Tijuana ex-mayor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán has plans for the city

Clean water, rapid transit

— 'I have a dream for Tijuana," says ex-mayor José Guadalupe Osuna Millán. We're sitting in Osuna's office on the fifth floor of a glass complex in the Rio zone of Tijuana. With its trees, plazas, and cafés, this part of the city already looks like a section of Paris. Still, outside, a few minutes before, an armored truck had roared up, three men with shotguns had jumped out, and they raced to the building's entrance. There they stood, guns ready, legs apart. In the end, it turned out to be just a delivery of cash to the bank on the first floor.

But the perception of Tijuana as a wild, out-of-control city is hard to counter. The second annual Binational Public Safety Conference, held at the Handlery Hotel in Mission Valley April 7-9, seemed to confirm how serious the cross-border worries are.

Osuna presided over three of what may have been Tijuana's wildest years, 1995 to 1998. When he relinquished the city sash last November (mayors are restricted to one three-year term), he acknowledged that public safety was still the city's number-one problem. "The battle has just begun," he said.

He could have been talking about the city's development as well. Although crime, narco-trafficking, corruption grab the headlines, just handling the infrastructure and planning of Mexico's fastest-growing city is a full-time job.

"He fulfilled his obligations [as mayor], but Tijuana's problems are very great," Héctor Castellanos, president of the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) in Tijuana told the Union-Tribune after Osuna stepped down last November. "The city keeps growing in an anarchic and disorderly manner.... The city's resources are not sufficient to resolve these problems."

Now, as before he became alcalde (mayor), Osuna Millán (not to be confused with his predecessor, mayor Héctor Osuna Jaime) is involved in bringing water to the people of Tijuana. He is still active in Tijuana's development and has had time to reflect on his years of power. Was he presiding over a city disintegrating into anarchy or overseeing the rambunctious adolescence of a burgeoning metropolis?

Osuna's dream is a practical one. Osuna, 42, is a practical man. He started off in public schools in Mazatlán. His degree is in industrial economics. His reputation was built in government service in Mexicali and Tijuana, managing public lands. It was his practicality in taking care of citizens' basic needs that brought him to power in the first place.

"Before I was alcalde, I was director of the water company of Tijuana," he says. "Tijuana didn't have a regular water service as it does now. In the summer, people had to use bottled water or buy it from trucks. This was the environment in 1990-'91. Between then and 1994, I worked very hard to resolve the problems, and what we achieved was very popular among the people in the colonias. That's what got me the mayoralty.

"The big challenge for me when I became mayor was to decide what kind of city we wanted Tijuana to become in the next 20 years. And what things we had to do now to succeed in creating such a city. We had to define a vision of the city we wanted in the future."

But he wasn't looking for any idealist vision, no aspirations to create a "Mexico City of the North," or even a "San Diego of the South." Osuna, a true PANista, is a nuts-and-bolts man. "This city in the next 25 years will stretch south to Rosarito and east up to the Rodríguez Dam," he says. "Right now Tijuana is growing at 5.8 percent a year. Natural growth accounts for 1.8 percent. Four percent is growth by migration. The city is attracting 80,000 new permanent residents every year. To provide services for them is difficult.

"Our first priority with our dream, our vision of the future, was to share it with the people so they could embrace it. We decided to call together the leaders of society -- businessmen, industrialists, trade unionists, universities, government, the hundred most important leaders -- and form a development council of Tijuana. That happened in 1996.

"It was decided we needed a system of rapid transit and more and better roads, because migrants have been increasingly arriving and not crossing to the United States but staying in Tijuana, because there's so much work here. Also, with San Diego, we decided to open a special 'export' border crossing, where freeway 125 will end, at Otay Mesa, and another regular crossing at La Garita de Chaparral, in San Ysidro. The U.S., together with the alcaldesa, Mayor Golding, will coordinate this with their development projects aimed at the year 2020."

But trolley development won't wait that long, he says. "We already have a light rail line planned to run 11 kilometers [about 7 miles] through Tijuana's busiest corridor. In August the city government will choose which company will win the contract for a light rapid transit. It will be an elevated train, much like the San Diego trolley in the Mission Valley area leading to Qualcomm Stadium. Ours will leave the international line and head for Madero Avenue, a block from Revolución Avenue, and carry on right up Agua Caliente Boulevard. As far as roads are concerned, we have already created five new boulevards, 40 kilometers of new boulevards."

Yet it's somehow hard to marry all this good news with the devastating episodes of violence and charges of narco-corruption that have peppered Tijuana's recent history. Sebastian Rotella, in his book Twilight on the Line, pictures Tijuana as a city in crisis. Typical is his description of events in 1994, 18 months before Osuna Millán took over as mayor. "[In April], two months of turmoil had boiled over. The state police, in league with drug lords, were accused of killing a federal commander in a shoot-out. An assassin had killed [Luis Donaldo Colosio], the presidential candidate, whose own campaign guards were suspects in the assassination. The federal police, in league with drug lords, were suspected of killing the city police chief...."

Osuna has heard it all from foreign journalists before.

"Cities grow and violence does also," he says a little tiredly. "Los Angeles, in absolute numbers, has more violence than Tijuana. New York, also. Per thousand inhabitants."

Outsiders, says Osuna, have an attitude problem in the way they see Tijuana.

"The perception of Tijuana is taught," he says. "Through the generations...from the history of the era of Prohibition in the U.S., when Americans came here to drink, to some of today's young people who come to Rosarito and believe they can do anything.... These are well-entrenched images of our city, which have been with us for so long. We have spent a lot of hours and work to change that. And it's not only North Americans. My administration registered the name of 'Tijuana,' [at Mexico's trademark office] because Mexico City people wanted to make a TV series called Tijuana, filled with prostitution, drugs, narco-traffickers, and maquiladoras exploiting the people. No! This made us mad."

"Los Angeles has narco-traffickers. New York has narco-traffickers. Who gives the dealers millions and millions of dollars? New Yorkers and L.A. customers do. Do we have them in Mexico too? Yes, of course we have them. This is affecting our society now also. But I believe that our federal authorities have done good work between '95 and '98. And this the Americans don't recognize when they were [debating whether to] certify Mexico [as an ally in the war on drugs].

"The salaries of our police have been increased -- in the [last] three years around 100 percent -- not counting inflation. With inflation it would be about 40 percent. And for the first time, we have a helicopter for the police. In all I believe the battle has been engaged. At the least we're keeping up with other cities. We're lowering the crime rate. The younger police have a greater commitment and have a more complete education now. There is movement in the three levels of [police], municipal, state, and federal. The municipal level, especially, is progressing very quickly, which is important because they are the officers out front, on the firing line."

Kidnapping, he acknowledges, is a growing reality. "Yes, it's a problem. No, it is not a serious problem. It is because the city is growing. Also, it's a manifestation of the problems of violence and economic problems that come from other states in Mexico: Sinaloa, Sonora, Nayarit. We have to eradicate that. But let me give you an example of perception: When the Republican convention was in San Diego [in August 1996], all the world came. Including a lot of reporters. And we said, 'Let's invite them to our city so they can get a real picture of Tijuana.' And then a Japanese man was kidnapped [Sanyo executive Mamoru Konno was abducted August 10 and released after ten days in exchange for $2 million]. The same year there was an assassination at UCSD of a professor [Tsunao Saitoh, 46, a Japanese Alzheimer's researcher, and his daughter Loullie, 13, were killed in La Jolla in May 1996], and that wasn't news! But the kidnap of the Japanese executive -- big news. I certainly feel we have security problems like any other big city in the world. But I think that they have been magnified. Do they have kidnappings in Japan? Yes. There are kidnappings in Tokyo, for sure.

"In 1994, when Colosio was killed here in Tijuana, people in many parts of Mexico said Tijuana people are killers. No, no, no! We are victims like Colosio. In Dallas they are all killers? Or L.A., where Robert Kennedy was killed? No. It is part of the circumstances.

"We have worked hard to achieve what we have now. We are going to be a city with more opportunities for all, more habitable and better for our children. Better for them than it was for us in the past. There's still a 20-to-1 economic difference between San Diego and Tijuana. But we two [cities] are an interdependent community. No one is ever going to separate us. Not even an atomic bomb."

I ask if he has ever contemplated a uniting of the two cities, perhaps forming a bilingual, intra-national city like Singapore or Venice of old? On paper, I draw a circle encompassing a mythical San Diego-Tijuana with a line through the middle. He shakes his head. Then he reaches out and starts drawing pairs of vertical lines cutting through the center.

"Two cities," he says, "but bridges. Lots of bridges."

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