuelo.

'ZOMBIES'

The head of the Sinaloa cartel is Mexico's most wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, and analysts say he has managed to keep the peace in Tijuana by allying with local crime bosses, all the while keeping drugs streaming steadily north.

Several sophisticated tunnels used for moving drugs under the U.S. border were discovered here this year.

Security experts believe the Sinaloa gang was behind them, as well as one of the largest marijuana fields in Mexico's history found farther south in Baja California in July.

For years, the Arellano Felix family ran Tijuana, using gruesome torture and executions to defend its territory.

Now most of the original leaders are dead or in jail, leaving just a nephew, Luis Fernando Sanchez Arellano, known as "The Engineer." He fought off a challenge from the group's top enforcer, Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, that led to the bloody battle to dominate the city in recent years.

Sanchez Arellano finally engineered a truce with Guzman and his henchmen that gave him an advantage over his rival.

Garcia Simental was then arrested last year and the Sinaloa cartel's illegal drugs now pass through Arellano's territory for a fee, a U.S. official in Mexico said.

"A deal was struck (that) allows both organizations to operate independently and includes a non-aggression pact, securing for the Sinaloa Federation its long-awaited access to the lucrative port of entry into the United States," U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor said in a report earlier this year.

As drugs pass through Tijuana unabated, the number of local addicts is growing. They gather by the dozens in a rancid sewage canal called "El Bordo" near the U.S. port of entry.

"There are a bunch like me," said local dealer Juan while shooting heroin into his neck. "We are all like zombies."

Addicts like Juan, and a series of violent attacks on rehab centers, remind officials the fight for Tijuana is not over.

"We are on the right path," Baja California state Governor Jose Osuna told business leaders and government officials in August. "(But) it's clear the battle is not won."

(Additional reporting by Rachel Uranga, Anahi Rama and Mica Rosenberg; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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