TIJUANA, Mexico — If Tijuana is safe enough for Al Gore, Nobel laureates in chemistry and economics and co-founders of Twitter and Wikipedia — not to mention a 100,000 dancing residents — shouldn't it be safe for anyone?
City leaders, with the help of President Felipe Calderon, made that point Thursday as Tijuana kicked off a two-week festival to showcase the city's economic prowess and cultural riches.
The "Tijuana Innovadora" — or "Innovative Tijuana" — festival at the gleaming cultural center is a $5 million victory party, portraying the city across from San Diego as a beacon of hope in the war on drug traffickers that Calderon launched in 2006.
The president sent troops to restore order in Tijuana in early 2007, one of the first cities in Mexico to have the military lead the battle against organized crime.
Gone is the "pozolero" who dissolved bodies in vats of lye, gunbattles in front of hospitals and day care centers, and mutilated bodies dumped near school yards. Tijuana now wants to be known for making television sets and heart valves and putting on art fairs and a street opera festival.
'Tired of being stigmatized'
"Until a short time ago, Tijuana had an image tied primarily, almost exclusively, to criminality," Calderon told about 2,000 people invited to the festival's opening ceremony. "Tired of being stigmatized, Tijuana has decided to show its true side."
As Calderon introduced a long line of dignitaries on stage, the crowd rose for a 45-second standing ovation when he named Gen. Alfonso Duarte, the top army officer in Tijuana who has led the city's assault on crime.
Calderon said Tijuana continues to suffer from crime but that its problems are no different than other cities in the world — a view echoed by the city's politicians and business elite.
Tijuana's sense of relief may prove fleeting — violence roared back in the border city of Nuevo Laredo after a lull — and there is no indication that the flow of drugs into the United States has waned.
And while gruesome displays of violence have diminished, killings continue. Tijuana had 597 murders from January through September, up 33 percent from the same period in 2009 but still at a pace below the record 843 deaths in 2008.
Yet Tijuana can rightfully distance itself from drug war hot spots like Ciudad Juarez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas, that has spun out of control with more than 2,200 murders this year.
"We are the only city in the country that has gone from a state of crisis to a state of control and stability, the only one," Mayor Jorge Ramos said Wednesday at a ceremony to honor Tijuana police.
The two-week festival features discussions on the aerospace, automotive and other industries that drive the city's economy. On closing day, organizers estimate 100,000 students and others will perform a choreographed dance in shopping malls, schools and factories to a catchy tune by Tijuana-born musician Julieta Venegas.
'A marvelous city'
Tijuana residents, who not long ago stopped going out at night and worried even during the day about getting caught in the crossfire while eating at taco stands, say they feel the difference.
Longtime resident Priscila Alonso, 51, said it has been about three years since she has heard of any friends being kidnapped for ransom.
"It's a marvelous city with lots of action and a rich culture," she said.
Tijuana is coming off its most violent spell in its history, marked by shootouts between rival gangs, decapitated bodies dumped near schools and soccer fields and mutilated corpses hung from freeway bridges. The carnage was the product of a showdown between two crime bosses — Fernando "The Engineer" Sanchez Arellano and Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, a renegade lieutenant who rose through the ranks by dissolving bodies in vats of lye.
Even before Garcia was arrested by Mexican authorities in January, some signs of normalcy had returned. Restaurants got busier. A vibrant nightclub scene emerged near the city's main tourist drag, Avenida Revolucion.
Many credit the Mexican army and the city's public safety chief, Julian Leyzaola, a former army officer who has forced out hundreds of allegedly corrupt police officers and aggressively pursued crime bosses. Both the army and Leyzaola have been dogged by accusations of torturing suspects.
Tourism is still way down from several years ago. The California State University system banned travel to Tijuana for its programs in March after the U.S. State Department warned about the dangers of visiting parts of Mexico. The Marine Corps has also told service members in Southern California to avoid the city.
Gore, Slim to visit
"Innovative Tijuana" was launched by Jose Galicot, a businessman and indefatigable city cheerleader who led a campaign several years ago to decorate tunnels around the city with murals.
Galicot, 72, says he got the idea for the festival a year ago when he needed surgery and learned the city is a major producer of medical equipment. He decided Tijuana needed a show to promote its manufacturers, which make 20 million TV sets a year, thermometers, heart valves and solar panels that were used at a South African stadium for the World Cup.
Galicot wanted big names to draw attention. His first catch was Gore, who will give a speech about the environment Oct. 14. Then came Mexican multibillionaire Carlos Slim, who will discuss philanthropy Oct. 19, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales on Oct. 13, Mexican media moguls and many others. Some have no connection to Tijuana.
Speeches range from video games and education to the aerospace and automotive industries. An exhibit area will feature Tijuana factories that export products to the United States.
Every Wednesday morning for the last six months, Galicot has updated civic leaders over coffee and cookies. At the last meeting, he said Tijuana newspaper editors responded well to his plea to publish only positive news on front pages for the next two weeks.
Galicot, speaking with a hoarse voice, begins all meetings the same way.
"The only protagonist of this event?" he asks, twice.
About 100 voices reply: "Tijuana!"
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