Brianna Rojas seemed her usual breezy self as she set off for work.
“I’ll see you later!” friends remember the 20-year-old calling out as she headed to her insurance company’s bright yellow offices on Tijuana’s Calle del Carmen.
But by lunchtime Rojas was dead – shot in the head at close range by an unknown assassin whose attack pushed the number of homicides here to almost 1,800 so far this year, and nearly 26,000 nationwide.
When first responders arrived they encountered a fearful scene: the victim slumped backwards in a black swivel chair, her arms flopping downwards towards a pool of blood as if she had been caught completely by surprise.
“She was a decent girl, a good-looking girl – she was always smiling,” said her longtime boyfriend’s father as shellshocked relatives gathered outside and crime scene officers prepared to transport Rojas’s body to the city’s overburdened morgue.
“It’s devastating what is happening here,” said the man, who asked not to be named. “It is out of control.”
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador became Mexico’s president last December he vowed to “pacify” one of Latin America’s most violent nations by waging war on the social roots of crime.
But nearly a year later there is scant sign of progress, as the country reels from a series of humiliating high-profile attacks and murder statistics surge to levels not seen even during the darkest days of Felipe Calderón’s 2006-2012 “war on drugs”.
Calderón sends in the army
Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006 when the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, ordered thousands of troops onto the streets in response to an explosion of horrific violence in his native state of Michoacán.
Calderón hoped to smash the drug cartels with his heavily militarized onslaught but the approach was counter-productive and exacted a catastrophic human toll. As Mexico’s military went on the offensive, the body count sky-rocketed to new heights and tens of thousands were forced from their homes, disappeared or killed.
Simultaneously Calderón also began pursuing the so-called “kingpin strategy” by which authorities sought to decapitate the cartels by targeting their leaders.
That policy resulted in some high-profile scalps – notably Arturo Beltrán Leyva who was gunned down by Mexican marines in 2009 – but also did little to bring peace. In fact, many believe such tactics served only to pulverize the world of organized crime, creating even more violence as new, less predictable factions squabbled for their piece of the pie.
Under Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the government’s rhetoric on crime softened as Mexico sought to shed its reputation as the headquarters of some the world’s most murderous mafia groups.
But Calderón’s policies largely survived, with authorities targeting prominent cartel leaders such as Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
When “El Chapo” was arrested in early 2016, Mexico’s president bragged: “Mission accomplished”. But the violence went on. By the time Peña Nieto left office in 2018, Mexico had suffered another record year of murders, with nearly 36,000 people slain.
"Hugs not bullets"
The leftwing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power in December, promising a dramatic change in tactics. López Obrador, or Amlo as most call him, vowed to attack the social roots of crime, offering vocational training to more than 2.3 million disadvantaged young people at risk of being ensnared by the cartels.
“It will be virtually impossible to achieve peace without justice and [social] welfare,” Amlo said, promising to slash the murder rate from an average of 89 killings per day with his “hugs not bullets” doctrine.
Amlo also pledged to chair daily 6am security meetings and create a 60,000 strong "National Guard". But those measures have yet to pay off, with the new security force used mostly to hunt Central American migrants.
Mexico now suffers an average of about 96 murders per day, with nearly 29,000 people killed since Amlo took office.
Last month Mexico’s security chief, Alfonso Durazo, claimed the crisis was reaching “inflection point” – only for his upbeat message to be imploded by a week of mayhem which saw cartel gunmen slay 13 police officers and then paralyze a major city in order to free the son of Mexico’s most famous drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
In the first nine months of this year, Mexico suffered an average of close to 100 murders a day.
Tijuana has seen a methamphetamine-fuelled murder epidemic which produced a record 2,518 murders in 2018 and looks set to cause even more this year.
“The state has lost control,” said Victor Clark, a security expert and activist based in the city.
‘Killings that matter to no one’
To explore the violence blighting Latin America’s number two economy the Guardian spent seven days reporting from Tijuana – one of the world’s most deadly cities – between 4 and 11 October.
The Guardian’s week had an unusually peacefully start, with not a single murder recorded in the first 24 hours, according to the newly elected mayor, Arturo González Cruz.
González, a López Obrador ally, claimed that had not happened in several years and voiced frustration the media had ignored the achievement.
But by day two the slaughter had resumed. At 6am a man’s body was found dumped in the eastern neighbourhood of Emperadores. At 11.35am a decomposing pair of legs were spotted on wasteland in the city’s south. And at 2.45pm an unidentified killer barged into a home on Calle Tamaulipas, pulled out a gun and brought an unidentified male’s life to an end.
“Municipal police officers mounted an operation to track down the person thought responsible for the attack,” one local tabloid reported – though in a country where more than 90% of crimes go unpunished there was no indication they had succeeded.
Outside Tijuana’s general hospital a bullet-riddled people-carrier bore witness to the latest gunfight.
What had happened? “An accident,” a police investigator snapped, shooing reporters away as forensic science officers marked each of the entry holes with white cards marked A-K.
The next evening 30-year-old Jesús Bernal staggered into an alley off Calle Belice, blood oozing from at least four separate gunshot wounds in his legs and wrists.
As ambulance technicians strapped the blood-spattered man to a stretcher with silver duct tape, a police officer claimed he was a convicted burglar probably shot while trying to rob a local home.
“It’s a punishment … a message,” speculated one of the first responders.
But like so much of the bloodletting, the case would go unreported by newspapers, unnoticed by society and unsolved by the police.
“These are killings that matter to no one,” Clark said.
‘An era of great psychological terror’
It has been just over a decade since a savage turf war for control of drug smuggling routes into the United States made Tijuana one of the most ill-famed cities on Earth.
There was an explosion of carnage in 2008 as El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel tried to muscle in on what had long been the domain of the locally based Tijuana mob.
Corpses were hung from bridges and shootouts raged, even in the city’s most glitzy corners. In one of the most disturbing episodes 12 corpses were abandoned with their tongues hacked out and placed nearby in a black plastic bag.
“You couldn’t go out because you were scared of what might happen,” recalled Dora Elena Cortés, a local journalist whose Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias chronicled the butchery. “It was an era of great psychological terror.”
Negative headlines sparked government action and by 2012 the number of annual murders had plunged. But Tijuana’s murder rate is now soaring once again with the slaughter so routine that one local newspaper features a muertómetro (deathometer) to help readers keep track.
Authorities and academics blame the new wave of violence on a largely hidden dispute for Tijuana’s drug trade – particularly that of crystal meth – although Brianna Rojas’s murder did not seem to fit that mould.
“These deaths aren’t about the fight for control of the routes into the US. They’re fighting over the local market,” said Clark.
That appeared to be what was at stake on the night of 8 October when dozens of heavily armed police descended on a petrol station after a drive-by shooting left four men injured, one critically.
Illuminated in the the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles, a half-naked man lay in a pool of blood, shot through the thigh and fighting for his life.
After a 10-minute race to the hospital, he was carried in past police with white skulls stamped on to their black uniforms and rifles slung from their shoulders. Investigators barked questions at the man’s three accomplices as they lay bleeding in the corridor.
Mayor González admitted it was “unreal” to expect an immediate end to Tijuana’s murder crisis but hoped the body count could be reduced and insisted the city’s “economic dynamism” remained unaffected.
During an interview at Tijuana’s brutalist city hall he reiterated the president’s doctrine that crime would only be stopped by rehabilitating Tijuana’s “social fabric” and eradicating corruption.
“Corruption is the mother of all evils, because it affects everything,” González said.
Clark, the expert who has spent decades tracking Tijuana’s security situation, was pessimistic such tactics alone would work. “So far nothing has changed – absolutely nothing,” he said of López Obrador’s first year in power.
“I don’t doubt he has good intentions. But what they are doing isn’t enough.”
For residents of Boulevard Fundadores, where Tijuana’s public mortuary is located, change cannot come fast enough.
On the afternoon of 9 October, as Brianna Rojas’s mother came to recover her daughter’s corpse, the cloying stench of decomposing bodies hung in the air. “It’s horrible. Every single day we breathe death,” fumed one local woman who has been campaigning to get the morgue moved.
The woman reached for her smartphone to show a series of macabre images depicting conditions inside. One showed perhaps two dozen naked corpses sprawled on the floor, a putrid tangle of bloodied limbs. “At night it’s like there are 60 dead dogs lying out here,” the woman complained of the reek. “We can’t open our windows.”
Forty-eight hours later – as the week reached a bloody peak - emergency workers from Mexico’s Red Cross raced westwards to collect their latest cargo from a tumbledown community called Francisco Villa.
A man was hauled semi-conscious from a hillside shooting gallery and hoisted into the ambulance, his arms bound with bandages to prevent him lashing out. “He got shot in the skull,” one of the team said.
Would he survive? “50-50,” they replied.
Additional reporting by Jordi Lebrija