TIJUANA, Mexico — In Mexican border towns this week, campaign posters and murals abound as people prepare to elect a new president. But having one eye on their own politics hasn't kept them from keeping an eye on the United States.

The problem has been sorting the fact from the fiction.

On May 18, a smuggler was shot at the Tijuana crossing, which led American officials to close the border for nine hours — about six hours longer than necessary, according to some Mexican commuters. As for the distinctions, when told it was a border guard who did the shooting, not the National Guard, most citizens of Baja simply shrug. Gunfire is gunfire.

Ignacio Martinez owns a newspaper stand a stone's throw away from the border here. Along with tabloid stories about two-headed aliens, he also sells "serious" newspapers. In the current edition of the respected "La Frontera," diplomat Jorge Bustamente fills the front page with epic oratory, describing his "indignation" over the fact the current border "imbalance" has created "unjust and aggressive" American reactions.

News vendor Martinez takes it all in stride.

"Personally, I never go to the States," he says. "It doesn't attract me. But I do think all this tension will end badly. The aggression sends a message that Americans see us as a den of thieves down here."

Jenifer Navarro, a female barber at the "macho" Rex Barbershop, agrees.

"Down here people say, 'We go for a job, not to rob,' " she says. "I have several American clients, so it hasn't changed my opinion of Americans. Some people are more suspicious now, I think. And I have friends who take it all very personally. They have decided that Americans see us as being brown and ugly people."

A native of Acapulco, Navarro came to Tijuana because of the pay. But she has no desire to go any farther north.

"Mexico's my home," she says. "I have no desire to live in the United States."

And so it goes along the Baja. Goodwill for Americans still thrives here, but now it is goodwill with an ounce of wariness.

In the small town of Tecate, Juan Mello waits tables at the Los Amigos cafe. He says all the muscle flexing hasn't dampened his spirits.

"It's their country up there, they can do what they want," he says.

Mello's concern is that Americans may now get cautious and not visit Mexico as often. Hurting Mexico's national pride is one thing, but hurting business is another.

Needless to say, the border tensions have surfaced in the Mexican presidential race. Several newspaper columnists have called President Vicente Fox timid in his response to the National Guard move, although Fox can't run for president again. Some hold the Mexican president responsible for the entire border mess.

The strident politics and, now, the recent gunplay have added fuel to the fire.

Meanwhile, Ignacio Martinez is doing quite well in the newspaper business.

The tabloids — and mainstream press — are having a heyday with it all.

E-mail: jerjjohn@desnews.com