A few years ago, Tijuana was at the front lines of Mexico’s drug war. There were running gun battles through downtown streets, bodies hung from bridges and a cartel henchman known as “the Stewmaster,” who dissolved hundreds of corpses in vats of lye.
By 2009, Tijuana was a ghost town an hour after sunset. Tourists vanished. Residents stayed home.
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.
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.
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.
Open-air ballet performances of “Swan Lake” once drew 5,000 people to the Parque de la Amistad on the border each June, but only 1,500 showed up in 2008, because “people felt exposed” to gunfire, said Raul Martinez Tadeo, the artistic director of the Baja California Dance Company. The 200-strong group lost 40 dancers.
“The violence had a huge impact on the arts,” he said.
This year, 3,000 spectators enjoyed “Swan Lake.” The company is at full strength. “It filled me with hope,” he said.
“Baja California has accomplished what Giuliani did in New York, but we don’t like to talk about it too much, because we’re afraid to create a provocation,” said Tijuana’s police chief, Alberto Capella, referring to former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. During a previous stint as police chief, Capella repelled would-be assassins by returning fire from a bedroom window.
Many credit a former police chief, Julian Leyzaola, with restoring order, though human rights groups say the ex-military officer was reportedly involved in torture and beatings. Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mujica, the regional military commander, has also won local praise, though Human Rights Watch has reported “credible allegations” of military torture in the area.
Daniel de la Rosa, the Baja California secretary of public security, said the development of multi-agency command centers has helped quicken the response to drug crime. He said cooperation with U.S. federal agencies has been “fundamental.”
He said security has also been enhanced since 2007 by the firing of 2,190 municipal and state police in a corruption purge, with 20 percent jailed for crimes that an aide said included drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.
Eighty percent of the current 7,200 municipal and state police submitted to lie detector tests, while police in other states have refused “because they know it’s not in their interest,” de la Rosa said.
Anonymous hotlines on both sides of the border received 37,000 tips in 2010, leading to arrests, seizures of arms and drugs, and the rescues of kidnap victims, he said. Security experts say the hotlines are popular among criminals — to turn in rivals.
The multimillion-dollar job of reviving the economy has required leaps of faith.
Carlos Jaramillo and his partners broke ground on a 14-story office building as violence soared in 2008. Being publicly linked with a $21 million venture seemed dangerous; Jaramillo knew of 30 people who had been kidnapped, including three close relatives. Some victims never reappeared.
So the developers created Green Nevada Capital Funds, a U.S.-registered firm.
“It was a big project, and we were afraid to appear as the backers,” he said.
When it opened in June 2010, Via Corporativo was the first green-certified building in northwestern Mexico. Its cooling open-air atrium, skylights, bridges and ultraviolet screening won it a LEED Gold rating. It has sculpture gardens, gourmet restaurants and full occupancy.
“Now we’re entering a renaissance,” Jaramillo said, munching a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich.
That hope is shared by developers of the nearly completed Business Innovation and Technology Center, with a drop-in work space for freelance Web designers, which business leaders hope will nurture the talents of software companies and create “the kind of synergy you get in Silicon Valley,” said Claudio Arriola, the president of the National Chamber of Electronics, Telecommunications and Information Technology.
Boosters have high hopes for the gastronomic revolution called Baja Med, a nouvelle cuisine of Mexican, Mediterranean and Asian flavors. PBS cooking guru Rick Bayless is featuring Tijuana chefs of “Mediterranean Baja” in his fall season.
“The gastronomy is one of the principal reasons people are returning to Tijuana,” said Ernesto Jimenez, the director of Pasteurizadora Jersey, a Baja-based milk producer.
Retired New York school psychologist Dorry Grey dines in Tijuana regularly in spite of State Department warnings.
“I’m aware of all that,” shrugged Grey, at Caesar’s, the storied birthplace of the salad. “But there are some fabulous restaurants.”
A hip, young nightlife revival has taken hold on Sixth Street, a mecca for Tijuana hipsters, artists and musicians, where the new bars “are for local people,” said Carlos Hernandez, who relocated his Zebra Mexican Pub to the street after widespread fear robbed him of his customers at another location in 2009.
But the recovery has had setbacks.
Last fall, President Felipe Calderon hailed the comeback at the Tijuana Innovadora conference, where Al Gore and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone mingled with local innovators.
As the city touted its food and arts, criminals hung two bodies from a nearby bridge.
“If we don’t have security in the downtown, all the promotion in the world won’t help,” said David Saul Guakil, Tijuana’s secretary of social development.