Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore came to Tijuana in 2010 for an event designed to grab a lot of attention.
It was a two-week mega-production called Tijuana Innovadora — Innovative Tijuana.
The idea was to counteract the stories about violence and organized crime that had plagued the city for so many years. And to stir civic pride and bring back investment — especially in the maquiladora industry.
The event was the brainchild of José Galicot and his friends — people with big imaginations and powerful connections.
“It was very hard in the beginning to convince the people that it could be done,” he said. “It hasn’t been done ever. And I didn’t have any credentials of doing something like that.”
Galicot had owned La OH!, the nightclub where the Arellanos once partied. He had real estate and telecommunications businesses — and homes on both sides of the border.
Once he seized on the idea, he was unstoppable.
“I gave 200 speeches to Kiwanis, to Rotaries,” he said. “They want to believe me. Suddenly everybody wanted to help me … It’s like it’s happening again now. Everybody wanted to believe in a dream.”
But Galicot couldn’t control the violent reality of the city’s underworld. Or the grisly crimes that would grab headlines once Tijuana Innovadora was under way.
Tijuana Innovadora came as the city was trying to turn a corner — when it seemed like the drug violence might finally be brought under control.
I’d covered image campaigns here before — efforts often led by Galicot himself. But this was on a scale I’d never seen. It had the feel of a huge pep rally, with Galicot as chief cheerleader.
Celebrities flew in to speak at the CECUT, the city’s beloved cultural center.
Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
Retired CNN anchor Larry King.
The idea was to expose Tijuanenses to new ideas and world-renowned personalities. And to have the personalities spread positive messages about the city.
“Especially nice to be here and to learn about this city,” Larry King said at Innovadora. “So I promise you, I will talk about Tijuana.”
Tijuana Innovadora had something for just about everyone. Gala dinners. News conferences. Public lectures on sustainability, technology, urban planning, film. Exhibits that showcased developments in the maquiladora industry.
Enthusiastic young volunteers guided VIP visitors through the hallways of the CECUT.
The building was a hive of activity, but it also felt like a cocoon. Outside on the streets, other realities were playing out.
The opening address was delivered by President Felipe Calderón. It had been nearly four years since he sent troops to Tijuana, and since then the military’s role had gotten even stronger. An army general was now coordinating federal, state and city law enforcement efforts against the cartels. The gruesome displays of corpses, the public shootings, the kidnappings were finally coming down.
Calderón told the crowd that Tijuana was a clear example that the problems and most difficult challenges Mexico faced could be overcome.
But on the sixth day of Tijuana Innovadora, crime returned to the headlines as though mocking the president’s message.
Two headless corpses were found hanging from a highway bridge.
Four men were shot at a barbecue.
The city racked up 13 homicides in less than two days.
But Tijuana Innovadora powered on. Don Pepe, as Galicot is sometimes known, made sure of that.
“Never surrender, like Churchill,” he said. “We will fight in the air. We will fight in the sea. We will fight in the land, but we will never surrender!”
At the closing ceremony, I watched Don Pepe take his place on an outdoor stage at the CECUT. He was straight-faced, like a general overseeing his troops.
The thousands of people down below raised their arms in unison and began a choreographed dance to “Pa’ Bailar.” It was a recording made by Julieta Venegas, a Grammy-winning singer raised on the border in Tijuana and Southern California.
It had been a tiring couple of weeks. In fact, a tiring couple of years. But the beat was contagious and the crowd was jubilant. It was a moment of relief and release. If I hadn’t had to rush off to write my story, I would have been tempted to join in.
Finding a new home
When I first came to the border, Tijuana was a well-known corridor for migrants heading to the United States.
But by 2010, illegal immigration from Mexico had fallen to its lowest levels in decades. U.S. jobs had dried up during the recession. Mexico’s birth rate had fallen — so families were smaller. And the country’s economy had grown. There was less pressure to migrate.
Now the flow of migrants shifted.
Tijuana had become a major corridor for Mexicans leaving the U.S. and heading south. Some were going home voluntarily. They had lost their U.S. jobs.
Others were being deported by the U.S. government.
The Mexican government said more than 133,000 people were “repatriated” through Tijuana in 2010 — more than 360 per day. An all-time high.
I’d see deportees walking into the city, looking lost and alone. Carrying paper bags filled with their possessions. Some had lived in the U.S. so long that they could barely speak Spanish.
There was little welcome for them in Tijuana.
Authorities and businesses complained the newcomers were a financial drain and a public safety problem.
Some were addicted to drugs or suffered from mental illness. They’d linger near the border, begging or offering to wash car windows for drivers waiting to cross into the United States.
Others came straight from U.S. prisons after serving long sentences for murder, armed robbery or other serious crimes.
But a New York Times investigation showed that two-thirds of deportees during this period had only minor infractions or no criminal record at all.
The deportees I randomly met were ordinary people quietly searching for ways to rebuild their lives. They were trying to get their bearings in an unfamiliar city undergoing its own turmoil.
Those who spoke fluent English often found jobs in call centers. Others drove taxis, worked in factories and waited on tables.
When Esther Morales was deported to Tijuana, she had no job prospects, no friends, no family to cushion the blow.
“A bus arrives at the border, and you get off, and the gringos say, go, go to your house, to your country,” Esther said. “I had no money, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Esther was 50 then. She had lived in California for 20 years.
“I was sad because I had no money, I had no friends, I had no acquaintances, I had no human being who was close at hand,” she said.
“It was very sad to be alone in the middle of crowds of people, to be all alone.”
Esther had lived outside Los Angeles in a community so heavily Latino that she got by without learning much English. She worked in factories and restaurants to support herself and her U.S.-born daughter.
But then in 2008, she was deported.
She tried to return a few months later — she was desperate to get back to her child. But she was caught and sentenced to 27 months in a federal prison for illegal re-entry.
Then she was deported again.
This time, she resolved to stay in Mexico for good. But instead of returning to her hometown in Oaxaca, she settled in Tijuana — as close as she could get to her teenage daughter.
Less than a year after her deportation, Esther scraped together enough money to open a tiny restaurant on a rundown block in downtown Tijuana. It had two tables and colorful murals. She cooked the food herself as her customers watched.
She was a small, fierce presence in her white chef’s jacket.
Thoughts of her daughter — who had been left in the care of family and friends in California — kept her going.
“It made me sad, that I was separated from her,” she said. “I’d see my present situation, and I’d crumble with sadness, but I’d also pick myself up. I didn’t want to burden her with my sadness. I wanted to fight and keep what little we had. That was my strength, that allowed me to keep going and going, and leave behind that immense sadness.”
Esther’s restaurant became a gathering place for deportees. They came for meetings and birthday parties. For press conferences and interviews.
When friends and colleagues visited me in Tijuana, lunch with Esther became a required stop. She’d serve us her delicious specialty, meat and corn tamales with her homemade hot sauce.
Evolving food scene
As Esther was busy serving traditional Mexican fare, a new generation of Tijuana chefs was coming up with dishes that were innovative and unique to the region.
They used local ingredients and blended Mexican, Mediterranean and even Asian flavors. They called it Baja Med.
One of those chefs was Javier Plascencia.
His father had launched Tijuana’s first pizzeria in the late 1960s. The family later opened some of the city’s best-known, fine-dining restaurants.
But like other prominent Tijuanenses, the Plascencias were targeted by criminals. After the youngest son escaped a second kidnapping attempt, 18 members of the extended family picked up and moved across the border.
But the Plascencias still considered Tijuana their home.
In July 2010, they reopened the historic Caesar’s Restaurant on Avenida Revolución. It was the 1920s birthplace of the famed Caesar’s salad.
Six months later, Javier Plascencia opened a new restaurant that showcased a fresh and vibrant Tijuana. He called it Misión diez y nueve — Misión 19.
The location itself sent a message: It was in the city’s first green-certified office building.
Even after all these years in Tijuana, I was taken aback by Misión 19’s sleek decor and imaginative menu. The beef short ribs I ordered came wrapped in fig leaves, bathed in a black mole sauce and sprinkled with cacao.
I sipped a glass of red wine from the nearby Guadalupe Valley and watched the traffic on the avenue down below.
For a moment, I imagined myself in a cosmopolitan city anywhere in the world. But when I lifted my gaze and took in the panorama of hillsides packed with small houses — this was unmistakably Tijuana.
Misión 19 drew international attention. And suddenly there was an explosion of new restaurants in Tijuana. Even a new cooking school.
“And, you know, so it became a destination without planning it,” Plascencia said.
“It all happened very organically. It was very strange. I mean, we always had great food here. We always had the taqueros and everything. But it just became — like from day to night — a big boom.”
International food celebrities began recommending visits to Tijuana. As Anthony Bourdain did on a trip to San Diego.
“No disrespect to San Diego, there’s a lot of great restaurants here, a lot of really fine restaurants,” Bourdain said. “I personally would drive over to Tijuana and go to Misión 19, Javier Plascencia’s place, and that will rock your world.”
Tijuana’s story wasn’t just violence anymore. It was food.
I returned home to Washington, D.C., in March 2011. Everywhere I looked I saw signs of spring — bunches of purple crocuses and yellow daffodils, multicolored rows of tulips. The cherry trees were about to bloom.
Washington had always been my haven. But this time its beauty felt almost cruel.
My mother had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. She was 87 and determined to maintain her independence.
The next few months were a blur.
I was with her during visits with the surgeon. In the waiting room during the operation.
There was recovery. Then a complication. I held her hand as she moaned in pain and had to go back on the operating table.
After weeks at her side, I returned to the border. But it felt excruciating to be away. I headed back to Washington as often as I could.
My brothers checked in on her regularly. Philo and his family had returned from Rome and were living nearby in McLean, Va. Charles lived an hour away in Baltimore with his partner.
But I was the only daughter.
If my mother wasn’t OK, then I wasn’t either. It was like an invisible, unbreakable cord.
More than ever, I questioned my decision to move so far away
I called my mother every day. I wrote incessant messages. To her. The doctor. My brothers. Her friends. My friends. Her neighbors.
But I didn’t move back.
I had a job, a growing circle of friends. I was building a life of my own.
After 17 years of living and working on both sides of the border, I was starting to belong.
Sometimes tragedy moves slowly.
Other times it strikes suddenly, and life changes in the blink of an eye.
Less than seven months after my mother’s cancer diagnosis, my family’s life was turned upside down again. And this time, there was nothing to be done.
My brother Philo died of a heart attack just three weeks after he turned 60.
I’d covered many funerals in Tijuana. I’d taken careful note of the caskets with honor guards, the prayers, the altars filled with wreaths of flowers. But now I was part of a family torn by grief, and I felt small and lost.
The funeral was held on a warm fall day in Washington’s historic Georgetown neighborhood.
The chapel of Holy Trinity Church was packed with Philo’s colleagues. Many were high-ranking diplomats who had come to mourn one of their own.
Friends spoke of Philo’s integrity, his sharp wit, his love for his wife and daughters.
I didn’t share my private memories. Of the boy who climbed trees with me. The teenager who sang folk music in the basement and studied guitar. The scholar who read the classics.
After the service, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shook my mother’s hand. Just a few weeks earlier, Philo had played a key role in negotiating the release of two U.S. hikers imprisoned in Iran.
When I returned to the border, I was filled with regrets. My mother needed me there with her in Washington. She tried not to show it, but she was broken.
I couldn’t see myself stepping back into my old life. Was it that I didn’t belong there? Or that I no longer wanted to?
Benjamín Arellano pleads guilty
Back on the border, work kept me grounded. Every day brought twists I never expected.
In April 2012, I took a seat in a federal courtroom in San Diego. The once powerful leader of the Arellano Félix drug cartel was standing just a few yards away.
After almost a decade behind bars in Mexico, Benjamín Arellano had been extradited to San Diego.
That day — at his sentencing hearing — he didn’t look mighty at all.
He was close to 60. Thin, his black hair combed back, dressed in an orange inmate’s jumpsuit.
He pleaded guilty to racketeering and money laundering. He admitted to orchestrating kidnappings and murders.
But he showed no remorse. The leader of the most violent cartel in Tijuana’s history received a 25-year sentence and agreed to forfeit $100 million.
By now, Benjamín’s brother Ramón was dead. His brother Francisco Javier — El Tigrillo — had been caught while deep-sea fishing and was serving a life sentence in the United States. Another brother was in custody in Mexico and fighting extradition to the U.S.
The once mighty Arellano cartel still existed in name but it was a shadow of its former self.
The underworld’s bloody battle for control of the Tijuana drug corridor had quieted down. An Arellano nephew, Fernando Sanchez, was trying to hold together the remnants of his family’s business. But the Sinaloa cartel was now in control.
In 2012 there were half as many homicides as in 2008. Kidnappings were all but unheard of. The gruesome displays of bodies had ceased. So had the shootouts on busy streets.
Why the drop in violence?
Local leaders pointed to the efforts of military and civilian law enforcement agencies and the staunch support of the city’s residents. Finally, the years of effort had paid off.
But David Shirk said something less visible and more powerful was at play. He’s the University of San Diego professor who studies organized crime in Mexico.
“The official narrative that somehow the police, the military, government officials and civil society all wound up working together and cooperating and just solving the problem doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit the facts,” he said.
The violence dropped because the cartels were no longer battling each other, Shirk said. Just as the Arellanos had once held the Tijuana plaza in their grip, now Sinaloa was in control.
“Through most of the ’90s, the Arellano Félix were the dominant organization of Tijuana and we saw relatively little bloodshed. But as soon as they were challenged by the Sinaloa organization, that led to a lot of bloodshed,” he said.
“And when the Sinaloa cartel finally took over and appeared to achieve dominance in Tijuana, things calmed down. And it’s very plausible that the dominant organization is able to calm things down in part because they are working with corrupt authorities at the state or municipal level.”
Whatever the reason, Tijuana felt safe again. People crowded into restaurants, bars, movie theatres and cultural events. The city’s vibrant nightlife picked up.
In July 2012, I strolled down Avenida Revolución toward Pasaje Rodriguez, the passageway local artists restored a couple of years earlier.
As I stepped closer, I could see light coming from the covered alley. I heard strains of guitar. Inside, clusters of people were sipping wine and talking in the stalls that had been transformed into miniature art galleries.
The scene on that warm Friday night filled me with wonder. After so much darkness, here was more proof that a new Tijuana was emerging. A Tijuana that was hopeful, vibrant and suffused with light.
As the city relaxed, I relaxed too. Especially on weekends.
On Saturday mornings I’d head for the CECUT, carrying a pair of leather-soled shoes that glided easily on a polished wooden floor.
I was learning something new. It’s called danzón.
The rhythmic ballroom dance originated in 19th century Cuba. It migrated to Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, then spread to Veracruz and eventually Mexico City. It’s had a resurgence in recent years, reaching as far as Tijuana.
It is elegant.
Surprisingly playful. Impossibly romantic. And utterly absorbing.
I’d never danced in my life. I felt awkward, shy, out of place. I didn’t have the natural cadence of some of my classmates. I was tempted to quit.
But then I would think of my brother Philo, how he used to dance to songs by the Supremes. Now he was gone and couldn’t dance at all.
I also thought of my mother, how she still sometimes danced alone in her townhouse to her Saturday night radio jazz program.
I would learn to dance.
My friend Paco, the classical guitarist, taught the class with his wife, Lorena. She was in my chorus, and they had married a couple of years earlier.
Paco and Lorena were perfectionists and strict. We learned that danzón wasn’t just a dance, but a discipline with its own rituals.
“Danzón starts when you are shining your shoes. I can’t allow myself to come with dirty shoes or poorly dressed. These are the first rites of danzón,” Paco said.
I loved my fellow students. Some were born in Tijuana, but most migrated here from other parts of Mexico.
The routine and discipline offered us certainty — and community. And the sheer beauty of not just listening to music but moving to it with another person was something I’d never imagined.
For all its restrictions, danzón felt strangely liberating.
A final visit
My visits to Washington were growing sadder.
My strong, outgoing, outspoken mother seemed so fragile. She fell. She leaned on me as she walked.
But with every last bit of strength in her, she refused to leave the house that she loved.
In December 2013, I returned for what would be my last visit with her. She was 91 and she had decided her life was over.
She wanted to die at home. With her music, her memories and her flowers. With her two surviving children by her side. She stopped eating. She called friends to say goodbye.
We listened to Bach cantatas, and I held her hand. She suddenly spoke Greek, one of her childhood languages.
She smiled when I told her she was the best mother I could have imagined.
So I said it again.
Friends sent bouquets, and her bedroom bloomed like a garden even though it was January. And snowing heavily as she took her last breath.
Outside, the streets, the branches of trees, the rooftops of houses — everything had turned white.
Next week, the final episode: The immigration situation at the border takes another unexpected turn.