Weeding out a new Tijuana

SUN JOURNAL

Cleanup: Leaders of this border town know it will take years to spruce up its seedy image, and vendors selling marijuana pipes are the first to go.

August 17, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

TIJUANA, Mexico - This is not a whispering kind of town.

Vendors along Avenida Revolucion, the border town's main drag, spend much of their days advertising their wares, which range from Viagra to 85-cent draft beers, at the top of their lungs amid a confusing mix of shouted Spanish and English.

But there is one thing that causes the vendors to lower their voices these days.

"You want a pipe? For marijuana?" whispers Cesar Fernandez as he leads a visitor to a glass display case in the back of the La Flor store. The case held only three small pipes. "Not many left," Fernandez sighed. "I'll give you a discount."

The reason for the dearth of pipes is the city government's effort to revitalize Tijuana, especially Avenida Revolucion. Instead of having a reputation as place where Americans go to get drunk, find a cheap dentist, or buy drugs, legal or otherwise, city officials want it to be known as a Mexican equivalent of San Diego's gas lamp district, a trendy mix of Banana Republics, bars and restaurants.

City officials have cracked down on the pipes by targeting unlicensed vendors and invoking a little-known law that prohibits the sale of items that contribute to bad morals. Vendors must stop selling pipes, a former staple of the stores on Avenida Revolucion, by Sept. 12, government officials announced.

Although the new city government, which came into office in December, says the changes are necessary, they acknowledge that transformation of the city won't be easy. Not only are some vendors balking at the ban, but the city's image as a tequila-soaked, corrupt party town may be too deep to shake.

"People have this image of Tijuana as a place to get drunk and party, and that's a big problem. ... Getting rid of pipes won't make a big difference, but we need to make any difference we can at this point," said Ricardo Gonzalez Cruz, a city official who represents the area surrounding Avenida Revolution.

Tijuana, a 1.2 million-inhabitant city across the border from San Diego, has long been known as a fun-loving town. Tijuana was once a sleepy farming commune but grew rapidly during Prohibition, when bars and casinos began springing up, attracting stars such as Charlie Chaplin and gangsters such as Al Capone.

Even though gambling was outlawed in 1935, Tijuana continued to grow and began to take on a more ominous tone. The Arellano Felix drug gang has its roots in the city and eventually became known as the Tijuana cartel, much to the dismay of elected officials.

City Police Chief Carlos Otal Namur and 40 other officials were arrested by Mexican federal officials and accused to conspiring with drug dealers in April. Although Namur was later released, he resigned his post in June because of political pressure.

At least Namur was alive to tell the tale. One of his predecessors, Alfredo de la Torre, died in 2000 after gunmen pumped nearly 100 rounds into his Chevy Suburban.

The city's image is so bad it sometimes seems cursed. This past September, the area was assigned a new area code: 666. Fearing the digit's devilish connotations, city leaders successfully lobbied to change it to 664.

Tijuana supporters note that the city makes nearly 8 million televisions a year, supports a growing middle class, and attracts 3.5 million visitors annually. "The image lags behind the reality," said Van R. Whiting, senior fellow with the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

But Tequila's seedy side is evident on Avenida Revolucion. Stores offer T-shirts with the slogan: "One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!" Clubs with names such as "Animale" feature "XX" signs, which officially stands for Dos Equis beer but is also shorthand for the action inside. Vendors offer tourists a chance to take a picture with white donkeys painted to look like zebras.

Mayor Jesus Gonzalez, who took office on Dec. 1, has made cleaning up Tijuana's reputation a priority.

A recently formed "Image Committee," composed of politicians, business people and concerned citizens, has discussed ideas for revitalizing the area, including the construction of public housing to supplant the shacks that ring the town and additional landscaping. There has been talk of putting up posters of famous Tijuanans, such as Rita Hayworth, then known as Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino, who began her career by dancing in her parents' nightclub.

City officials have begun targeting unlicensed vendors who sell trinkets to tourists, confiscating their merchandise and moving them to other parts of the city. The goods of nearly 50 vendors have been seized during the past two months, said Gerry Ramirez, a city spokesman.

To replace the swarms of vendors, the city has installed 36 permanent stalls near Avenida Revolucion for licensed vendors. City officials acknowledge that the vendors have set up shop in other parts of the city, but say that it is important to clear Avendia Revolucion.

"We need to eliminate unlicensed vendors," said Gerry Ramirez, a city spokesman. "The [unlicensed] vendors were killing the regular businesses."

While many licensed vendors are happy to see the street vendors go, most want to keep selling pipes. "So many people come in here asking for pipes, it seems strange to stop selling all of a sudden," said Cesar Ramirez, who works in the Hotel Lafayette gift shop, where the supply has dwindled to a scant 10 onyx pipes.

But others said they either hadn't heard of the ban or said that inspectors are unlikely to enforce it.

But city officials are keen on eliminating the pipes. While some vendors say the pipes are artistic carvings used merely for smoking tobacco, Gonzalez Cruz scoffs at the notion. The pipes are small, generally less than two inches, and often come in decorative forms such as turtles or rodents.

"Who smokes tobacco out of a turtle?" Gonzalez Cruz asked.

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