Award-winning journalist and editor Rosario Mosso checks emails in the Zeta offices on Nov. 20, 2018. (Erin Siegal McIntyre/KQED)
The newsroom Rosario Mosso helps to lead, in a placid Tijuana residential neighborhood, is internationally known for its relentless investigative stories exposing organized crime and corruption in a region plagued by drug trafficking and cartel wars.
Cartel members have threatened to kill Mosso because of her work at the weekly newspaper Zeta. And three colleagues at Zeta have been shot dead since 1988. So for months at a time, Mosso has lived and worked under the protection of army and police bodyguards.
“What we do is keep working,” said Mosso, 50, who won the Courage in Journalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington, D.C., this month. “We don’t let them scare us, and that’s the most important thing.”
A central mission of the newspaper is to independently track murders in Tijuana, and analyze the changing criminal dynamics that lead to the killings. The paper also endeavors to publish the names of everyone killed, people whose bodies are often left at restaurants, on street corners and hanging from overpasses, she said.
But Mosso is now sending reporters to cover a new concern for Tijuanans: the arrival of more than 6,000 Central American migrants, most of whom are cramped in a makeshift shelter at a public sports complex, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. border.
Many of the migrants with the caravan say they are fleeing death threats and violence in Central America. But they have landed in Mexico’s most violent city. Tijuana had 1,618 homicide cases in 2017, according to official statistics.
Migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. must now wait in Tijuana—potentially for several months—as U.S. border authorities slowly process claims. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have recently been accepting roughly 20 to 100 asylum applications per day. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is reportedly trying to negotiate an agreement with incoming officials of Mexico’s President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to require Central American asylum applicants to remain in Mexico while their applications are adjudicated in U.S. immigration courts.
And as the migrants find themselves in limbo in Tijuana, the city’s murder rate continues to rise. More homicides were recorded in the first nine months of 2018 than in all of 2017, said David Shirk, who directs the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego. He said that’s because violence has become decentralized, as large cartels give way to smaller drug dealers who are also fighting for turf.
“Organized crime groups that had established control over the city have begun to experience clashes again, particularly since the capture of 'El Chapo' Guzman,” said Shirk, referring to Joaquin Guzman, the drug lord who was extradited to the U.S. in 2017 and is now on trial in federal court in Manhattan.
“But the conflicts now seem to be going on at a much lower level, neighborhood to neighborhood, street corner to street corner,” said Shirk.
Mosso, the Zeta editor, said she doesn’t believe Central American migrants are getting drawn into the drug trade in any significant way. But migrants are often victims of robberies, kidnappings, extortions and other crimes, especially those who travel on their own in Mexico.
The reason so many Central Americans have decided to join the caravan is that it offers safety in numbers, said Mosso. Still, Tijuana is not prepared to handle the basic and long-term needs of so many newcomers at once, she said.
“Tijuana has a culture of support toward migrants,” said Mosso, a Tijuana native. “But migrants are still coming, and it’s a tense situation, a situation we are not prepared for.”
So far, Mosso has not seen organized crime groups significantly targeting caravan members. But that could change with time, she said, the longer migrants linger in Tijuana.
Customs and Border Protection officials have said that their capacity to handle asylum cases is restricted by factors such as limited detention space at the San Ysidro port of entry, and the translation and medical needs of migrants.
“Depending upon port circumstances at the time of arrival, individuals presenting without documents may need to wait in Mexico as CBP officers work to process those already within our facilities,” said a CBP spokesperson in a statement released earlier this month.
As of last week, the waiting list to see a U.S. official at the pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana already had the names of more than 4,000 people, with new arrivals being told they would probably wait about two months in Tijuana. Wait times are expected to multiply as more caravan members arrive in the city, unless U.S. officials process people faster.
“And so we are making people wait,” said Shirk, the professor at USD. “Those people are therefore being exposed to greater danger for a longer period of time than is necessary. And it’s also creating resentments in Tijuana, as people who have no contacts, have no resources, are flooding the streets.”
Mosso said some Tijuanans fear migrants with the caravan could contribute to the insecurity in their city, with organized crime potentially recruiting caravan members to sell drugs. Mosso said her job at Zeta is to fact-check such fears and provide readers with information and context, so that tensions in the city don’t escalate even more.
“This problem is going to be here for a long time, and we have to figure out how to address it,” said Mosso.