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I’m writing this after having spent nearly a full day in Tijuana, ten hours in all — one of which was spent idling in my car with thousands of others to cross the border northbound (legally). My trip started mid-day, however, dropping the wife and daughter off at Tijuana’s airport to catch a flight to Mexico City; then, I made a quick stop at Tijuana’s Cultural Center (CECUT); followed by a short meeting nearby with the executive director of Tijuana’s Tourism Bureau; and then ending my journey in the evening, at an office in the Grand Hotel to get some advice about my company’s Mexican operation.
All in all: it was a long day in TJ — and one without gunshots or the fear that many San Diegans have come to accept as a given, based on what most news media have decided to write about these days. The reality is that my day was relatively typical for many of the 1.6 million people that live in Tijuana and go about their lives, trying to earn a living and take care of their families. The daily routine has, it’s true, been hit hard of late — but not just by real concerns about inter-narco violence in some parts of the city; it’s also been hit by what I’d call indiscriminate generalizations of that violence that have turned US visitors away. The result: both unnecessary damage to crossborder tourism, and to the livelihoods of tens of thousands of good, law-abiding people in Tijuana and Baja California.
Let me be the first to admit that any description of me trying to “spearhead” an effort to improve Baja’s tourism industry dramatically overstates my abilities and my small part (not to mention that it overlooks a much larger effort by dozens of business and civic leaders on both sides of the border). Rather, for over 15 years my work has been to focus on finding real data about the border region and Mexico, and encouraging others to break perceptions with facts.
For instance: Rachel mentioned she wanted to find out which U.S. cities might have it worse than Tijuana. Some bad news for Mardi Gras lovers: the real data shows — despite Tijuana’s uncharacteristic and (we believe) short term spike in narco-fighting — the city of New Orleans still (amazingly) has a higher per-capita murder rate (nearly 50 per 100,000 based on our calculations for early December 2008). Even St. Louis is about on par with TJ, too. Don’t get me wrong — this doesn’t hide or excuse what’s going on south of the border (nor should any of us discount the pain and grief that some of this is causing the families of innocents). It does point out what our colleagues in Mexico might consider an unfair and intense level of scrutiny on Tijuana (and Mexico), while lower attention is paid to problems in some U.S. cities. Add to this some over-repeated statements like “avoid travel south of the border. …”, and my view is that we actually contribute to the problem by undermining the still-safe and “good” side of our neighbor’s economy (sorry, Serge — I just think such statements are a little too broad and create unnecessary fear).
My invitation to host this Café blog came about, in fact, following a suggestion of mine to voiceofsandiego.org that a certain headline (“Tijuana: a Troubled Paradise”) wasn’t perhaps the most accurate description for a blog posting that talked about issues mainly outside of Tijuana (in one instance, a rural village nearly 200 miles distant). Coincidentally, just days before that, I’d read a headline on the San Diego Union-Tribune’s website (can I say “Union-Tribune” here?) that associated a late-night shooting at a ranch 100 miles south of the border with “Tijuana,” too. I’m a simple guy, so I can understand that using “Tijuana” perhaps is done to give readers a point of reference — but such casual use also contributes to misguided myths about the border that hold our region back in many ways.
How? I’m a data guy, so here are a few more facts: Tijuana is the second-largest city on the western coast of North America after Los Angeles (go on — check it out). Its airport runway is the second-largest in our region after Miramar. Many of its 500+ manufacturers are on the cutting edge of technology — whether building pacemakers, stents, Bluetooth mobile headsets, airplane components, solar panels, or high-definition TVs. The vast majority of the nearly 120,000 people that (still) cross the border legally from Tijuana into San Diego County each day contribute their energy to our economy, our workforce, our educational institutions, and our networks of friends and families.
My point: By continuing to build up our negative perception of Tijuana, we risk continuing to overlook incredible opportunities that our very unique, binational region has — and few other global locations can match. Tijuana’s place in our region (and San Diego’s ability to benefit from stronger binational ties), is ultimately a larger issue than the current, shared security challenge caused by cartel fighting over U.S. drug distribution territories. I encourage readers of this blog to look deeper at the discussions about Tijuana and the border, and go beyond the simple one or another negative angle to find a much more complex story. Come 2009, Tijuana will turn 120 years old — so what do we want the next 120 years of our binational relationship to be?
Well, so much for 350 words, Rachel. I hope it’s a decent start to the dialogue.