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— In Khartoum it's the Acropole. In Vientiane it's the Constellation. In London it's Biddy Mulligan's. In Tijuana the place to find "the buzz" is Big Boy -- El Big.

El Big, on Agua Caliente Boulevard, opposite the downtown bullring, is the 24-hour coffee shop/restaurant where politicians, cops, government spies, businessmen, and journalists gather for an unspoken waltz, an agreement that this is neutral territory where tips, plans, warnings, and information can be swapped.

Dora Elena Cortés comes here because, she says, this is where "the news comes to you." Cortés ought to know. She is the chief Tijuana correspondent for Mexico City's respected El Universal, sometimes called "the New York Times of Mexico." She and her fellow Universal reporter, Manuel Cordero, have lived through and reported on all of Tijuana's recent convulsions, winning Mexico's national journalism prize in 1994 for their coverage of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Reporting in Tijuana, she'll tell you, is not like reporting in San Diego. The border fence separates two drastically different journalistic worlds. It's not just the pay gap; it's the knowledge that in Tijuana, if you're reporting on the town's big stories, you are out there, naked, always balancing truth against survival.

But somehow, for more than two decades, Cortés has woven her way through the nerve-wracking worlds of narco-traffickers, corrupt police, politically dependent newspaper editors, and the need to earn money in a low-paying, underrespected trade. And gradually, through those years, she has come to be regarded unofficially as the journalist's journalist, the queen of El Big.

"For me, she is the best reporter in Tijuana," says human-rights activist Victor Clark Alfaro. "She has written many things on many occasions that make you think, 'This woman is going to be killed.' But she has not held back from writing the truth."

Today distinguished-looking men in dark suits make a point of coming up to her and shaking her hand with a slight nod of the head. Whoever they are, they recognize she is a player to be reckoned with. They also seem to regard her with genuine affection.

It's 10:30 on a sunny morning. Cortés has just come from her daily two-hour talk show -- another gig to help pay the rent -- on radio XEC.

She orders a coffee. Her mass of dark curly hair bounces as she speaks rapid-fire Spanish. We're surrounded by two tables filled with men in suits, one or two wearing dark glasses. But it's not just spies and cops and journalists who come here. Ordinary families also fill the place.

"It depends on the time of day," Cortés says. "Businessmen and politicians turn up around 8:00 in the morning. A lot of them come to have breakfast, read the newspaper, and fix -- and unfix -- the world." She laughs. "The judicial police, the ministerial police are also close by. That means you see a lot of lawyers here too.

"But for me El Big is headquarters. It's open 24 hours, and for certain people we need to meet, it is convenient to do the interviews here. Four in the morning, six in the morning. After working all night we sometimes come for breakfast. It's good because nobody worries if you stay a long time. When the political campaigns start, they meet here. Opposing parties come and tell us, 'This is our position. This is their position. Here's the problem with their position.' Policemen know to find us here. 'Look, so-and-so was killed. Something is burning. Why don't you go and check it out.' So we sit, and the news comes to us. People kid me that I am at Big Boy so much I must be working for the restaurant."

Cortés has always been in papers. "I was born in Tijuana. My dad was from Mexico City. He came very young to the border. He was a journalist and a locutor, an announcer, on radio. Alfredo Cortés Cruz.

"I started working with him, and that's how I got some experience. I mainly wrote society news. He was the one who checked my information, revised and edited it. He didn't want me to deal with other areas. Especially crime and police. He said they weren't for women. On the other hand, that's what I enjoyed the most.

"He died February 11, 1975. I started working at El Mexicano the next month, March 13. They invited me to take over the society pages, because they knew my dad had trained me. I was there for four years, and then I asked the director to transfer me to general reporting. I insisted and insisted until he did.

"I'm sad my dad didn't live to see me make it all the way."

And that's just what she has done -- and during some of Tijuana's most volatile years.

"Twenty-some years ago when I started in the business, I knew and felt the restrictions and controls. My main interest was to write stories that would be printed. I felt that in Baja California, all media was controlled by the government. When I worked with local papers, sometimes the [political] line they had didn't accord with what I was trying to write. Or sometimes they would just fire me because I didn't follow the line they set."

She left El Mexicano after working there for eight years. By the time she joined El Heraldo, things were changing. "I was sub-director [deputy editor] there. We were the first ones to handle the investigations of the killing of [Zeta columnist] Héctor 'Gato' Félix Miranda. This was 1988. We were the first to say openly that everything pointed to [racetrack owner] Jorge Hank Rhon. [Hank denied guilt and was never charged.] That was when nobody knew where the investigation was going, what direction it was taking. We even published it before Zeta. We interviewed Jorge Hank. A huge number of people bought the paper."

She says the paper's owner, then-governor of Baja California, Roberto de la Madrid, had initially given the green light for full coverage of the murder.

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