Tijuana throws festival for a break from drug violence

Look who’s coming to Tijuana. The world’s richest man. Three Nobel Prize winners (including Al Gore!). A pair of Mexican film stars. An astronaut.

This border city is throwing itself a grand festival, the Tijuana Innovadora, and the star-studded cast is the kind of publicity muscle the city is hoping will knock Mexico’s drug wars from the headlines.

“It’s a happening,” said Alejandro Bustamante, a prominent businessman and one of the organizers of the event. “We want to show the world what this city is capable of.”

But a few days after the Oct. 7 kickoff, as if on cue, three beheaded bodies were hung from overpasses, a severed head was left tossed on the side of a freeway, and at least 10 other people were killed — all over a three-day span. They were the grisliest slayings in Tijuana in almost a year.


Still, this show must go on, and much of the city seems determined to shrug off the violence in favor of enjoying a rare moment of civic pride. Mounted by civic and business leaders, the Innovadora is part conference, part convention, part musical and dance event, meant to showcase Tijuana as a center of manufacturing, art and innovation.

The fact that Tijuana can stage an undertaking of such scale while other border cities seem paralyzed from drug war violence is seen by many as a positive sign.

“It’s reflective of a civil society which is not rolling over and giving up. They are fighting back to reclaim the city,” said Jim Gerber, director of the International Business Program at San Diego State University. “Will it work? I don’t know, but it certainly gets everybody’s attention.”

Tijuana’s cultural center is filled with slickly produced exhibits from some of the city’s 500 or more manufacturing centers and companies. Tijuana produces many of the television sets sold in the U.S. market, manufactures headsets used by astronauts, medical devices and pacemakers, as well as thousands of thermometers, Toyota cars and solar panels.

That manufacturing muscle has been the central feature of past efforts to repair the city’s image. This time, organizers felt they needed a bolder approach to lend prestige to the event. When Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales and Twitter founder Biz Stone met in a dressing room, it was hailed as the first meeting of “two giants of Internet innovation.” Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim is scheduled to speak next week.

Gore was greeted with a rock star-like welcome when he appeared in front of a standing room-only audience at the cultural center for his speech capping Thursday’s seminars on sustainable energy.

“The people of Tijuana have felt a surge in pride at how much progress is taking place here,” Gore said, using the occasion to praise Baja California for proposing one of Mexico’s largest wind energy developments.

Other participants used the occasion for good news announcements. Welch Allyn, a leading maker of thermometers for the U.S. market, said it would add 100 jobs to its Tijuana factory. San Diego-based telecoms giant Qualcomm announced a project to keep better track of diabetes patients through its wireless technology.

The smorgasbord-quality of the event is bold — some say quixotic — and the inclusion of those guests with seemingly little connection to Tijuana have left more than a few people scratching their heads. CNN’s Larry King was invited to give a speech because organizers hope he can spread the word about Tijuana’s recovery, from a gruesome venue for drug war mayhem to a city where cartel violence has receded to a low-level rumble in the background.

That turnaround made the latest spasm of violence unexpected. Tijuana security forces have been credited with chasing out drug cartel gang members and Gen. Alfonso Duarte Mugica, who heads military operations in the city, was given a standing ovation on the event’s opening night. That followed a speech by President Felipe Calderon, who hailed the city as one of the few in Mexico that has shown progress in the drug war.

Organizers have fought to keep attention off the violence and on the exhibition, which has drawn more than 50,000 visitors so far. The festival’s grand finale Wednesday will feature a mass dance event to the music of Grammy-award winner and hometown performer Julieta Venegas. Thousands of people are scheduled to do a choreographed routine at shopping malls, schools and factories.

“This event gives me great pride,” said Ramon Bojorquez, a 20-year-old student of architecture who attended the Innovadora and signed a board filled with I Love You Tijuana comments from appreciative youngsters. “The narcos want to extinguish all the good things in the city.

“But there are more good people than bad.”