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Tijuana gains some bounce amid Mexico's drug war

By Elliot Spagat

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 7 2010 8:08 p.m. MDT

TIJUANA, Mexico — If Tijuana is safe enough for Al Gore, three Nobel laureates and a founder of Twitter, isn't it safe enough for anyone? The long-denigrated city is hosting a gathering of big names to get that message across.

A two-week festival kicked off Thursday to showcase the border city's economic prowess and cultural riches — and aims to demonstrate that Tijuana is no longer in the grip of warring drug traffickers.

Organizers plan to set the city dancing to cap the celebration with a choreographed performance by 100,000 students and others in shopping malls, schools and factories to music by Tijuana-born musician Julieta Venegas.

Once notorious as a tacky south of the border stop for adventurous Californians, Tijuana built itself into one of Mexico's wealthiest and most dynamic cities by the end of the 20th century, a base for manufacturing plants serving the U.S. market, a fountain of musicians and artists. It also became plagued by drug violence that drove away tourists and terrified its own citizens.

Civic boosters now portray the metropolis south of San Diego as a beacon of hope in the Mexican government's war on drug traffickers that was ramped up in 2006 by President Felipe Calderon, who will deliver the festival's opening remarks.

"We are the only city in the country that has gone from a state of crisis to a state of control and stability, the only one," Mayor Jorge Ramos said Wednesday at a ceremony to honor Tijuana police.

Tijuana's sense of relief may prove fleeting. Violence roared back in the border city of Nuevo Laredo after a lull, and there is no indication of a slump in the flow of drugs into the United States — or the wealth of the gangs that supply them.

And while gruesome displays of violence have diminished in the city, killings continue. Tijuana had 597 murders from January through September, up 33 percent from the same period in 2009 though still at a clip to fall short of a record 843 deaths in 2008.

Still, that's far from drug war hotspots like Ciudad Juarez, a similarly sized border city across from El Paso, Texas, that has spun out of control with more than 2,200 murders this year.

"It's a marvelous city with lots of action and a rich culture," said longtime resident Priscila Alonso, 51. She said she hasn't heard of any friends being kidnapped for ransom in the past three years.

Tijuana is coming off the most violent spell in its history, marked by shootouts between rival gangs, decapitated bodies dumped near schools and mutilated corpses hung from freeway bridges. The carnage was the product of a showdown between two crime bosses — Fernando "The Engineer" Sanchez Arellano and Teodoro Garcia Simental, a renegade lieutenant who rose through the ranks with tactics such as dissolving bodies in vats of lye.

Even before Garcia was arrested in January, some signs of normalcy had returned. Restaurants got busier. A vibrant nightclub scene re-emerged near the city's main tourist drag, Avenida Revolucion.

Many credit the Mexican army and the city's public safety chief, Julian Leyzaola, a former army officer who has forced out hundreds of allegedly corrupt police officers and aggressively pursued crime bosses. Both the army and Leyzaola's forces have been dogged by accusations of torturing suspects.

Tourism is still way down from several years ago. The California State University system banned travel to Tijuana for its programs in March after the U.S. State Department warned about the dangers of visiting parts of Mexico. The Marine Corps has also told service members in Southern California to avoid the city.

The government of Baja California, which includes Tijuana, is fighting back with a public relations campaign and the "Tijuana Innovadora" — or "Innovative Tijuana" — festival that begins at the city's gleaming cultural center.

The event is the brainchild of businessman Jose Galicot, a city cheerleader who led a campaign several years ago to decorate tunnels with murals.

Galicot, 72, said he needed surgery a year ago and learned that the city is a major producer of medical equipment. He decided that Tijuana needed a show to promote its manufacturers, which make televisions and many industrial goods.

Galicot wanted big names to draw attention. His first catch was Gore, who will give a speech about the environment on Oct. 14. Then come Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who will discuss philanthropy, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Mexican media moguls and many others. Some have no connection to Tijuana.

Every Wednesday morning for the last six months, Galicot has updated civic leaders about his plans over coffee and cookies. He said Tijuana newspaper editors responded well to his plea to publish only positive news on front pages for the next two weeks.

Galicot, speaking with a hoarse voice, begins all meetings the same way.

"The only protagonist of this event?" he asks, twice.

About 100 voices reply: "Tijuana!"

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