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Violence erupts in Tijuana, Mexico, following the arrest of a drug cartel leader

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mexico's president plans to address the violence in parts of his country today. This is violence that seemed to be a protest against federal law enforcement. Federal police arrested the head of a drug cartel. And that is when people started setting cars on fire. They also torched businesses. This happened in the state of Jalisco and also in the state of Guanajuato and in Tijuana, the city by the U.S.-Mexico border. They set cars on fire and blocked roads. And somebody claiming to represent the cartel issued an eerie demand for a curfew. Our colleague A Martinez is in Tijuana. A, good morning.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did this story unfold where you are?

MARTINEZ: Well, we'd already been planning to visit Tijuana this week for the past few months to report on migrants at the busiest border crossing in the U.S. That's San Ysidro in San Diego. And while doing some prep on Friday night, the Friday before, I started to see social media posts of cars being burned in Baja, where the majority were happening in Tijuana. Now, these incidents, as you mentioned, followed a federal arrest of a high-ranking member of the Jalisco drug cartel. There were also posts claiming to be from the cartel, called Jalisco Nueva Generacion, calling for a 10 p.m. curfew Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. The mayor of Tijuana pushed back, declaring there was no curfew, that the city was open and that criminals will not dictate what happens in our city.

INSKEEP: Well, she said that. But the cartel said, stay home. So what did people do?

MARTINEZ: They stayed in pretty much all weekend. You see, Tijuana on a warm summer night on the weekends is usually bustling with people going to bars and restaurants on Revolucion or near Friendship Park. It was really eerie, Steve, to see videos of these areas essentially closed, hardly anyone on the streets except for police and the National Guard.

INSKEEP: Well, what does that say about who really has power in Mexico?

MARTINEZ: And we asked that exact question to Cecilia Farfan-Mendez. She's head of security research at the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at UC San Diego.

CECILIA FARFAN-MENDEZ: The population had to follow rules from criminal groups whether or not these were verified. And I think this aligns really well with data that we have on the perception that criminal groups have the firepower capacity to effectively confront the state. And so the quick, you know, sheltering in place instead of, like, obeying orders in the midst of that uncertainty also tells you a lot about how the population perceives the effectiveness of the state, either federal or locally, in terms of their response to what is happening.

MARTINEZ: While Farfan-Mendez goes on to add that this narco narrative needs to be abandoned, she believes it's important to figure out the structural causes of violence in Tijuana, which she believes is the responsibility of the mayor, Montserrat Caballero Ramirez. I interviewed her in her office at city hall. And while we spoke about what's been unfolding the past week, Caballero Ramirez touted how secure the city of Tijuana is for its residents and tourists.

MONTSERRAT CABALLERO RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) Burning 10 cars in a city of 2 million people statistically does not make it an act of terrorism. The situation is serious, but it is not dire. Take precautions if you want to come to Tijuana. But know that there were no homicides. And it's not how some media make it out to be. The city remained safe because we contained the situation. The governor of the state has said that those who committed these atrocities have already been captured. We do not have the peace that we would like in the whole country. I would be lying to you if I said that. But we are hoping for stability.

MARTINEZ: We were monitoring social media. We were monitoring what you were saying also. And you were saying, there is no curfew, that it's absolutely fine, right?

CABALLERO RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) Exactly.

MARTINEZ: But the people that we've spoken to so far, they tended to believe the cartel. They didn't want to take any chances. And they believed the cartel. They took their warnings maybe a little bit more seriously than they took what you said. How do you square that? How do you think of, like, wait, these - my own citizens believe the cartel, and they don't believe me?

CABALLERO RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) It's an unfortunate question of culture, narcos culture. The media treats cartels in a singular way. And I cannot allow a cartel to rule my citizens. I cannot allow citizens to pay the consequences of these criminal acts.

MARTINEZ: How do you change that? How do you get the people to believe you, the mayor, the leader of this town, over a cartel?

CABALLERO RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) Well, we need them to trust our police. We have a visit from the president of Mexico. And we're going to ask for a little more support from the federation so that citizens who do not trust can trust again.

MARTINEZ: We've spoken to people that study crime in Mexico. And what they're telling us is that the cartels operate and say the things they say and do the things they do because they feel confident that government is either going to look away or is maybe encouraging their behavior.

CABALLERO RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) It has happened a lot. Some of their leaders have had these pacts. It's very clear and everyone knows it. But in this government, there is no pact with criminals. And I'm going to protect the good citizens who go out to work, the law-abiding citizens.

MARTINEZ: And in the short term, Tijuana is being blanketed with protection. A couple of nights ago, some of my colleagues were on their way back to the hotel. They passed a checkpoint where cars were being inspected close to where one of the vehicles had been set on fire last Friday.

INSKEEP: A, I appreciated listening to the mayor there, who was arguing, listen; let's focus on the 2 million people whose cars were not set on fire. I guess that's one perspective. But how does it feel to other people in that city?

MARTINEZ: Well, Tijuana hasn't seen this level of open chaos in its streets in over a decade. I've heard from folks this past week, Steve, that brought back awful memories from the mid-2000s, when the Mexican government was trying to crack down on the cartels. Fourteen years later, the increased military presence in Tijuana really doesn't do much to reassure Moses Zazueta Ramirez (ph). He's 23. He's a waiter at a bakery near Friendship Park. That's the beach where the border wall extends into the Pacific Ocean. Moses lives in what he calls a dangerous place next to an area known as a point where drugs are sold. Since last weekend, though, the military has set up camp in a community center right next to the point. When things in Tijuana started to get tense that Friday, he decided to stay in. He just said, he didn't want to risk it. And Moses was working at the bakery a couple of days ago. And we spoke about the truckload of Mexican National Guard that was patrolling the area. And I asked him if seeing them made him feel more secure.

MOSES ZAZUETA RAMIREZ: Nah, I don't think I'm really secure. And I don't feel safe at all. But I'm from the hood, so (laughter) - I got to go.

MARTINEZ: Thank you. Thanks.

And today, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador visits and tries to soothe concerns. A local politician from a rival party is going to be organizing a protest to highlight what he feels was an ineffective federal and local response.

INSKEEP: Well, A, I'm glad, at least, that you were there to illuminate this story that I think would have missed a lot of Americans' attention. It's good to know what's happening in Tijuana. Can you just tell us a little bit about the purpose that brought you there in the first place? What is some of the reporting you expect to be bringing us in the coming days?

MARTINEZ: Yeah. We're going to be reporting on migration policies of the U.S., how that affects the area here in Tijuana. We're going to be visiting shelters and schools. There's going to be a lot coming up about how the residents of Tijuana, how the mayor tried to deal with that and, in some cases, try their best to integrate people that will not be able to make it into the United States.

INSKEEP: Our colleague A Martinez is on the US-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico. A, thanks so much.

MARTINEZ: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BURNING PARIS SONG, "THE SUN ALSO RISES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.