Marina del Pilar Avila Olmeda
Baja California Governor Marina del Pilar Ávila Olmeda during her inauguration ceremony in Mexicali on Oct. 31, 2021. / Photo courtesy of the Baja California government

As darkness fell on the streets of Baja California’s state capital Sunday, cries of “gobernadora, gobernadora” echoed from a small theater in a public arts center. San Diego’s cross-border neighbor has a new governor—and just by taking office, she has made history.

Marina del Pilar Ávila Olmeda, whose six-year term starts Monday, is the first woman to govern Baja California. And at 36, she is also the youngest person to lead the state.

She’s often just called Marina del Pilar. Or simply Marina. A lifelong cachanilla, as residents of Mexicali are known, she’s a lawyer with a graduate degree in public administration who has had a meteoric political rise. She won a seat in Mexico’s legislature in 2018—her first elected post—on a national groundswell of support from Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his MORENA Party. In 2019, she became mayor of Mexicali.

For many, Ávila’s arrival in office is cause for celebration—or at least a sigh of relief. Her predecessor in the governor’s office, Jaime Bonilla, fought bitterly with many business leaders, journalists and even with politicians from his own party.

Bonilla is also a member of MORENA. But while Bonilla spent much time on the attack, Ávila’s first messages—delivered with broad smiles and thumbs-up signs—have signaled a very different approach.

“There is no future without reconciliation and forgiveness,” Ávila told the invitation-only crowd of some 300 people gathered at a state arts center.

Under Ávila, “there will be a decrease in tension and political confrontation,” Benedicto Ruiz Vargas, a Tijuana political analyst who writes in a weekly column for the daily El Imparcial, said in an interview. “Marina is distancing herself from the shock tactics of Bonilla. She’s going to reorganize the government, which was a total mess.”

She’ll need to build a network of support in Baja California as she takes on the state’s tough challenges on different fronts. Her powerful political mentor, Mario Delgado, the national president of MORENA, is in Mexico City. And the forces could change after Mexico’s 2024 elections, Ruiz said.

Tijuana, the state’s largest city, continues to register some of Mexico’s highest homicide numbers, and reducing crime statewide is a priority. Ávila is proposing the creation of a “Citizen Security Secretariat” to coordinate anti-crime efforts.

Baja California has many other needs as well—for projects to improve public transportation, ensure a future water supply, and expand sewage collection and treatment. But she will be constrained by the government’s high debt load of close to $1.5 billion dollars.

“We have a very complicated financial situation, much more money was spent than was coming in,” Ávila told the Tijuana newsweekly, Zeta, and said her first year in office will be focused on cleaning up the state’s finances.

Relations with California and San Diego are also clearly on her radar—as they have been on those of most Baja California governors. Though exactly how she’ll go about building the relationship is unclear. She has spoken about opening an office in Silicon Valley — to bring investment to the state and spur the development of “creative industries.”

The full re-opening of the border ports of entry on Nov. 8 will bring new opportunities for collaboration, said San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who attended her swearing in. One key project that has long been in the works is the Otay Mesa East Port of Entry, a tolled crossing for commercial and personal vehicles. Gloria said he has had “multiple conversations” with Ávila about the importance of the project. “She’s committed to it, as are we.”

Another priority is collaborating on infrastructure to eliminate the cross-border flows of sewage-contaminated water from Tijuana into San Diego, Gloria said.

“We have been able to secure $300 million for this project, I’m hopeful we can see substantial commitments from the Mexican government as well,” he said.

Ávila has made some interesting appointments. Some of her key cabinet members have served in previous PRI and PAN governments in the state. But the future environmental secretary, Monica Vega, is a politically independent former Tijuana councilwoman who championed a ban on plastic grocery bags. She’s also an advocate for coastal water quality.

And Miguel Aguíñiga, the new tourism secretary, comes from the business world. He previously worked as director of market development for the Mexican airline Volaris.

Ávila’s willingness to reach across the political aisle has included the personal level. Her husband, Carlos Torres, is a former legislator at the federal and state level representing the PAN, though he is no longer with the party. They are expecting their first child in January. She also has an eight-year-old daughter, Marinita, from a previous relationship.

Sunday’s inauguration drew a broad spectrum of government officials, business leaders and local MORENA party members. One of the guests who drew much media attention and raised eyebrows was Jorge Hank Rhon, Tijuana’s controversial former mayor and her closest rival in the governor’s race.

For Further Reading:

  • Crime and Violence: The Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego has released the 2021 edition of its annual report “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico.” The report states that 2020 was “one of the worst years on record in recent decades” in terms of homicides, and that a small decrease is expected in 2021. Anywhere from one third to two thirds of homicides appear to involve organized crime groups, “particularly as the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación has asserted itself to achieve dominance in various areas throughout the country.”
  • Firearms: The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives checked the origins of 80,000 weapons seized by the Mexican government between 2014 and 2018 and found that 56,000—or seven out of ten—were either manufactured or sold in the United States. (Trace)
  • Smuggling: Maritime smuggling has been on the rise. The San Diego Union Tribune profiled the captain of one boat that crashed last May in a failed smuggling attempt off Point Loma that left three people dead. On Oct. 22, a sportfishing captain came to the aid of a distressed panga with 25 people aboard  that was stranded 100 miles off Point Loma. (Los Angeles Times, Union-Tribune, Channel 10)
  • Abortion: The Baja California legislature voted 15 to 7, with one abstention, to decriminalize abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. The vote comes nearly two months after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime. (El Imparcial, NPR)
  • Border Patrol: A letter sent on Oct. 27 to Congress by the Southern Borders Communities Coalition and Alliance San Diego alleges that “shadow police units” within the U.S. Border Patrol work to cover up wrongdoing in cases of use of force by agents. (Union-Tribune)
  • Día de Muertos:  Nov. 1 and 2 are the days of the dead, when Mexicans pause to remember their departed loved ones with graveside serenades and colorful altars. One of the better-known public altars each year is staged at Tijuana’s Mercado Hidalgo in the city’s Zona Rio. (El Sol de Tijuana)
  • The Baja California Restaurant Chamber (CANIRAC) is hosting Baja Restaurant Week from Nov. 8 to 14. Held twice a year, and promoted by the state’s tourism chambers, the event offers participants discounts at a wide array of restaurants.
  • Also: Gustavo Solis, former author of Border Report, has announced he is covering the border for KPBS. Enhorabuena, Gustavo!

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