Mexico Flies Troops to Busiest US Border City After Gang Attacks

(Bloomberg) -- Hundreds of Mexican military troops were flown into Tijuana on Saturday to beef up street patrols after armed gangs hijacked and burned at least a dozen vehicles in the border city, the latest in a wave of attacks hitting civilians across the country.

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US consulate staff were ordered to shelter in place Friday evening but no one was reported injured in the Tijuana hijackings that snarled traffic across the city and temporarily blocked access to one of the world’s busiest border crossings. Some 350 national guard troops were flown in on Saturday to reinforce thousands of federal troops already in the state of Baja California, daily Reforma reported on its website.

Simultaneous hijackings occurred in four other cities in Baja and authorities arrested at least 17 people, Milenio TV reported. Tijuana is home to the San Ysidro-El Chaparral ports of entry, the busiest US border crossing.

The disruptions in Tijuana follow attacks against businesses and civilians further along the border in Ciudad Juarez and the central state of Guanajuato the past week. The wave of violence now spreading to key manufacturing corridors is a major challenge to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s security strategy.

While so-called “narco blockades” have become common in states like Guerrero and Michoacan, where the Jalisco New Generation Cartel pioneered attacks on civilians over the past few years, this was the first time such tactics had been widely deployed in the major border city of Tijuana, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an organized crime expert at Brookings Institution.

An escalating battle between Jalisco and the Sinaloa Cartel for control in the region could jeopardize new foreign investment, she said. Tijuana has seen horrific gang violence in the past, but not such disruptions directed at the general population.

‘Protect Us’

“Companies are being affected. Foreign companies are being affected,” Felbab-Brown said in a telephone interview. “It’s blowing up in terms of people saying ‘Hey government, you have to protect us.’”

Lopez Obrador’s government has come under criticism for shying away from directly challenging criminal gangs, such as its release of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s son in 2019 following unrest in Sinaloa after his capture.

The government has deployed thousands of members of the National Guard across the country, giving the public the sense that the streets remain militarized. And although the homicide rate has fallen, it remains near record highs.

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero, in a video message directed at the criminal gangs she blamed for the hijackings, said the city wouldn’t shut down.

“We are not going to allow a single Tijuana citizen pay the consequences of those who didn’t pay their bills,” she said. “We ask that you make the people who owe you pay up, not the families and citizens who work.”

In a separate press briefing outside a military base in the city, Caballero said there were some 3,000 federal troops in the state that would help 2,000 Tijuana police maintain order. She stressed no civilians had been hurt yet. “The problem is serious but it’s not that serious,” she said.

Several vehicles burned on Friday night blocked roads in two cities in Guanajuato state, Milenio reported. That’s also where gangs on Tuesday torched 25 Oxxo convenience stores owned by Fomento Economico Mexicano SAB.

In Ciudad Juarez, flights into the city were canceled on Friday, while classes and a soccer match were suspended along with shifts at manufacturing plants, Milenio reported.

Gang members fired on civilians Thursday night at a strip mall and gas stations in attacks that killed nine people. Among the dead were a child at a convenience store and four radio station employees transmitting outside a Little Caesars pizza shop.

The attacks were carried out by a local gang following a fight in a Ciudad Juarez prison where two were killed, Chihuahua attorney general Roberto Fierro said in a press briefing. Felbab-Brown said smaller gangs were increasingly mimicking the tactics of the Jalisco cartel.

(Updates with troop deployment in paragraphs one and two, adds quote from mayor in paragraphs 11-12.)

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