Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006 | Three weeks ago, policemen with rifles and shotguns escorted a group of California officials to a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Tijuana. An ambulance trailed along – just in case.

On Monday, Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon declared that his city – where headless bodies have been found dumped, where kidnappings for ransom are not uncommon, where five policemen have been shot dead recently – is “as safe as San Diego.”

Violence flared in Tijuana after the arrest of suspected drug kingpin Francisco Javier Arellano Felix. The California Biodiversity Council, a group of state and local environmental officials, cut short and nearly canceled a recent Tijuana field trip. Several officials from the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, weren’t allowed to cross the border on that trip because of fears about their safety.

The targeted killings left some Tijuana residents on edge, and put political pressure on Hank to react. Gabriel Camerena Salinas, chairman of the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourism dropped between 15 and 20 percent in the two weekends following SANDAG’s action. (It is up 5 percent overall this year.)

Monday, Hank sought to allay any lingering fears about his city. It is the second time in 13 months that Tijuana officials have called a press conference to polish their city’s image.

Surrounded by Tijuana tourism and public safety officials, Hank talked at length about his city’s drug problem and the violence it has spurred.

Hank said 120 federal police officers arrived in Tijuana a week ago. Cameras have been added in troublesome neighborhoods, he said, noting that the city’s police force has grown from 1,600 officers to 2,300 during his tenure. Some 200 cameras are operating throughout the city, Hank said. And more than $18 million has been invested in new equipment for officers, he said.

But in making his points, Hank at times misrepresented fact.

Hank said only one American had been killed in Tijuana in the last two years. In the September incident he referred to, a 30-year-old American woman was killed in crossfire in a Tijuana restaurant. She was dining in a neighborhood where some Tijuana residents say they are afraid to tread – not in a tourist-laden section of the city.

While Hank claimed her death as the city’s only “incident” involving an American citizen, 14 Americans died in Tijuana homicides between 2004 and June 2005, according to statistics kept by the U.S. State Department. Twelve others have died in suicides or accidents in that time.

Hank said confusion existed over a Sept. 14 warning from Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Garza warned about increasing violence in Mexico, noting that drug-related violence had killed 1,500 Mexicans this year. Garza’s remarks specifically focused on Nuevo Laredo, which sits across the border from Laredo, Texas.

While Garza said that “drug cartels, aided by corrupt officials, reign unchecked” in many border towns, Hank noted that Tijuana was not specifically mentioned.

But the city was referenced in a travel warning also issued Sept. 14, which noted that U.S. citizens had been involved in random shootings on major highways outside the city.

Hank acknowledged that “a lot of bodies” had been found in the last six months.

“OK, if that is insecurity, it would mean they’re killed there (on the street), and they’re not,” Hank said. “They’re killed in a home, in a ranch, in a warehouse, anywhere but on the street. They’re dumped on the street in order for the other cartel to realize what is happening. But that doesn’t make it insecure.”

Asked about the recurring kidnappings-for-ransom that have frightened businesspeople, Hank said that the city had been seeing a slow drop during the last two weeks. He said he was unsure whether the city had seen the last of its targeted killings.

The State Department has not rescinded its travel warning. A consular official speaking on the condition of anonymity Monday said any debate about Tijuana’s safety is premature.

“I hope it’s true, but I think it’s a little too early to say,” said the official at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. “I don’t know how anyone can say that two weeks is a trend.”

The recent violence in Tijuana and the reactions it prompted in both countries – fear here and finger-pointing in Mexico – reflects the complexity of dropping a blanket characterization upon a city of 1.5 million people.

Some who know Tijuana say the city was never the Baghdad it was described as three weeks ago. Nor is it the Eden that Hank portrays.

Oscar Romo, one of the organizers of the California Biodiversity Council tour, frequently travels throughout some of Tijuana’s poorest neighborhoods. He said the city hasn’t changed, but that some San Diegans have panicked about something “that is not that huge.”

“I haven’t felt unsafe,” he said. “But I think that the community is trying to send a message to the government that things are not totally under control. It’s not that we feel unsafe there – it’s that crime has been more apparent lately. I don’t think a thing has changed.”

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