Waiters on restaurant row are welcoming customers they haven’t seen since the first days of the drug war. Police no longer patrol neighborhoods in four-vehicle convoys. Kidnappings are down, and late-night crowds are way up at clubs and bars.
“Look at all the single ladies here,” said Juan Carlos Eguiluz, taking in the bustling scene at his Cheripan restaurant in the Zona Rio dining district. “Single lady. Single lady. Single lady. They know they’re safe and respected here.”
Four months after the capture of the notorious crime boss Teodoro Garcia Simental, this border city is showing glimpses of its old, vibrant self. Like survivors of a Category 5 hurricane of crime, residents are emerging from their homes, wary but hopeful.
While clashes in other key drug-trafficking centers such as Juarez are reaching new heights of brutality, the uniquely savage violence that has plagued Tijuana during the government’s three-year war on organized crime has declined dramatically since the January arrest.
Drug-fueled crime has always cycled up and down, of course. But there are no signs that anyone of Garcia’s ruthless ambition has stepped into the power void. Although homicides still occur at a steady pace, the beheadings, massacres and dissolution of victims in lye that were Garcia’s terrorizing trademark have largely stopped.
Near the bustling produce market on Insurgentes Boulevard where 13 people died in the gun battle that sparked the local drug war two years ago, taco vendors push carts still bullet-riddled from the shootout, but say there’s no need to duck these days.
Across town, businessmen and politicians have cut back on large security details that shadowed their movements and ferried their children to school. “We feel that since they caught all these monsters, things are going to calm down,” said Genaro de la Torre, a businessman.
In other drug war hot spots, crime bosses are distant, shadowy figures whose killing rampages are a blur of anonymity. In Tijuana, the violence had a face: Garcia’s chubby mug.
He was a hometown narco-soldier turned renegade cartel lieutenant, carousing in restaurants and banquet halls, roaming the city in a convoy of armored SUVs and leaving behind a trail of tortured massacre victims, proudly claiming responsibility with taunting narco-messages.
His gunmen killed hundreds of rivals from the Arellano Felix drug cartel, and at least 45 police officers. He accumulated wealth by holding for ransom middle- and upper-class residents, forcing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families to flee across the border to San Diego. Many residents feared even saying his name, instead referring to him by holding up three fingers to signify his nickname, El Tres, the three.
To this day, some people avoid the sprawling eastern part of the city, a mostly working-class area far from tourist destinations that was Garcia’s stronghold. One real estate developer sold out a subdivision there, only to see some of his new homebuyers get kidnapped.
“It was almost like we put them on stage. They became targets. It makes us feel horrible,” said the developer, declining to be identified for security reasons.
The developer, like some other businesspeople and lawyers, conducts business nowadays at upscale restaurants in the Zona Rio, holding meetings and sales calls between servings.
“I feel very safe here,” said Alisha Oceguera, a 20-year-old student who crossed the border from San Diego with friends to dine at Cheripan on a recent Saturday night. Some parents still don’t like their children to stay out late, but many have eased their home-by-dark rule, she said.
Some chefs say they’re seeing double the number of customers from last year. Some are people who fled the city, and now feel safe enough to return to their old haunts. At Cheripan, the lines stretch out the door on weekends, and the owner of the nearby La Querencia, where a photo of visiting U2’s front man, Bono, hangs on the wall, is planning to open two new restaurants.
“People from Tijuana are dynamic,” said La Querencia’s owner, Miguel Angel Guerrero. “You can’t keep us closeted. We have to go out.”
Mayor Jorge Ramos is laying out the welcome mat. The city has successfully hosted several conventions and events in recent months, including the World Junior Taekwondo Championships, he points out, adding that visitors from Southern California shouldn’t be afraid.
“We lived many difficult days, but with the arrest of more than 100 drug lords, things have gotten better,” said Ramos, adding that he has been able to cut back on a security detail that once totaled 24 bodyguards. “We want to invite everybody to see how things have improved.”
Few U.S. citizens have taken him up on the offer. The city’s top tourist draw, downtown’s once-raucous Avenida Revolucion, attracts only trickles of tourists, mostly Chinese or Europeans who ride the usually empty double-decker tourist bus around some of the city’s historic sites and shopping areas.
Government officials complain that the State Department’s travel alerts are scaring off visitors. After Garcia’s capture, local authorities hoped Washington would ease the warnings, but the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana issued another one, saying Garcia’s arrest could trigger more violence.
“When gunfire/explosions are heard, immediately move to a safe area with good cover,” said the alert, which Mexican officials called alarmist and contradictory. They note that the same travel warning says there’s no evidence that U.S. tourists have been targeted in any narco-violence.
For many residents, a stark indicator of changing times is the new nightlife scene burgeoning in downtown Tijuana. Called “La Sexta” — for its location on Sixth Street — the area’s funky theme bars attract a mixed crowd of hipsters and professionals, college students and young businessmen.
A few years ago, crime fears would have hampered the growth of the trendy scene. But times have changed, said Rueben Flores, 35, a bartender at one of the popular spots in the area, La Mezcalera.
“If there was violence, the Sexta wouldn’t exist,” Flores said. “We wouldn’t have business.”