Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Julie Watson
Associated Press

p. T6.

Tijuana tackles image as seedy destination

TIJUANA, MEXICO — In many ways, Tijuana is a public-relations nightmare. Its name is associated with Mexico's deadliest drug cartel, and its most popular tourist attractions are its cheap booze and prostitutes.

Then there's the police corruption. Not to mention the unfortunate matter of Tijuana's once diabolical area code (666).

Now, Tijuana is taking things into its own hands. It has formed an Image Committee consisting of city officials, business owners and other community leaders to change the world's view of Mexico's most notorious border city.

Step one: Share the pain. The committee is looking into teaming up with a fellow sufferer — Medellin, the Colombian city infamous for its Medellin drug cartel. City officials think that the two can help each other clean up their reputations.

"The world has stigmatized us, although this has nothing to do with reality," Medellin city administrator Jorge Velez said during a recent visit to Tijuana.

Tijuana would say the same. It would rather be known as the world's biggest producer of TV sets (up to eight million a year) than for the prostitutes and 25-cent shots of tequila that are available just blocks from the border crossing.

Once a quiet farming village, Tijuana boomed during Prohibition when the likes of Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin and Al Capone would cross the border to dabble in its forbidden pleasures. Bars, casinos and brothels filled Tijuana's downtown.

Things quieted a bit after Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas outlawed gambling in 1935, but Tijuana's wild reputation has lived on, luring everyone from underaged drinkers to California businessmen.

Now, the Image Committee is talking up big plans to clean up the streets, revamp the gritty Mariachi plaza, landscape unsightly areas and build public housing to rid Tijuana of the thousands of shacks that cascade down its dirt hills.

The committee wants world-class sculptures to adorn the city of 1.2 million, and an international marathon. The airport will feature posters of great Tijuanans such as boxer Erick (the Terrible) Morales and of Hollywood's Rita Hayworth, who got her start in show business dancing as a teenager in her parents' nightclub in Tijuana.

Equally important, the city has asked Mexican authorities to drop the term "Tijuana cartel" when referring to the Arellano Felix drug gang. Although Tijuana-based, the gang's two leaders hadn't been seen in the city for years before one died and the other was placed under arrest.

But the PR disasters keep coming. In September, there was the embarrassment of being given a new area code, 666. Fearful of satanic connotations, the city protested and the code was changed to 664.

Two weeks ago, a senior Tijuana police commander turned up among 42 people arrested on allegations that they protected the Arellano Felix gang. The police commander was later released.

Things aren't helped by a pop song by French singer Manu Chao being played regularly on Mexican radio stations these days. Its main chorus, is: "Welcome to Tijuana, tequila, sex, and marijuana."

"Ninety-nine per cent of the people are productive and law-abiding," Mayor Jesus Gonzalez protested. "But what the world knows of us is the violence, the negative news."

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Created: May 1, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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