“Mommy, why are they shooting at us again?” a five-year-old asked her mother after being caught in the crossfire of a shootout in the parking lot of Tijuana’s Sam’s Club just before noon on November 25, Frontera reported. Mom had just picked her daughter up from a nearby preschool in what is regarded as one of the best and safest neighborhoods in the city. It was, said the newspaper, the second time the youngster had been forced to duck and cover as bullets flew. Students at the nearby Lázaro Cárdenas Federal Preparatory School could hear the gunfire from their classrooms. A few weeks later, gunmen sprayed the parking lot of a Costco in the city’s Zona Río — in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon — sending shoppers scurrying for cover.
Sometimes the results are enough to make you cry. A two-year-old boy died in a car crash when his mom, trying to evade gunfire during a shootout, was forced off a busy boulevard and into a light post head-on. An 18-month-old girl was seriously wounded when gunmen cut off her parents’ pickup truck, stormed out of their cars, and opened fire with semi-automatic rifles, shredding mom’s and dad’s bodies with bullets as the baby sat strapped in her car seat behind them. About 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night, November 29, gunmen opened fire outside a small grocery store in the Los Piños neighborhood, killing four — among them a 4-year-old named Eduardo and a 13-year-old named José.
“It used to be that they just went after their enemies — you know, other people involved in the narco business,” says the 59-year-old owner of a small and struggling corner grocery near downtown. “But not anymore. They just open fire. Whoever happens to be there at the time is just out of luck. This is a big change from before. Now they don’t care who gets killed. They are fearless, shooting down people in broad daylight. They kill women. They kill kids. It’s a war.”
“Living in Tijuana is easy,” says a neighborhood cop who patrols the middle-class El Mirador neighborhood. “It’s surviving that’s hard.” He was one of a dozen officers who stood guard outside an elementary school two blocks from a government hospital one sunny November afternoon as the school day was about to end. At least ten police cars screamed into the emergency entrance of Hospital ISSSTECALI, sirens wailing. Ski-masked officers armed with rifles jumped out of police pickups and lined the sidewalk. A police helicopter hovered overhead, and motorcycle cops blocked off the street. Two olive-colored half-ton Mexican Army trucks, carrying about a dozen semi-automatic-rifle–toting soldiers, cruised the surrounding streets. Somewhere in the city there had been another shootout, more police officers killed and wounded, and ISSSTECALI, a state-run hospital for government employees and their dependents, is where they take them.
The kids were kept inside the school and away from windows for about 45 minutes, until authorities were certain the killers were not going to come to the hospital to finish the job. And with good reason. Just after midnight on November 22, 2008, masked gunmen stormed into the intensive care unit of Hospital del Prado, one of the city’s best private medical facilities, and shot to death a patient recovering from an earlier attempt on his life. In 2007, two municipal police officers were shot dead at Tijuana General Hospital when a group of armed men said to be associated with a drug cartel tried to snatch a wounded compatriot being treated in the emergency room.
In a late-January visit to Tijuana for a conference on trauma medicine, Carlos Freaner Figueroa, vice president of the Mexican Red Cross, announced that Red Cross paramedics, who staff the country’s principal ambulance system, had adopted a “war-zone policy” when responding to calls for help from victims injured “in whatever manner during operations against organized crime.” From now on, said Freaner Figueroa, police must enter the area first, police must guard paramedics as they remove the injured, and, once a patient has been evaluated and cleared for transport to a hospital, ambulances must be accompanied by police escorts. The reason for the new policy, he said, was to prevent gunmen from finishing off patients on their way to the hospital.
Francisco, who earns his livelihood as a bootleg plumber and electrician out of the trunk of his car, says he has taught his children what to do in case they get caught in a shootout: “Chest on the ground, flat as you can! Hands over your head! Don’t stand up!” His kids, 11, 13, and 15, know well the danger, he says. “They’re not stupid. They have eyes. They have ears.” Television and radio news, along with the city’s dailies, saturate the city with the latest horrors: “Two dead in shootout”; “Body cut into pieces discovered with narco-message”; “Confrontation leaves one dead, two wounded”; “Three found executed in back alley”; “Man gunned down downtown”; “Man shot, crashes into patrol car”; “Two men shot at on Boulevard Agua Caliente”; “Another corpse wrapped in a blanket found”; “Nine dead, seven of them decapitated”; “Killed in shootout near Marriott”; “Commandos kill 16.” And that was just two days’ worth of news.
“I don’t read the newspapers and I don’t watch the news,” said one middle-aged Tijuana woman returning late one Friday afternoon from a day’s work as a maid at a San Diego hotel. “I don’t want to know anymore.” She glanced at her watch and fretted, “It will be getting dark soon. I don’t like to get home after dark.”
While the widespread and sometimes indiscriminate killings are bad enough, it is the heartless savagery that accompanies many of them that has left Tijuana close to emotional meltdown. Masked men kick in the doors of modest homes in predawn raids, singling out fathers to kill in front of their children, or children to kill in front of their parents. In some instances, entire families are slaughtered. Decapitated bodies are left on baseball fields used by youngsters; detached heads are discovered by startled taco-stand owners opening for business in the morning; sometimes, the bodies are found in one city, the heads in another. Rotting corpses are abandoned in metal barrels. Bullet-riddled bodies, their tongues cut out, have been left on the sidewalk in front of an elementary school. Corpses are strewn across the city — some wrapped in plastic garbage bags, others stranded behind the wheel of the car they were driving when death came.