Two layers of fencing, one covered in concertina wire, follow a road near the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego on Aug. 16, 2017.
Two layers of fencing, one covered in concertina wire, follow a road near the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego on Aug. 16, 2017. (Brandon Quester/inewsource)

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico warned Americans traveling to Tijuana and Rosarito of heightened risk for violence between cartels after authorities announced the arrest of a high-ranking cartel leader last week. 

In the alert from July 4, the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana said there was “potential for confrontations between criminal organizations and Mexican security forces” and that Americans should expect to find increased Mexican law enforcement in the cities. 

“Criminal organization assassinations and territorial disputes can result in bystanders being injured or killed,” the Consulate said in the release. 

Despite the warnings, popular tourist areas in Baja California including Rosarito and parts of Tijuana remain mostly safe from cartel crime or violence against American travelers, according to crime and security experts.

Why this matters

Millions of Americans travel to Mexico each year. Experts said travelers who stay in tourist areas of Baja California are at a low risk for cartel violence and crime.

The Department of State recorded 22 homicides among Americans in Baja California in 2021, according to data on its website. There were 15 in 2020, 13 in 2019 and 19 in 2018. 

U.S. officials did not confirm the name of the alleged cartel leader whose arrest prompted the security alert. 

U.S. Department of State officials also did not answer questions about how long the security alert would be in effect, but said the alerts are issued “as needed to notify U.S. citizens of specific events and changes happening locally, in real time.”

Apart from the security alert, the U.S. Department of State ranks Baja California at a Level 3 for travel advisories, meaning Americans should “reconsider travel” to the state due to crime, kidnapping and a “high number of homicides in the non-tourist areas of Tijuana.” 

The Department of State recommended travelers “stay on main highways and avoid remote locations.”

The press office for the Baja California governor did not return a request for comment.

What’s causing the violence? Where is it happening?

Victor Clark Alfaro, a lecturer in Latin American Studies at San Diego State University, said most cartel violence happens outside of the “bubble” of tourist areas for distinct reasons.

“Simply because organized crime is, after all, an enterprise. They’re businesses, they’re ultra-capitalist enterprises,” Clark Alfaro said in Spanish. “So they’re not going to generate violence in tourist areas because they know perfectly that it would be counterproductive to their own businesses.”

That means touristy areas like Zona Río and Avenida Revolución in Tijuana and Rosarito are generally free from the violence, Clark Alfaro said.

“There have been some incidents in tourist areas, but the violence that we, Tijuanenses, live with is not precisely there. It’s outside of those areas,” Clark Alfaro said.

Several cartels regularly battle for control over Baja California to sell and export drugs to the U.S. The July 2 arrest meant a vacant position among cartel leadership, which Clark Alfaro said likely has already been filled.

Who’s at risk? How can travelers protect themselves?

The U.S. Consulate alert recommended American travelers to do the following while visiting Tijuana and Rosarito: 

  • Keep watch of your surroundings
  • Be vigilant and “keep a low profile” 
  • Check local new outlets for updates 
  • Call 911 in case of emergency 
  • Have “personal security plans” 
  • Listen to local authorities 

Clark Alfaro said both cartel members and innocent citizens caught in the crossfire can be victims of cartel violence. 

But he doesn’t see a high risk for Americans in the touristy areas of Tijuana and Rosarito since the violence typically does not happen there.

The prominent arrest and Fourth of July warning from the U.S. did not stop Americans from traveling to Rosarito, a popular tourist destination about 45 minutes south of the border over the holiday weekend, according to the local mayor, Araceli Brown, who spoke to Esquina 32

Roberto Quijano Sosa, president of the Citizen Council on Public Security in Baja California, said the type of alert issued by the U.S. earlier this month isn’t all that uncommon.

Since the arrest, he said there has not been the type of violent confrontation from the cartel’s supporters that Quijano Sosa and others expected. 

So far, the travel advisory hasn’t affected cross-border travel and commerce all that much, he said. 

“We have thousands and thousands of Americans coming to Tijuana every day, not only for business, [but] to go to the doctor, meeting friends, attend a lunch meeting, or things like that,” he added. 

“It hasn’t affected the day to day atmosphere in our communities.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...