But in a turnaround that offers hope in Mexico, people are venturing out again, to the ballet and symphony. They’re sampling seared tuna at hip new gourmet restaurants and enjoying tastings of Baja California wine. The revitalization shows the economic potential of long-suffering border cities such as Tijuana, whose privileged location at the doorstep of California makes it the busiest border crossing in the world.
“We’re reclaiming the city,” said acclaimed Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia at Caesar’s restaurant on Revolucion Avenue, where nightclubs, once the playground of U.S. college students, stand shuttered and empty.
“We are going to attract a more adventurous, cultured tourist. Once the visitors come, we will win over. The problem is getting them to come the first time,” said Plascencia, who once went to work with a bodyguard.
Impact of cartel dynamics
The architects — and boosters — of the city’s nascent revival are painfully aware of the stakes of preventing a return to the days when gunmen stormed into restaurants and kidnappings happened daily.
“They took all of us in the city hostage,” said Dora Elena Cortes, director of the online Agencia Fronteriza de Noticias.
U.S. counternarcotics officials say the relative stability owes a lot to drug cartel dynamics.
Violence soared when the Arellano Felix drug cartel imploded in a bloody internal feud. The brutal leader of the losing faction, Teodoro Garcia Simental, was arrested in January 2010. Survivors have largely yielded the corridor to the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, they say.
Business plummeted as drug-related killings soared, from 310 in 2007 to 882 in 2008 and 812 in 2010, according to the Zeta newsweekly.
This year there have been 368 such killings, most of them in hillside neighborhoods away from the downtown’s political and economic elite. Kidnappings, armed robbery and extortion have also declined, authorities say.
But the fallout remains. Medical tourism shrank from $300 million in 2007 to $100 million in 2011, according to Flavio Olivieri, the director of the Tijuana Economic Development Corp., as visitors stopped coming for discounted facelifts or gastric bypass surgery.
Jobs in light manufacturing plants, or maquiladoras, dropped from 200,000 in 2007 to 140,000 in 2009, as the violence, coupled with the U.S. economic crisis, created “the perfect storm,” Olivieri said.
Today the jobs have risen to nearly 180,000.
Hotels are reviving. Hector Kabande, an executive of the Lucerna Hotel group, said its Tijuana hotel fell to 40 percent occupancy in 2008 and 2009, and “we were thinking of leaving the city.” Today the busy hotel is 80 percent full.
Restoring order, and arts
Tijuanans are relieved that the city is losing its deserted ambience, as more people go out at night and return to one of their great loves — the arts.