AMLO calls Jaime Bonilla From Chula Vista to Mexico

Cross-border campaigner

Jaime Bonilla, former South Bay water board president, now works on the Mexican presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
  • Jaime Bonilla, former South Bay water board president, now works on the Mexican presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
  • Image by Susan Luzzaro

It’s been only a few months since controversial South Bay water board president Jaime Bonilla stepped down from the Otay Water District, but it’s easy to see that his former position is just a speck in his rearview mirror. Bonilla’s eyes are on the future — Mexico’s future. He is campaigning for Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Polls show that on July 1 López Obrador has a strong chance of becoming Mexico’s next president.

At Bonilla’s Chula Vista home, where he was interviewed in April, large wooden front doors opened into a well-appointed hacienda, such as might be seen in a nightly novela, or Mexican soap opera. Marble floors gleamed. More than a hundred trees filled the backyard. A painting by Diego Rivera hung on the wall. Bonilla took it down to demonstrate its authenticity, then leaned it against the fireplace.

Bonilla’s speech was peppered with dichos, or popular Mexican sayings — one of the many indicators that he has a foot firmly planted on either side of the border. Binational since his early days, Bonilla first attended school in Tijuana before moving to San Diego. He later earned an industrial engineering degree in Mexico City, then returned to San Diego to get a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in public administration.

Bonilla’s bonhomie flew in the face of his reputation for being contentious. “I am an opinion maker,” Bonilla said, “and I’m not afraid of being criticized.” Then, as an afterthought, “I criticize myself.”

One incident at the Otay Water District that raised collective eyebrows occurred in July 2011, when the board voted to hand some top managers and employees lifetime health benefits. A month later the board extended the benefits to all employees. Recently, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association gave the board a Golden Fleece award for those actions.

“I really got creamed on that issue,” Bonilla said. “People thought I was just trying to get benefits for myself. They went for my jugular. But the benefits were not for me or the other board members; they were for the rank and file and managers.”

A near winner six years ago, López Obrador is a favorite to win Mexico’s presidency.

A near winner six years ago, López Obrador is a favorite to win Mexico’s presidency.

Bonilla said that López Obrador, whom he called AMLO, an acronymic nickname, shares the belief that all people are entitled to lifetime health benefits, and this is one of the many reasons Bonilla had gone to work for López Obrador’s campaign.

“Just look at his biography and you will see he has been fighting for the poor for a long time. Mexico is a very unbalanced country — there are the extremely wealthy and then so many poor people. Thirty-one families control Mexico. It’s very offensive when Forbes announces that Carlos Slim Helu [Mexico’s telecom giant] is the richest man in the world when we have all this poverty.”

Bonilla has been involved in Mexican politics for years. The Diego Rivera painting was a gift from a former governor of Baja. López Obrador has been a friend for almost two decades. “He asked me to assist in his 2006 campaign, but at the time I had to say no. I had too many commitments.”

López Obrador has been chosen to run by three leftist/progressive parties, the largest being his own party, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or Party of the Democratic Revolution. He is competing against three candidates. Currently favored to win is Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for 70 years, ending in 2000. Josefina Vázquez Mota is the candidate for the National Action Party (PAN); this party has been in power since 2006, during which time 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence. The last contender, Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance Party, shows less than 2 percent support in recent polls.

López Obrador was a whisker away from being president in 2006. His party claimed there were many election irregularities. A partial recount was conducted following the July 2, 2006 election, but Felipe Calderón was declared president on September 5. During this period, many believed that Mexico teetered on the edge of revolution. Estimates of the numbers demonstrating in Mexico City range from half a million to 3 million people.

While the recount was under way, the New York Times published an op-ed piece written by López Obrador. Titled “Recounting Our Way to Democracy,” the August 11, 2006 article said, “Not since 1910, when another controversial election sparked a revolution, has Mexico been so fraught with political tension. The largest demonstrations in our history are daily proof that millions of Mexicans want a full accounting of last month’s presidential election. My opponent, Felipe Calderon, currently holds a razor-thin lead of 243,000 votes out of 41 million cast….”

In the tumultuous days following the election and recount, Bonilla said, López Obrador had three choices: “to betray the people who voted for him and just walk away; just claim the election was stolen; or do a mass demonstration in Reforma [a broad avenue in Mexico City] to let the whole world know what happened.” López Obrador chose the last option, but the demonstrations did not turn violent. Bonilla attributed this to the fact that his friend is a follower of the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

Could the same turbulent scenario play out in 2012? As the election nears, the dominant media in Mexico have tried to block coverage of López Obrador. Earlier this month, the country’s two largest television networks, TV Azteca and Televisa, did not broadcast the first presidential debate on their main channels; Azteca showed a soccer game instead.

But, “You can’t cover the sun with your thumb,” said Bonilla, gesturing toward the light.

Bonilla can help offset the lack of coverage. He owns seven radio stations in Baja and a television station in Ensenada. He believes that winning Baja is critical for López Obrador: “If he wins Baja, he will be the president.”

In the last few years, news about Mexico is more often than not related to cartel violence.

Education and employment are a part of the campaign’s solution to the continuing bloodbath, according to Bonilla. In addition to building new public schools and financing tuition for university students, López Obrador’s plan is to build five oil refineries.

Will desalinization figure into the employment plan?

When Bonilla was on the Otay water board, he advocated construction of a desalinization plant in Rosarito, to be financed by private interests. The plant would sell water to the Otay district, which would build a pipeline north from the border. The project has many detractors, who cite both environmental concerns and costs.

“The water district has awarded a $4 million contract for an engineering firm to study the plan, and spent $674,000 on $585-an-hour lobbyists and $175-an-hour consultants,” reported the Union-Tribune on October 10, 2011. In December, the paper reported that no-bid contracts connected to the plant were awarded to associates of Bonilla.

Whether López Obrador is elected or not, Bonilla will likely achieve a seat in the Mexican legislature. In Mexico, legislative seats can be either appointed or elected.

“Will you continue to promote this project?” I ask him.

“This plant would produce 100 million gallons a day,” he says. “It will produce enough to export to the United States. Baja has no water. You can worry about the flora and fauna or you can worry about the people: do they have jobs, water to drink, water for agriculture and industry?”

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This sounds very similar to the Al Gore vs George W. Bush election. I still wish that Gore would've stood stronger in his challenge to a very questionable vote count.

to the writer of this article: this was a most interesting story.

i have a question to Mr. Bonilla, with all due respect (based on his comment that he criticizes himself) - how do you feel about your decision to back John McCann for the Sweetwater School Board? i ask because i am sincerely interested.

heck, if i had a dollar for every mistake i made thus far in my life - I WOULD BE A RICH WOMAN.

"You can't cover the sun with your thumb" - now that is a comment, i just may use it (giving all credit to you Sir).

In one word "TERRIBLE", but at the same time it helped Chula Vista residents to know who he really is, and don't be fooled like i was.......Thank you for your comment.

Bonilla You have been consistently more wrong than right your entire life. You have been more corrupt than the Chump now in the WH. You have traded sides in business and politics more than Arianna Huffington. I wouldn't follow you to a ice party in hell. You have abused your friends and family to attain money and political power. You are the Slimey Conrado character of the El Chapo series. You want to be the Circus master of the three ring circus yet the the make up stuck to you face guarantees you are forever a CLOWN. You are the wanna be eagle that feasts on flies. Excuse me now while I enjoy my Ice cold Coca Cola..

Mr. Bonilla you appear to be a man with honest intentions. The Occupy Sweetwater movement t is trying to recall McCann,Ricasa and Cartmill. Gandara is gone because of Bertha Lopez not McCann trust me on that. The problems that have come to this district because of the ego centered McCann are innumerable. Donations to the effort would be greatly appreciated. If he could fool you with his false bravado think what he is doing with this community.

I think this will be an interesting -- and historical-- election to watch in Mexico. Living on the border, we will no doubt be affected by the outcome. I have no faith that the PRI or the PAN candidates will be able to fix things. That leaves it up to Lopez Obrador. Can he turn it around...in the midst of a worldwide recession?

Yes, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador(AMLO) is at this the best option for Mexico, thank you

Thats because the PRI kicked you out knowing the backstabber and conniver you have been catering behind their backs with the PAN. You and your sister Xico are the sole reason the PRI lost control in Baja and it bled all the way to to the Presidency. You deserted your country moving in the middle of the night across the border only run back across as the US, State AGs and the county DA was targeting your ties to the corruption you headed in San Diego South Bay. Now you run to AMLO. Not surprising but expected from a two faced clown.

cvres: "I have no faith that the PRI or the PAN candidates will be able to fix things". The only thing they'll "fix" is the election. Mr. Obrador should have been sworn in the last time, and from everything I've read, he seems to have the best solutions for Mexico's problems. I hope he gets a chance this time.

i must say that it takes a very valiant person to run for president - and as well to support a candidate that wishes to run as Mr. Bonilla has done.

the US is my country and speaking quite frankly i am proud of all of those who chose to fight for it - i am impressed that a man like Mr. Bonilla would love the country of his heritage enough to stand up for a candidate whose intentions and goals would benefit so many.

i am embarrassed to say that i am an ignorant person when it comes to Mexico, even though i mandated that my children learn the language. what i do know is that it is a beautiful country of beautiful people - all simply wanting one thing - PEACE and SECURITY.

lifetime benefits, yes indeed - hard to believe some believe that is too much to ask for in a civilized world.

lets all hope that the change Mr. Bonilla is attempting to help bring about will be successful - IT IS TIME, IT IS TIME

Mr. Bonilla: well Sir, while i was impressed with what i read in the above article, i am now even more impressed.

it takes a great deal of character for any man, let alone a strong man, to admit to a poor decision.

that is one of the things that makes living a long full life so rewarding, the lessons we learn.

I Thank You and respect your candor.

Mr. Bonilla,

I am interested in becoming part of the AMLO campaign. Can you please advice me on how to get involved with this campaign?

Thank you for your time,


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