Border town hopes to revamp its image

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Associated Press/Arturo Mari

Pope John Paul II read his message to American cardinals gathered in his private library in the Vatican Tuesday. The pope addressed the opening session of a closed-doors summit with American cardinals on a clergy sex abuse scandal. From left, sitting, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston and Vatican Secretary of State CardinalAngelo Sodano. Other clergymen are unidentified.By Julie Watson ~ The Associated Press

TIJUANA, Mexico -- In many ways, Tijuana is a public relations nightmare: Its name is associated with Mexico's deadliest drug cartel, and its more popular tourist attractions are its cheap booze and prostitutes.

Then there's police corruption. And an unflattering pop song. Not to mention the unfortunate matter of Tijuana's diabolical area code.

Now Tijuana is taking things into its own hands. It has formed a "Comite de Imagen" -- an Image Committee -- consisting of city officials, business owners and other community leaders to change the world's view of Mexico's most notorious border city.

Step one: share the pain. The committee is looking into twinning Tijuana with a fellow sufferer -- Medellin, the Colombian city infamous the world over for the Medellin drug cartel. City officials think that by teaming up, the two can help each other clean up their reputations.

"The world has stigmatized us, although this has nothing to do with reality," Medellin city administrator Jorge Velez said during a recent visit to Tijuana.

Tijuana would say the same. It would rather be known as the world's biggest producer of TV sets (up to 8 million a year) than for prostitutes and 25-cent shots of tequila.

Once a quiet farming village, Tijuana boomed during Prohibition. Bars, casinos and brothels filled Tijuana's downtown. Things quieted a bit after Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas outlawed gambling in 1935, but Tijuana's wild reputation has lived on.

Now the Image Committee is talking up big plans to clean up streets, revamp the gritty Mariachi plaza, landscape unsightly areas, build public housing to rid Tijuana of the thousands of shacks cascading down its dirt hills.

Don't dial 666

But the PR disasters keep coming.

In September there was the embarrassment of being given a new area code, 666. Fearful of satanic connotations, the city protested and the code was changed to 664.

Things aren't helped by a pop song by French singer Manu Chao being played regularly on Mexican radio stations these days. Its main chorus, which combines both English and Spanish, is: "Welcome to Tijuana, tequila, sex, and marijuana."

But some hope Tijuana keeps its wild streak -- the $1 beers, the legal drinking age of 18, not strictly enforced.

"I haven't seen any illegal activity," said Deirdre Cunningham, 36, a U.S. Navy engineer from La Plata, Md., who was visiting with her husband. "I think it's fairly tame. I would hate to see it change too much."

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