Three worlds overlap in Mexico’s new fentanyl capital, where violence and synthetic drugs are bound dangerously together. Addicts, journalists and police navigate a city in disarray.
A dried-up canal slices through the heart of Tijuana, a streak of negative space in a city where every other square foot appears to be claimed. The canalización, as people call it, is a place now emblematic of the city’s ills, an underworld in plain sight. The headlines are daily:
“Another homicide in the canalización.”
“A boy executed in the canalización, in front of Costco.”
“More than a thousand people found living in the canalización.”
The chaos has spilled outward across Tijuana. There have been 1,900 homicides here this year so far, making it the deadliest city in Mexico. It is a place where language has adapted to new forms of violence, macabre and hyper-specific. The word “encobijado,” for instance: a murder victim wrapped in a blanket.
Propelling that violence is a shift in the drug trade. Tijuana has long been a major transit point for illicit goods into the United States: alcohol during Prohibition, waves of marijuana and cocaine after that. Now, it is a city of fentanyl. It is the most prolific trafficking hub into the United States for the drug and, increasingly, a city of users.
It is their lifeless bodies that paramedics find on the streets. They are just as frequently victims of overdoses as violence. The turf war between local drug dealers has provoked a nightly shock of killings.
The crisis has penetrated unlikely parts of Tijuana. Fentanyl labs have been disguised as piñata shops. Traffickers have turned modern townhouses into drug warehouses.
Men emerge, zombielike, between downtown restaurants, seeking available drugs wherever they can find them.
He woke up next to a pile of trash two blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border, on a patch of sidewalk that has been claimed by this city’s fentanyl addicts, almost all of them deportees from the United States.
José González folded his blanket on the concrete and checked to see whether anything had been stolen from him while he slept. Most of the men around him — he’s careful not to call them friends — had already taken their first hit of the day. They stared blankly ahead or at the ground, oblivious while José inventoried his things.
“This goddamn place,” he said.
José had been the starting right tackle at Redlands High School outside of San Bernardino, Calif., a teenager who had passed as all-American until his friends learned that he was undocumented, brought to the United States as a 4-year-old. By the time he was deported at 23 for selling drugs, he had a girlfriend and a daughter in San Bernardino. His English was far better than his Spanish.
Not that anyone in Tijuana cared about his biography. Not the cops, who had arrested him 12 times for violations as minor as loitering, sending him to jail for a day or two at a time. Not his junkie neighbors, who had once again, it seemed, stolen his stuff while he slept.
He had remained here after being deported in 2013 to be close to his daughter in California. He kicked his drug habit. He got a job at a call center. He bought a closet full of button-down shirts.
But after a few months — alone and depressed — he began using again. At first, it was a few hits of heroin every few days before work. By 2020, though, fentanyl had displaced almost every other drug in Tijuana.
The first time he tried fentanyl had been a revelation; a shimmering crack in the universe into which he tumbled. Since then, addiction had reordered his life. He sometimes spoke of his own descent as if it were happening to someone else, a vortex of bad decisions that at 32 he couldn’t pull himself out of.
“Why would my daughter want to visit her drug addict father?” he asked. She had visited him once and never came back. “What the hell am I doing here?”
It was a Friday morning. Children in their school uniforms walked by José’s encampment on their way to school. He had just enough fentanyl to avoid the ache of withdrawal. Because he’d run out of visible veins, he asked a friend to inject the needle in his neck. He bent down to receive it and put his hands on his knees while the high rushed in.
In another five hours, he would be strung out, hurting for another hit. He needed to make 100 pesos (about $5) to buy enough drugs to fill another syringe. He started loading his backpack full of scavenged items to sell in downtown Tijuana: iPhone cases, a calculator, a dictionary, a used pair of shorts.
Every day was the same cycle, a hustle he had regimented. Make enough cash to buy drugs; do the drugs; maybe find some food; start over again. This day was no different.
Except it happened to be a particularly hot one, and the smell of trash wafted over José’s patch of sidewalk.
Except he was losing weight, his pants slipping off his waist.
Except for a more immediate problem: what José had for sale — much of it was garbage.
He threw on his black backpack, its zipper broken, and walked past the row of encampments that have sprung up on the outskirts of downtown Tijuana. A block of strip clubs and bars glittered in the distance.
His best chance at earning the 100 pesos, he thought, was a Victoria’s Secret pouch he had found with some skin-care products. The words “Love Made Me Do It” were scrawled below the zipper. He headed to a block lined with prostitutes and presented it to the women, who fanned themselves in the shade. Most of them shook their heads at José’s attempt. Some just stared ahead blankly.
“They think they’re too good for me,” he said. “But I’m offering them a really good deal.”
He walked across the street and carefully arranged his wares on a black tarp. He pulled out used medical goggles, an extension cord, watch bands, an array of used phone cases. Around him, other people had set up their own items for sale.
A young man came up to him.
“You know where I can score?” he asked.
José could tell he was a meth user, so he told the man where the meth dealers worked.
He had come to know the city’s panorama of addicts: where different kinds of junkies scored their drugs, how to treat them if they overdosed. It happened all the time.
He had saved four people from fentanyl overdoses by using naloxone, a medication that reverses the effect of opioids. It is regulated as a controlled substance by the Mexican government and is almost impossible to find legally outside of several hospitals. But American nongovernmental organizations began smuggling it into Tijuana as overdoses mounted.
José usually kept a bottle in his pocket. Even though he had built up a tolerance to fentanyl, he knew one day he might be the one who needed to be revived.
Hours passed with barely any customer interest. He could feel his body asking for another hit. He decided to return to his encampment for a few items he had left behind, hoping they would improve his sale. He packed everything up. Walking back, he started to feel worse.
José paused at an intersection, his forehead dotted with sweat.
“I don’t know what the f--- to do,” he said.
“Sometimes I just want to turn myself into a rehab. I’m getting tired of this.”
He scratched his left forearm, with the tattoo of his daughter’s face as a 4-year-old, when he last saw her. She was 12 now. A different person, he thought.
He kept walking, now a little slower, trying to sell a few things on the way back to his block. A woman stopped him, introduced herself and asked a question.
“Why do you need the money?”
“To be honest,” he said, “for a cure,” referring to the fentanyl hit.
“You’re too young to be using,” she said. “You know, they have meetings to help people with problems like that, three times a week.”
José thanked her and started walking away. It was the kind of intervention that rarely occurred in this part of Tijuana.
He said her name out loud: “Beatriz.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said, “even meeting her.”
He had tried twice to get clean, but maybe, he thought, it was time to try again.
Or he could work the streets again, trying to sell more stuff. He could let the universe decide if he deserved another hit.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said again, even though it was rarely clear what the reason was.
Chapter 2The journalists
The text message came from a source in the local police: A car was burning along the Tijuana highway that traces the Pacific Ocean. There was a body in the back seat — another apparent homicide.
Inés García Ramos received the tips multiple times a day as the editor of Punto Norte, one of the city’s only independent newspapers. She chronicled the drumbeat of violent crimes carried out not just to kill, but to impress and intimidate. It was as if the murderers of Tijuana were competing against one another to see who could commit the most gruesome acts.
García, 33, was born in Los Angeles, but grew up here, the daughter of a hairdresser whose clients were the wives and girlfriends of the city’s drug-trafficking elite. Making sense of Tijuana’s spasm of violence became her central journalistic objective.
“Is there anything else you want to do?” García’s mother pleaded.
There still wasn’t.
And so, just before sunset, she drove toward the burning SUV. She parked on the side of the highway. Then García inched closer, until she could make out the charred body in the back seat. She took out her cellphone and began broadcasting on Facebook Live.
“This is the 1,569th murder this year,” she said.
Her viewers shot messages back asking for more details. Some of them had relatives who had disappeared and were wondering if the victim might be their loved one.
“So far we don’t have any details on the deceased,” García told her audience.
What she didn’t say: Most likely, she never would. The killing would almost certainly not be solved; only about 2 percent of crimes in Mexico are each year.
But García had her own explanation for the city’s soaring homicide rate. She had watched as the spike in violent crime mirrored the surge in the trafficking of synthetic drugs. She had written about how large quantities of fentanyl remained on this side of the border, too, turning swaths of the city into open-air drug markets.
The violence and the drugs — she was sure they were connected. For over a year, she had been looking for a way to document that link. García dispatched Punto Norte photojournalists across Tijuana to investigate the city’s wave of crime.
Arturo Rosales and Margarito Martínez Esquivel photographed the city nearly every night, chronicling the nonstop violence after sunset.
Martínez was Punto Norte’s first photographer. He started shooting crime scenes by accident in 2003, snapping a few photos of a killing he happened upon. It was a natural fit: Martínez quickly became the heart of the city’s press corps, his camera always in the passenger seat. Rosales was a taxi driver who learned from Martínez, publishing his photos on Facebook until he got his own contract.
In January, at 49, Martínez was killed. He was gunned down while he sat in his beige Ford Escort outside his home. Witnesses saw a man shoot him and flee the scene. Martínez’s wife and teenage daughter found him lying on the ground.
The slaying marked the beginning of another year of historic violence for Mexican journalists. Since 2019, 50 journalists have been killed in Mexico, making it the most dangerous country in the world for media workers.
The day after the killing, García and her colleagues gathered in their unmarked newsroom above a shop selling quinceañera dresses. An undercover security guard monitored the perimeter.
They decided they needed to find out who was behind Martínez’s death.
Their run of coverage began in January when García and her colleagues published a story about the gun used to kill Martínez, tracing it to several other homicides across the city.
“The 9mm pistol that took his life had been used in various crimes related to territorial disputes between drug dealers,” the Punto Norte team wrote, “and used by criminals who had been detained over and over again, but were set free to continue committing homicides.”
In Martínez’s slaying, the journalists saw a concrete example of how drug trafficking, drug use and soaring violence were all linked.
In March, at the first hearing in Martínez’s case, García was the only journalist in attendance. The prosecutor read aloud the text message exchange between the men who allegedly ordered Martínez’s killing, a criminal network that reported to David López Jiménez, known as “El Cabo 20,” who had been affiliated with the Arellano Félix and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
“I need a soldier to commit murder,” José Heriberto, one of López Jiménez’s affiliates, said in a message. “He’ll be paid 20,000 pesos [about $1,000].”
Listening to the messages, García noticed that the men ordering Martínez’s killing kept two conversations open at the same time. One was about the homicide, and the other was about drug dealing.
“Today is Saturday, a good day for sales,” Christian Adán, another member of the group, wrote to Heriberto, referring to their local drug business.
Then the conversation immediately returned to the killing.
“Send me Margarito’s location,” Heriberto responded.
García stopped taking notes and sighed.
“It just shows you how closely these two crimes are linked,” she said. “Selling drugs and killing people.”
She had seen more proof of that link in February, when Mexican authorities arrested 10 suspects in the case. In the same raid, they also seized a stash of drugs that included cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
López Jiménez, she learned, had been detained and released six times before he allegedly arranged Martínez’s killing, a case study in the way the judicial system cowers before powerful criminals. Four of those arrests were related to selling drugs, including a charge that he had operated a drug laboratory in central Tijuana. He was arrested in August for arms possession; prosecutors later said he was responsible for Martínez’s killing.
There was something both satisfying and heart-rending about getting to the bottom of the crime, García said. It happened so rarely in Mexico. Prosecutors appeared to take Martínez’s case more seriously because of the amount of attention it received, including from the U.S. government.
The case is ongoing, but the court dates are infrequent. García’s days are once again consumed mostly by routine crime coverage, like the story of the charred corpse in the back of the SUV.
After she ended her Facebook Live segment, the waves crashing behind her, García ran through the possibilities of what happened to the victim in the back seat. Maybe it was the violent end to a lover’s quarrel. Or a drug dealer deposing his rival.
She would try to follow up with her sources the next day. She would try to get more details on the crime.
But by then, she knew, there would be another homicide to cover; another alert on the police scanner of an overdose death; another load of synthetic drugs seized at the scene of another violent assault, never to be solved.
Chapter 3The federal agents
The drugs arrived in a garage in an upscale Tijuana neighborhood, blocks of crystal meth wrapped in plastic in the bed of a pickup truck, kitchen containers of fentanyl in the back seat.
“Where does this stuff go?” asked one of the movers, clutching a tower of plastic containers with “fentanyl” scrawled in black marker on the side.
He was an agent from the Mexican attorney general’s office, responsible for seizing and holding drugs.
He took a deep breath. The smell from inside the garage was overpowering — enough to knock out a first-timer. It was already full of thousands of pounds of fentanyl, meth, marijuana and heroin.
“Oof,” he grunted.
But there was a more immediate problem for the movers. There was barely any room for the newest load.
The drugs arrive there almost every day from the clandestine laboratories and stash houses that now pepper Tijuana. Others were manufactured farther south, in the state of Sinaloa, and were moved through the city on their way to the border.
The government’s garage of seized narcotics, federal authorities say, is proof of their efforts to stop the flow of drugs and secure evidence for ongoing trials. It fills so quickly that once a month, to make more room, they take thousands of pounds of drugs to a desolate military outpost and set them on fire.
But the fire is as much a spectacle as it is a way to destroy drugs. Local journalists are invited to photograph the agents, who pose in front of the flames.
García has gone several times, watching a plume of narco-smoke rise over the city. Each time, she wondered: “Who are these images meant for?”
Were they an attempt to assure the citizens of Tijuana or prove to the Americans that Mexico was stemming the flow of drugs?
The shift in fentanyl production from China to Mexico in the past several years has flooded the border with synthetic drugs. Seizing labs and narcotics would be a monumental task for any law enforcement agency. But in parts of Mexico, where organized crime often has more power than the government, the more important question has become: Are authorities even trying?
In almost no time, after each incineration, the garage is full again.
And the cartels know exactly where it is. Members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel last year released a video of several gunmen driving by the warehouse. One of them held a gold-plated rifle. It quickly went viral.
“We’re in Tijuana, sons of bitches,” they said. “We’re hunting you down, sons of bitches.”
Fentanyl seizures at the southern border
On four separate high-profile raids, Washington Post reporters watched as Mexican authorities arrived at the alleged homes of fentanyl traffickers and manufacturers, only to find them empty.
“The target left for Sinaloa yesterday apparently,” said one agent, walking back to his car after the most recent of those failed busts, in October.
On their better days, the agents sometimes find pill presses imported from China and barrels full of chemicals used to make fentanyl. The pill presses aren’t illegal; many of them are purchased on the Chinese retail website Alibaba.
After they’re seized, authorities send them to the same warehouse where the piles of drugs are kept. In many cases this evidence is not brought to trial.
It can take days or weeks to get a search warrant from Mexican judges. That’s enough time for information about a planned raid to leak to drug traffickers. Those trafficking synthetic drugs like fentanyl are the least likely to be caught.
That’s in part because of how easy it is to produce and move the pills, which are small and odorless. They are labeled “M-30” — counterfeit versions of the oxycodone pills manufactured by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, based in St. Louis.
Between May 2013 and June this year, the federal government made 462 arrests for fentanyl-related crimes, according to a freedom-of-information request, compared with 116,689 arrests for producing, trafficking or selling large quantities of other drugs during that same time period. In many cases, Mexican authorities seized large loads of fentanyl without arresting anyone.
In October, federal police stopped a white passenger van loaded with 150,000 fentanyl pills and 1,500 pounds of meth outside Ensenada. Authorities watched as the traffickers fled the scene.
“The [traffickers] chose to leave the vehicle when they identified the presence of authorities, dispersing in different directions,” the attorney general’s office wrote in a press release.
Fentanyl’s deadly surge
The power that drug-trafficking organizations wield is normally difficult to assess. But periodically the scale becomes clear, an invisible army suddenly emerging to strike.
That’s what happened on the afternoon of Aug. 12 in Tijuana. It had begun as an uneventful day in the attorney general’s office, where officers catalogued their most recent fentanyl seizure. Before sunset, the calls started coming in.
Criminals had stolen a public bus and set it on fire. Then a taxi. Then another bus. Within minutes, Tijuana was riddled with narcobloqueos, or cartel road blocks, paralyzing the city and effectively shuttering the world’s busiest land border crossing.
“We’re going to create mayhem so the f---ing government frees our people,” a message that circulated on WhatsApp said. “We’re the Jalisco New Generation cartel. We don’t want to hurt good people, but it’s best they don’t go outside. We’re going to attack anyone we see on the streets these days.”
By midnight, 42 vehicles had been set aflame. It was a rare moment when all of Tijuana was jolted by the same event. The U.S. government ordered diplomats to shelter in place. Factory workers slept under conveyor belts. Bus drivers abandoned their buses for fear that their vehicles would be hijacked.
García covered it live.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said in one broadcast.
José González could see the smoke rising from his encampment near downtown Tijuana. At first, he assumed it was a car accident or a house fire. Then someone nudged him.
“Narcos,” the man said, pointing to the smoke.
José considered the connection between the men who sold him tiny bags of fentanyl powder and those who had just set the city on fire. It was like seeing the true size and power of a machine he knew only superficially.
Chapter 4José’s choice
It was late afternoon when José returned to downtown Tijuana, with more items to sell.
The day’s second attempt to earn 100 pesos began. He added a few new products to his tarp: plastic bags of granola, a few DVDs, two pairs of shoes, a red hat.
He displayed them meticulously on Calle Artículo 123, which had been converted to an open-air market.
He knew his prospects were still bad. The sun was setting and tourists were beginning to pour into Tijuana from across the border. But they didn’t want what he was selling.
They were mostly here for cocktails and cheap tacos and strip clubs.
José leaned against a car and watched the crowds pass by. Other addicts pitched their junk to a mostly uninterested clientele, shouting out prices. José’s approach was more Zen. If they want it, he thought, they’ll come.
Each sale would tilt the scale toward his next hit of fentanyl. Or he would strike out.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
It might be a sign that he should drag himself to rehab.
Then a man bought a black tank top for 20 pesos. A woman came up and purchased two bags of granola for 20 pesos each.
José looked at them in disbelief.
“It’s always the things you least expect to sell,” he said after they walked away.
Suddenly, he had 60 pesos.
Then a man bought his last two bags of granola. A woman bought a light switch.
One hundred ten pesos in five minutes.
The streak of luck felt impossible.
“Enough to get cured,” he said, and he began rolling up the tarp.
He took a left at a convenience store and met one of his dealers outside a house. He walked away with two tiny bags: one of fentanyl and one of crystal meth. It was his cocktail of choice, which he believed smoothed out the high.
He needed someone to help him shoot up. Normally he would offer a volunteer a taste of his supply for help. But when he walked up to his encampment, the men were either semiconscious or unwilling to help.
“You can’t count on anyone in this place,” he said.
It was getting dark and the neighborhood looked even bleaker. Police cars streaked by with their sirens on.
José wandered toward another heap of garbage next to an alley. An older man, also high, was picking through the trash. José tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he would help with the needle.
Across the street, an open-air church service had begun. Families in folding chairs prayed for the junkies. The voice of the pastor blared through loudspeakers.
“God loves you,” he said. “You are the children of God.”
José got on his knees, peering down solemnly.
The needle went in, just above the collar of his T-shirt. The hit was too much for him. He grabbed his knees like he had finished a sprint.
“My heart,” he said to the old man.
“I messed up the dosage,” he said.
He was usually careful. He had only overdosed once, nothing compared with most of the other men.
He took a few deep breaths and swallowed hard.
“I’m okay now,” he said, his eyes wide. He didn’t look okay.
He threw his backpack over his shoulder. He walked back toward the lights of downtown. He had to find a way to make another 100 pesos.
About this story
Overview: From Mexican labs to U.S. streets, a lethal pipeline