How the Private Sector Helped Make Tijuana Safe Again

By Kevin Gatter

By Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Between 2007 and 2010, Tijuana was one of the most violent cities on the planet. Kidnapping, extortion, and homicide became commonplace occurrences, and the notorious Tijuana Cartel, which had been gathering strength during the 1990s, dominated large swaths of the city.

The city’s main thoroughfare, Avenida Revolución, which had previously been full of street vendors hawking their merchandise and U.S. tourists, was deserted. Citizens stayed in their houses after dark and the city’s renowned nightlife ground to a halt. The Mexican government sent troops to the city in a bid to restore order, leading to violent confrontations with criminal elements.

It was with this image of a violent and crime-ridden city that I traveled to Tijuana in April 2015. Instead, however, I was surprised by what I found. Tourists were slowly starting to trickle back to Tijuana, families with young children enjoyed evening strolls in the balmy weather, and federal troops were absent from view. What led to such a drastic change in a mere five years?

During my visit to Tijuana, my colleague John Zemko and I interviewed local private sector leaders, former elected officials, the city’s former police chief, and journalists to document the private sector’s leading role in improving the city’s security situation. Julián Leyzaola, police chief of Tijuana from 2008 to 2011, stressed that the local police force proved less than effective in combating insecurity because many police officers were themselves tied to drug cartels, gangs, and other criminal elements. Adela Navarro, editor of the important Tijuana daily Zeta, emphasized that the local government, plagued by corruption, showed similar inaction despite citizens’ demands to restore law and order to Tijuana. Thus, it was up to the private sector to take the lead in saving Tijuana.

Former presidents of the local chapter of the Employers Federation of the Mexican Republic (COPARMEX) spoke to us about the steps that the private sector took to tackle the problem of citizen insecurity. In 2007, the private sector, led by COPARMEX, initiated a campaign called “SOS — Salvemos a Tijuana” (“Let’s Save Tijuana”). COPARMEX placed large billboards with the words “Let’s Save Tijuana” across the city.

At first, there were only three or four such billboards, but soon, businesses from across the city used their own funds to produce more billboards. Eventually, “Let’s Save Tijuana” was the message displayed on more than 80 billboards across the city. The attention created by this campaign was not lost on Mexican media — Reforma, an influential daily newspaper, dedicated the cover of one of its issues to the “Let’s Save Tijuana” campaign. The private sector also organized public marches, attended by thousands of local residents and members of the city’s government, to draw attention to the victims of the violence that was enveloping Tijuana.

In the face of growing local and national attention, the tide began to turn in Tijuana. In 2007, José Guadalupe Osuna Millán of the National Action Party (PAN) was elected mayor. Because of the visibility of the “Let’s Save Tijuana” campaign, the new mayor could not afford to be indifferent to the deteriorating security situation. In a departure from his predecessor, Mayor Osuna Millán engaged the private sector in dialogue to develop an approach to reducing violence in the city. In 2008, the mayor appointed Julián Leyzaola as police chief of Tijuana, and he systematically purged and professionalized the city’s police force.

With these new faces, the private sector renewed its push to bring security back to Tijuana. Private sector leaders were able to bring together the municipal presidents of Tijuana in discussions with the federal and state governments and held regular meetings with political and security leaders in the city to discuss security strategies. As a result, there was increased cooperation between the local and state governments, the private sector, and security forces on developing a plan to combat insecurity in Tijuana.

After 2010, the violence in the city began to die down. Whereas from 2007–2010, the city averaged 1,000 homicides per year, by 2013 the homicide rate had dropped to nearly half this number. While this is an encouraging development, a recent uptick in crime levels shows the importance of guaranteeing the sustainability of security initiatives following political transitions (the Party of the Institutional Revolution has wrested political control of local government away from Osuna Millán and the National Action Party).

With the information gleaned from our interviews, CIPE and COPARMEX produced a video that narrates the Tijuana story. The example of Tijuana shows us that private sector leadership can prove effective in combating violence in conflict zones, a relevant lesson that could potentially be applied to other conflict areas in Latin America and beyond.

Watch the video on YouTube.

Kevin Gatter is a Program Assistant for Latin America & the Caribbean at CIPE.

Originally published at on November 12, 2015.