'I would hate to be the president of Tijuana tourism board." So says Andres Oppenheimer, 48, Pulitzer prize-winning Argentinian-born Latin American correspondent for the Miami Herald. He was in town recently to speak at San Diego's World Affairs Council about his recently published book, Bordering on Chaos. The Wall Street Journal has called the book "a revealing look at the secret and powerful political society of Mexico, its breakup, and the fallout that we are witnessing today."
Oppenheimer has been covering Latin America since the mid-'80s, concentrating on Mexico for the last seven years. In his book he analyzes the Chiapas uprising, the assassination of political leaders (he interviewed Luis Donaldo Colosio the day before his death in Tijuana), the corruption that has crept to the highest levels of Mexican society, and the Mexican drug cartels' role in infiltrating the power structure.
The Reader met with Oppenheimer on Thursday, March 25, at the Hanalei Hotel to talk about drugs, corruption, and the future of San Diego-Tijuana.
Reader: Could you ever foresee an uprising in Northern Mexico like the one you covered in Chiapas?
Oppenheimer: I think that Tijuana is one of the most corrupt, violent, and narco-infiltrated cities in Mexico. I don't think even a Tijuana official could dispute that. I mean, where Colosio was assassinated? Where the leading journalist, Jesús Blancornelas [editor of Zeta], was shot? But a Zapatista-style uprising here? You could only have it in remote rural areas. It's no coincidence that you have a Zapatista-controlled subdued [revolt] in Chiapas and other guerilla movements in Guerrero and Veracruz. These are remote areas where the government has little access. In Tijuana or in Baja California it's very developed -- roads, bridges, telephones, communications. The army is everywhere. I think it would be pretty difficult for there to be a guerrilla uprising here. The kind of things that happen in Tijuana are also happening in [Ciudad] Juárez and the other border towns. Tijuana draws more attention because it's bigger.
Reader: Can drug violence get worse?
Oppenheimer: For it to get worse, you would have to have a phenomenon like you had in Colombia in the late '80s, where the narcos [narcotics traffickers] had a political agenda. In Colombia the Medellín cartel wanted the government to drop extradition [laws]. So they officially said, openly, "Either you drop the extradition or we're going to explode car bombs every day in Bogotá," and they did. Every day or every week, until the government didn't have any other choice but to lift extradition. So the narcos in Colombia had a political agenda.
In Mexico either they don't or they are not making it public. So you don't have a situation where you have a cartel with a very public figure running it like Pablo Escobar. And all the cartels we've had in Mexico, you didn't see them putting out public statements. They were operating in the shadows. They didn't threaten the government, "Either you do this or I'll do that." The fact is that they are not an open organization with a political agenda. Most of the killings you see in Tijuana are among themselves. You know, the Tijuana Cartel against the Cártel de Golfo.
So the only reason why I would doubt that you would see a marked deterioration in the situation in Tijuana is that so far you have seen a war but you have not seen a public war between the narcos and the state [authorities]. The narcos are buying off as many corrupt politicians and law-enforcement agents as they can. They are not declaring open war on the government. It's a different strategy.
Reader: How much do you think they have penetrated the political set up on this side of the border?
Oppenheimer: I would be very surprised if Tijuana drug lords had bought politicians in San Diego. Because if you look at the drug lords in Mexico, many of them have been pretty unsophisticated people.
Reader: Tell me what you know about the Arellano brothers.
Oppenheimer: Well, they're supposed to operate on this side of the border. That's the conventional wisdom.
Reader: That they're living here?
Oppenheimer: Yeah. They're believed to be living on -- or at least spending a lot of time on -- this side of the border.
Reader: Why do you think the authorities would be unable to arrest them?
Oppenheimer: We in the press have definitely not done a good job in answering these questions. If the major mainstream U.S. newspapers put as many resources into answering that question as we do into finding corrupt generals or politicians in Mexico, we may have known the answer by now.
I think the Mexicans have a point when they say, "Where are the American cartels? It's very hard to believe that all the bad guys are south of the border and that there's no such thing as American cartels." I've always been interested in answering that question, and one of the things that I did actually ask of a group of peers was how [much] American banks, big banks -- Citibank, Chase Manhattan, and five or six others, for instance -- played a big role in the laundering of [Mexican president Salinas de Gortari's brother] Raúl Salinas's money. We in the press are doing a bad job -- and I include myself -- in not looking deeper into what's happening on this end.
Reader: In other words, there is a possibility of corruption on this side of the border in political and law-enforcement circles?
Oppenheimer: Sure. I mean, I think there is a possibility but more through third parties -- lawyers, accountants looking the other way, bankers taking money without asking too many questions. I see a greater possibility of that than a Don Corleone of Mexico meeting in a dark room with a Don Corleone of California.
Reader: So do you see a hypocrisy in the U.S. "certifying" Mexico as an ally in the drug war every year?
Oppenheimer: Absolutely. It's crazy. Who certifies us? It's a showcase of cultural arrogance. But more than that it's cynical, and it's going to cause a lot of problems next year. This will be the first time in 12 years that the two [countries' congressional and presidential] elections coincide. I think relations between Mexico and the U.S. are going to take a dip next year because of the timing of the certification, by March 1, 2000. Mexico has elections three months later. So during this certification debate, in February, in the middle of the Mexican election campaign, when our Republican senators start screaming and yelling, demanding that Mexico [not] be certified because, you know, supposedly it's a corrupt, hopeless country.... You can imagine what the response will be from [any] Mexican candidate for senate and congress. They're going to beat the nationalist drum like they haven't in years. It's going to get nasty.
Reader: What do you see in the future for Tijuana-San Diego?
Oppenheimer: I find it interesting that with your 60 percent or whatever majority of minorities -- Hispanic, Asian, and others -- that you still have a white Anglo powerhouse running the city. San Diego is still in the hands of Anglos. And considering that it has a 40 percent Hispanic population, how different it is from Miami or other American cities where you've had a big reversal [of ethnic populations]. If I look at Miami and how it has changed since I arrived there in 1983, I find it very interesting that San Diego has not gone in the same direction.
Reader: Why do you think that is?
Oppenheimer: Well, because probably the Hispanics in San Diego are not as middle class or upper class as they are in Miami. In Miami, the whole middle class from Cuba came over. You don't have that many middle-class and upper-class people doing business or living permanently in San Diego. But I think that will change. First, because the insecurity in Mexico City is driving more and more middle-class Mexicans to cities like Miami and San Diego and others. Second, because the children of the Mexican immigrants are going to be better off than their parents; and third, because of sheer numbers. I think San Diego will change more than Tijuana. I mean, Tijuana may become more and more Americanized, but San Diego will become more Mexicanized.
Reader: Yet the Anglo power "club" is still holding out pretty successfully here.
Oppenheimer: Well, yeah. When I arrived in Miami, it was run by something called the "nongroup," which was a group that officially didn't exist. But it was a group of CEOs from the biggest corporations in town and the politicians and the charities. An all-Anglo group that ran the city. They met the mayor, decided what was best, and then Corporation A would chip in one million, Corporation B would chip in a million, and that's the way the city worked. Then, in the late-'80s, they elected the first Hispanic mayor, and then that nongroup started accepting one or two Hispanic members. And then five years later, both the mayor and the whole city commission were Hispanic and the nongroup disappeared. Now many of the old members say that a lot of the corruption Miami has is because there is no longer this "nongroup" of corporate people tied to the political class.
But the fact is, that since I arrived, the city has changed completely. Now I would say that from the mayor down, you don't find a politician who doesn't speak Spanish fluently. And, in most cases he's Hispanic. The governor, Jeb Bush, is married to a Hispanic and speaks fluent Spanish. In Miami it's unthinkable, it's impossible to get elected to anything if you don't speak Spanish. And this year in January for the first time, my paper, the Miami Herald, the Anglo powerhouse in Miami, has become the first regional paper in the U.S. to appoint a Hispanic publisher.
Reader: The problem now with the Hispanic population in San Diego is you have very low turnouts or very low registrations.
Oppenheimer: Well, I read a speech on the Internet that Vice President Al Gore gave here in California, and I was surprised to see that he mumbled a whole paragraph in Spanish. It used to be that they said, "muchas gracias," in a bad Spanish accent. But now we're up to a whole paragraph! Which leads me to believe that there are some [Hispanic] voters here. And in Mexico, there is a NAFTA generation of incredibly smart people. There's almost a generation gap in Mexico City. You see these kids who are incredibly efficient, quick, fast. They don't spend four hours in a luncheon. They're all business. Some of them may have come to Tijuana. You see them all over the place.
Reader: But San Diego doesn't have that Hispanic middle class with the money to wield influence yet.
Oppenheimer: But I'm sure you will. Twenty years ago Cubans came to Miami penniless. Remember, they started from scratch. They didn't take their millions out of Cuba. And if things continue the way they are, there is a significant -- I wouldn't call it exodus -- but it is a significant move of upper-class and middle-class Mexicans out of Mexico City because of the insecurity issue -- the street crime and kidnappings. I would be very surprised coming back to San Diego in ten years and not seeing the same changes Miami has seen.
Reader: A lot of Anglo people come here to live the "American Dream," not the transcultural dream.
Oppenheimer: A lot of people used to come to Miami to live the "American Dream." They've all fled to northern Florida.
Reader: Does San Diego today compare with Miami in the '80s when it was the center for drugs being funneled into the country?
Oppenheimer: I think L.A. is more of a drug center than San Diego in that sense. I think San Diego is what Miami was 15 years ago politically and socially. Miami was a sleepy southern town. And I'm not saying that Miami is a model. It is one of the most corrupt cities in America. What I'm saying is that we're moving to international cities or global cities or hemispheric cities. And you guys, right at the border, how could you escape that?