- Associated Press - Monday, October 11, 2010

TIJUANA, Mexico | If Tijuana is safe enough for Al Gore, Nobel laureates in chemistry and economics, and the co-founders of Twitter and Wikipedia — not to mention a 100,000 dancing residents — shouldn’t it be safe for anyone?

City leaders, with the help of President Felipe Calderon, made that point Thursday as Tijuana kicked off a two-week festival to showcase the city’s economic prowess and cultural riches.

The “Tijuana Innovadora” — or “Innovative Tijuana” — festival at the gleaming cultural center is a $5 million victory party, portraying the city across from San Diego as a beacon of hope in the war on drug traffickers that Mr. Calderon launched in 2006.

The president sent troops to restore order in Tijuana in early 2007, one of the first cities in Mexico to have the military lead the battle against organized crime.

Gone are the “pozolero” who dissolved bodies in vats of lye, gunbattles in front of hospitals and day care centers, and mutilated bodies dumped near schoolyards. Tijuana now wants to be known for making television sets and heart valves and putting on art fairs and a street opera festival.

Street vendor Victor Manuel Jimenez lets his hat speak for him Wednesday in Tijuana, Mexico, site of a two-week $5 million festival, Innovative Tijuana, under way in the border city across from San Diego. (Associated Press)
Street vendor Victor Manuel Jimenez lets his hat speak for him Wednesday ... more >

“Until a short time ago, Tijuana had an image tied primarily, almost exclusively, to criminality,” Mr. Calderon told about 2,000 people invited to the festival’s opening ceremony. “Tired of being stigmatized, Tijuana has decided to show its true side.”

As Mr. Calderon introduced a long line of dignitaries on stage, the crowd rose for a 45-second standing ovation when he named Gen. Alfonso Duarte, the top army officer in Tijuana who has led the city’s assault on crime.

Mr. Calderon said Tijuana continues to suffer from crime but that its problems are no different than other cities in the world — a view echoed by the city’s politicians and business elite.

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 that the flow of drugs into the United States has waned.

And while gruesome displays of violence have diminished, killings continue. Tijuana had 597 murders from January through September, up 33 percent from the same period in 2009 but still at a pace below the record 843 deaths in 2008.

Yet Tijuana can rightfully distance itself from drug war hot spots like Ciudad Juarez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas, that has spun out of control with more than 2,200 murders this year.

“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.

The two-week festival features discussions on the aerospace, automotive and other industries that drive the city’s economy. On closing day, organizers estimate 100,000 students and others will perform a choreographed dance in shopping malls, schools and factories to a catchy tune by Tijuana-born musician Julieta Venegas.

Tijuana residents, who not long ago stopped going out at night and worried even during the day about getting caught in the crossfire while eating at taco stands, say they feel the difference.

Longtime resident Priscila Alonso, 51, said it has been about three years since she has heard of any friends being kidnapped for ransom.

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