- “Tijuana is much more than the cliches repeated by those that, carrying their prejudice, come and try to decipher it.”
Those words of the late Rafa Saavedra (2013), one of Tijuana’s favorite writers, struck a chord in me. I am a Tijuana outsider who has been trying and failing to decipher la city since I moved here in 2012. Nothing has been the same since Rafa’s passing. Nothing is ever the same here.
Calle Libertad 1751, Azcona, 22055, Tijuana
I read that quote on the second floor of the new taproom and art gallery in downtown Tijuana on the famed (infamous?) “Revu” near Calle Segunda. Border Psycho, one of the top breweries in the city, opened their second bar in a spacious building that used to be La Ballena, the longest bar in the world when it was opened (circa 1945). The new brewery joins a plethora of new businesses that are refurbishing abandoned buildings and forming the New Tijuana.
“What happened with our neighbors [Bar El Torito], happened at four or five in the morning. We are closed by then,” says Bruno Arena, one of the three partners of Border Psycho.
“Free tequila shot, my friend. Come in, no cover!” Just a few steps away from the new taproom, jaladores in El Torito Bar try to lure anyone that walks by. A place that refuses to change along with its surroundings, the bar applies old tactics that gringos up through 1990s would fall for. Nowadays, few lost tourists will step inside during the day, but late on the weekends it’s packed with cholos.
On October 22, 2017, a month before Border Psycho opened, an armed man, supposedly tied to the cartels, entered El Torito and opened fire. The man injured four women employees of the bar and five men. One of the men died from his injuries later that day. The assailant tried to escape but was detained a mile south in Cañon Johnson. Less than a week after the incident, El Torito opened as if nothing had happened.
“It’s a strong sense of insecurity, a concern not only in Tijuana but felt all over Mexico,” continues Bruno. “It’s people that are involved with something illicit, thus the result. But security esta muy bien here in Avenida Revolución. The tourist police do their rounds, cops on motorcycles constantly patrol the area.”
Tijuana gained a reputation as one of the deadliest cities in the world in 2008 with 844 murders. The year 2017 doubled that number with over 1600 murders; 2018 is on the way to break last year’s record, with an average of half a dozen murders daily.
The people that walk Avenida Revolución continue to be the same eclectic disaster, with hordes of locales, Gringos perdidos, beggars, jaladores, junkies, street performers, junk salesmen, punketos, policletos, cholos, lowriders, and me.
SITT, the rapid bus system that supposedly came this year to fix the horrible public transportation and reduce traffic, instead has made it worse. The $60 million investment that was meant to serve over 100,000 users a month is barely used. Some stations were abandoned before completion and many were vandalized.
Tijuana is libertarian hedonism stuck in fake progress.
Sandwiched in between El Torito and Border Psycho, another new business opened in 2017: Gorditas Doña Tota, a gordita chain from Tamaulipas with over 200 stores in Mexico and the US. They opened a handful locations in Tijuana during that summer. Next to the new brewery is one of the thousands of Oxxos, immediately followed by the old Aloha Club that burnt down in February of 2011. The legend tells that the devil danced with a woman and then set the place ablaze.
Many businesses come and go in a blink of an eye. Less than a year after opening, the downtown location of Gorditas Doña Tota closed its doors in August. At the same time, demolition started on the legendary Aloha Club that had been abandoned for years.
North on Revu (from Segunda) and under the Arch (also known as El Reloj - the Clock) lie the wonders of Zona Norte. The timeless anarchy zone that smells like fried chicken, and is littered with prostitutes, alcohol, and drugs. La Zonaja is the most visited part of Tijuana.
2009, Calle Coahuila, Zona Nte., 22000, Tijuana
Hong Kong, the most famous of the area’s brothels, built a 12-story building this year in less than five months. A palace of orgies and intense depravity where they sweep the floor with thousands of dollars, it’s one of the tallest building in downtown Tijuana. In its proximity are similar clubs, many sad looking prostitutes, a church, alleys, and eerie bars with people injecting all sorts of drugs, street tacos, seafood stands, Kentucky Fried Buches — which sells fried chicken necks — and plenty of policía enjoying their abuse of power. One street vendor cooks giant pancakes (even at 5 a.m.).
Dead bodies are found daily in the alleys of Zona Norte. Thousands of tourists stumble out of the clubs and back across the border with wild stories to tell. Rinse. Repeat. Extreme sin has its consequences.
“Hey! Ey! Güey...! Vato! Where are you?” bartender at Nelson (and friend) Selene Ramirez texted me impatiently early on a Tuesday afternoon. Bar Nelson sits at the entrance of Zona Norte right under the arch. As usual, I was working at home. “Get down here! Bring your camera! There is a dead body over at Mutualismo y Tercera. There are journalists here already and they are closing down the street.”
721 Revolución, Zona Centro, Baja
The cross streets mentioned are two blocks away from my apartment. “Oh well, I don’t care, I’m going to take pictures,” Selene replied after I told her that photography around police is a bad idea. Homicides in the city occur way too often and the cops aren’t friendly with journalists. “You were right, ya me cagaron el palo por grabar.” (They already bugged me to stop recording).
Not even an hour went by before Frontera had an article about the shooting Selene described. A summary of the article, translated, reads: