Life in Tijuana goes on. The buses run, people go to work, kids go to school, traffic still jams the city’s arteries. But something has changed in the last year or so: the city’s residents go about their day-to-day business with a gnawing apprehension, haunted by an unpleasant feeling that something horrible may happen at any moment. The sensation is similar to what you feel when you narrowly avoid a car crash or catch a child just in time to avoid disaster — relief that it did not happen, distress that it almost did, dread that next time you may not be so lucky. The Tijuana state of mind has become popularly known as “the psychosis.” Anyone who lives in Tijuana knows what you’re talking about when you use the term.
“I don’t take my kids to the park anymore on Sundays,” says Luís, a young Tijuana father of three — eight- and six-year-old sons, and a five-year-old daughter. Luís once looked forward to the weekly family outings. Sunday is his only day off from delivering bottled fruit juices to neighborhood grocers. His sons liked to kick a soccer ball around for hours and run in the grass. His daughter favored the swings and the slide. “It’s too dangerous,” he says, shaking his head, staring at the ground. “Too many shootouts. We stay home, play Game Boy, watch TV, or rent videos. Their mom won’t even take them with her to the supermarket like she used to, even though they beg to go.”
Luís is by no means alone, not in his constant uneasiness, not in the ashen look that briefly crosses his face when he imagines what could happen to his loved ones when they venture onto the streets of Tijuana. From working-class neighborhoods like Luís’s Colonia Hidalgo near downtown, to the city’s wealthiest enclaves, Tijuanenses are hunkering down. No area of the city is considered safe. Most people of means have already fled, and more are leaving town every day. Tijuana news outlets reported not long after the New Year began that, of the 100 or so owners of PEMEX-franchised gas stations in the metro area, 60 had decided to take themselves and their families elsewhere to live. Joaquín Aviña Sánchez, director of the Tijuana Gas Station Owners Association, told the Tijuana daily Frontera that between 2006 and 2007, at least 20 owners — or members of their families — had been kidnapped.
For those who are staying behind, either because they have no choice or out of pride of place, military authorities recommend they stay at home if there is no important reason to go out. The official murder count for 2008 was 843, though suspicious Tijuanenses say there were probably a lot more. Of the 843, Frontera reported at year’s end that 25 were innocent bystanders. One reason the official death toll is suspect is that many people have vanished, their fates unknown to family and friends. On January 24, Mexican soldiers and federal police captured a 45-year-old ex-construction worker who said he was paid $600 a week by a renegade drug-cartel lieutenant known as “the uncle” to dissolve corpses in acid-filled barrels. In a short question-and-answer session with journalists following his arrest, a tearful Santiago Meza López said he had liquefied 300 bodies. The state attorney general has begun collecting photos from families of the disappeared in hopes that Meza López, who said he would cooperate, might recall some of the faces. Within a day, the attorney general said in a press conference, more than 100 photos had been collected.
Hopes for the prospect of less violence in 2009 were quickly dashed. The first murder was reported 20 minutes into the New Year. On February 2, the state attorney general’s office released Tijuana murder statistics for the first month of 2009. In January, said the statement, homicides more than doubled over the same month last year — 30 killings in January 2008, compared to 69 in 2009. Included in the statistics were six municipal police officers, seven decapitated bodies — among them four victims who were just 17 years old — and six women. Several of the murdered women died, said Frontera, only because they “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“There is a new rule in my house,” says a prominent Tijuana physician, whose swank Chapultepec home includes an indoor swimming pool and a spectacular golf course view. “No one leaves after 7:00 p.m. And every day, we use a different car, leave at a different time, and take a different route when I drop my boys at school.” The doctor has even abandoned regular office hours, seeing patients by appointment only and varying his hours each day. Some days he avoids his clinic altogether. But the doctor takes exception to the term “psychosis” to describe the popular consciousness. “Psychosis is a profound mental illness,” he explains. “We are not suffering from any mental illness. This is real.”
María, a usually happy-go-lucky third-grader, came home from school one afternoon just before Halloween trembling and fighting back tears. “The teacher told us no ‘trickie-trickie,’ ” she said, referring to the Spanish adaptation of “trick-or-treat.” “They might kill us,” sobbed the 8-year-old. “The narcos said they would kill us.” Municipal and school authorities had warned parents to keep their kids off the streets after one group among the warring narco-factions was rumored to have threatened to gun down children at random if the federal government did not withdraw the thousands of soldiers sent in to patrol city streets. It could well have been a rumor or an empty threat, but nerves are frayed in Tijuana, and no one wanted to take any chances in a city where murderous cruelty has become almost as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise. Government officials dubbed the threat “narco-terrorism” and promised for the umpteenth time to do something about it.
So the streets of Tijuana, once teeming with little witches and hobgoblins on Halloween, were virtually empty in 2008 — except for half-ton military trucks carting heavily armed soldiers through residential streets — just in case the threat wasn’t a rumor. And the very few brave enough to take the risk found that not many doors opened for them as they trekked house to house.