The mayor of Tijuana’s new life living in a barracks: ‘My son will be able to go outside and play’

Death threats, an attack on her bodyguard and an attempted break-in at her home forced Montserrat Caballero to take temporary refuge in the housing quarters of the 28th Infantry Battalion, so that she can sleep in peace. EL PAÍS interviewed the first female mayor of the city and visited her new home

Mayor Montserrat Caballero, surrounded by members of her security detail, takes a private elevator in Tijuana’s municipal hall, in the Mexican state of Baja California.
Mayor Montserrat Caballero, surrounded by members of her security detail, takes a private elevator in Tijuana’s municipal hall, in the Mexican state of Baja California.Guillermo Arias
Carmen Morán Breña

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero used to give her security detail the slip, so that she could hit the gym, alone, at 4 a.m. Sometimes, she would go out to eat tacos, or walk her dog down the street. Today, however, that life of semi-freedom is over.

On May 17, one of her bodyguards was attacked when he was driving the official vehicle — he was alone and he was lucky. Threats have been phoned in and pasted on billboards in recent weeks, and someone recently tried to enter her apartment, saying that he had permission. After so many incidents, the National Guard suggested that the mayor change her address. This past weekend, the final touches were made to a residence within the barracks of the 28th Infantry Battalion.

Until the storm subsides, Caballero will be moving into the barracks with her nine-year-old son. Instead of Tijuana residents being understanding, however, the mayor has received a barrage of criticism: “They’ve called me a coward, [claiming that] I’m moving to a luxury suite,” she throws her hands up in the air in frustration. EL PAÍS spoke with Caballero in the city hall of one of the most violent cities in the world, and also visited the house that has generated so much controversy. It’s still empty — this past Thursday, workers were putting in electrical cables and new grass. A dilapidated kitchen awaits urgent remodelling.

The residence is only meant to be temporary: “Prolonging the situation would force me to leave office. But, for now, I’m not leaving,” the mayor states.

At least one homicide is registered in Tijuana every single day of the year. Last year, there were 2,753 violent deaths in total. A war grips the border city, where the main businesses are arms, drugs and prostitution — the most lucrative sectors in the world. University students in Tijuana are used to hearing gunshots from their classrooms, whenever the cartels decide to impose their rule and break down the public order.

There was once a time when this was a peaceful city. Like San Diego, just over the wall, it was a land of promise.

Fed up of receiving beatings from her father, her brothers and, later, her husband, the mayor’s mother — a native of Oaxaca — moved to Tijuana with her three children. Montserrat Caballero was two-years-old. Over time, there would be six children in total, sleeping in beds right next to each other in a small house marked by extreme poverty.

“But I didn’t know it. My mother taught us that poverty is mental.” She raised her family by cleaning houses. Her third-born grew up to be a beautiful girl who graduated with a law degree, going on to become a state congresswoman. Today, Caballero struggles with the incessant violence in her hometown, along with the city deficit that she inherited.

At the end of the latest council meeting, a huddle of journalists surrounds the first female mayor that the city has ever had. She wears a navy blue dress with white polka dots and a flared skirt. She has beautiful indigenous features — but she says that they’ve brought her nothing but racism and classism from a sector of the population.

Journalists surround Mayor Caballero as she concludes a town hall session at Tijuana’s city hall, on June 15, 2023.
Journalists surround Mayor Caballero as she concludes a town hall session at Tijuana’s city hall, on June 15, 2023.Guillermo Arias

However, drug traffickers don’t care about the color of her skin. They’re interested in being able to do their business in peace, with nobody butting in. Caballero claims that her fight against violence has riled up organized crime. She repeats some statistics to the press: since she took office in 2021, 60 murderers have been arrested, while 1,700 firearms have been seized. “That may not seem like a lot, but it’s enough to equip a regiment,” she emphasizes.

Indeed, this isn’t really a lot of guns, especially when considering that two million people live in Tijuana and a floating population raises that figure to around three million. No one can count them, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that, in the city, there are a hundred times more weapons than what has been seized. Or many more still, who knows? In any case, as Caballero explains, it’s not up to the local police or the mayor’s office to combat organized crime. She rages against the prosecutor’s office, who, she claims, consistently releases detainees. This past week, two men were arrested after the discovery of a van with seven bodies. They’re already back on the street, much to the chagrin of the mayor.

Why would someone consider being mayor of this city? “I studied law because I wanted to defend my family […] but politics is for the defense of all. And also because I wanted to make a living — whoever says that they’re only in politics to help others without helping themselves is lying,” Caballero sniffs. She’s giving the interview in her municipal office, where the aroma of incense smoke hits your nose as soon as you walk in.

Married to an Iranian living in the United States, the border is now this woman’s only escape route on some weekends. “He tries to convince me to move there, but I tell him to think of his country — of the women he could save from the martyrdom to which they are subjected — and then, he agrees with me. I’m scared, of course — I’m not made of plastic — but I’m also hopeful. I owe nothing to anyone. If I had ties to the cartel — as some accusations say — I would be well-protected. The weapons seized over these past few years are from all the cartels, not from just one. However, when you look at who gets released by the prosecutor’s office, the equation is simple,” she hints.

Everyone knows that she doesn’t have the best relationship with the governor of Baja California — Pilar Ávila Olmeda — but her shots are directed, above all, at the attorney general’s office. Who she does trust is “the president [Andrés Manuel López Obrador] and the army.” Ken Salazar — the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, with whom she often chats — also appears on her list of friends. “I’m not saying that previous mayors or governors were in collusion with crime… but many have simply closed their eyes,” she affirms. “When I say these things, they reply that I’m not a politician, because it’s not good to tell the truth [in politics].”

A private elevator takes her up and down from the parking lot to her office where, before entering, a sign warns that firearms are prohibited. She is always surrounded by bodyguards, who have multiplied in recent days. The armor of her official van is so heavy that it takes a lot of strength just to close and open the door. Two other vans of the same size protect her when she makes a trip. Her entourage is also accompanied by two trucks from the National Guard, filled with uniformed men carrying machine guns, pointing them in all directions. It would be quite a spectacle to go for a walk. Dozens of agents take turns protecting her. “I can’t even open the window of my truck,” she sighs.

The mayor of Tijuana gets into her bulletproof van.
The mayor of Tijuana gets into her bulletproof van.Guillermo Arias

“They say that I’m a coward. But there was once a secretary of security [who was part] of the city council who went to live in a barracks — they called him brave,” she reproaches. There have also been councilors from Tijuana who moved their residences to the United States, which is just a few miles from the city hall. In any case, the mayor’s apartment had too many windows, and she was warned about the difficulties of guaranteeing security.

And what about the allegations that she’s moved into a deluxe suite? “I’ve had to buy new furniture, because mine didn’t fit in the new house. When I became a deputy [a member of the Congress of Baja California], I went from a poor house to a more luxurious one — I skipped the middle class. This barracks house is now just that — the apartment I dreamed of when I was young, a normal house. I’m used to living modestly, but nobody wants to live in a barracks.” In case anyone has doubts about her private life, she adds, her cell phone will not be constantly checked, while military surveillance will verify that the cartels don’t have any involvement with her.

The barracks of the 28th Infantry Battalion resembles a small town with unvaried streets, like any military neighborhood. It’s pleasant, although it lacks personality. The roofs are the same, the floors are the same, the sidewalks are the same. It’s not a luxury subdevelopment — there are no walls or gates in front of the houses, no pools or sprawling gardens. The mayor’s residence faces the street, like all the others.

Several workers have been cleaning up the house where Caballero and her son will now reside. In the living room, there are stepladders, tool boxes and a sink. Three small bedrooms, two run-of-the-mill bathrooms (desperately in need of renovation) and a small, dilapidated kitchen that has to be torn down and rebuilt as soon as possible. The space also has a patio with a concrete floor. The sloping wooden ceilings are quite charming. It’s a pity that they’ve been painted brown acrylic. The entire floor is made up of beige colored tiles; the baseboards need masonry and a good paint job, like everything else. Maybe with some modern furniture, things could look better.

The house is surrounded by trees. In the distance, the forest opens up, where the soldiers do target practice that sometimes ends in fires. Below the barracks, you can see Tijuana, but not from the window. You have to go out to the street to have those views. You can go outside to play, ride your bike, walk the dog. It’s not too shabby, but it’s nothing like a luxury suite.

“It’s practically a place to sleep. But my son will be able to go outside and play,” Caballero says. And then, she repeats what she tells anyone willing to listen: “I’m not going to leave. I’m not going to leave office.”

Mayor Montserrat Caballero inside her bulletproof vehicle, on June 15, 2023.
Mayor Montserrat Caballero inside her bulletproof vehicle, on June 15, 2023.Guillermo Arias

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