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— Where does democracy thrive in Tijuana? Some say right here, in the Minaret Room of the Club Campestre. Of course, this is not really Tijuana. The Tijuana you know throbs and honks and grinds a hundred yards outside, in the madness of Agua Caliente Boulevard.

But here behind the walls of the Club Campestre -- the Tijuana Country Club -- the dew still sparkles on green lawns that roll over hilly slopes. It's 7:30 on a Thursday morning. Blue and white luxury condos look down from their favored fraccionamiento of Chapultepec. You swear you hear the chock! of someone hitting a golf ball. Elegant middle-aged joggers puff up to the building and shuck their New Balance running shoes through the shoe brushes. Signs direct you to the restaurant or to the tennis and racquetball courts or golf-putting range or the pool.

Or to the Minaret Room, named for a nearby blue and yellow minaret thrusting up over a onetime Moorish-style casino. For two hours every Thursday morning, this room feels like the nexus of power in Tijuana, where powerful personalities rub shoulders, talk about their golf swings, and question the region's leaders. Tijuana's press comes to observe. Think of the traditional photograph you see so often on the front page of Tijuana papers like El Mexicano. It's always a group of important people sitting at a linen-covered conference table strewn with plates and glasses and microphones. Most often, those pictures come from here.

This is the meeting place of the madrugadores. "The Early Risers." There are other breakfast-and-guest-speaker clubs, like Grupo 21, or the Thursday Club, or the Lázaro Cárdenas group, but Los Madrugadores are the ones who started it all.

Throughout this election year, local, state, and national politicians will make their pilgrimage to this small conference room, knowing that what they say will make all the papers and radio and TV in town. That's guaranteed because this meeting is a staple for journalists. They have quotas of stories to meet each day, and this one's a sure bet. Plus, here they get a big breakfast for free.

Today, Alfredo de la Torre Márquez, Tijuana's police chief, is the guest speaker who will butter the journalists' bread. He was invited to publicize the city's "zero tolerance" initiative against bad drivers and criminals.

Right now, the doors are still locked. There is only the quiet chat of passing Club Campestre members. A solitary photographer turns up, heaving his gear along the courtyard. "Coffee," he says, like a legionnaire croaking for water. "Aren't they open yet?"

Someone finally unlocks the door to the Minaret room.

It's longtime board member Héctor Santillán Muñoz, dapper, fresh, and smartly dressed in suit and tie. He wears the red, green, and silver Madrugadores pin on his lapel. It's shaped into a gallito (rooster) wearing a crown and standing on the letters "Tijuana."

Santillán owns curio shops on Avenida Revolución, among other investments. "Welcome," he says. "I don't know where everybody is. But we'll be starting 8:30 as usual, sharp." He's been with the Madrugadores for all but 2 of their 25 years. "It is the first group to have a breakfast devoted to political or cultural or economical or social matters," he says.

Waiters set up heavy flatware on white and teal-green tablecloths. Hot pots of coffee come out for half a dozen men who look as if they're part of the organizing committee.

"Coffee," croaks the photographer at the far end. His name's Carlos, veteran of hundreds of these things.

By the time Santillán rings the club bell to call the meeting to order at 8:30, the place is rapidly filling. Maybe 40 men -- I see only men -- of the entrepreneurial and professional classes. Some in suits, others in jackets and sweaters. Then there's us, the press, at the far end of the U-shaped table, mostly heads-down in the pastries.

Santillán stands up and asks a pastor to deliver a benediction, while four waiters struggle out bearing the weight of a nine-foot-tall glass and aluminum case. A gold-tasseled Mexican flag stands inside, red, white, and green, with the eagle holding the snake in the middle. "Would you please stand for the flag," says Santillán.

The waiters slide the flag out of its case. Everybody stands and puts his right hand horizontally against his heart.

"Bandera, bandera de México," begins one of the board members. "Legado de nuestros héroes..."

Everybody in the room repeats his words. "Flag of Mexico, legacy of our heroes, symbol of the unity of our forefathers and of our brothers, we swear to you to be always faithful..."

Even the journalists stand rigidly at attention, intoning the words. The flag is returned to its case and carted off. Everybody relaxes.

"A very good morning, invited guests, members of the press and compañeros Madrugadores," begins Santillán. Down at the prensa end of the table, waiters take orders for breakfast. Omelets, puntas de filete (sirloin tips), or fruit and cornflakes. I struggle with my conscience. The free food is the unspoken sales point, the gesture regarded as the club's generous outreach to the press. But others see it as another way of taming them, assuring good write-ups and less critical coverage. I give in to a hollow stomach, a waiting waiter, and a feeling that I would offend my colleagues and hosts if I refused to eat.

As the speaker is introduced, Carlos the old photographer is still chafing for his coffee. Finally a waitress brings a steaming urn and plops it in front of him. He grabs her hand and kisses it, thanking her a thousand times.

"!Cero tolerancia!" says de la Torre, opening his speech. "Zero Tolerance will make Tijuana a safer place for our citizens." The policy, he says, is aimed at rule-breaking car drivers, mostly, but also for all wrongdoers in the city. "Every day we are more and more prepared, in order to encounter crime better and the insecurity. Today we received more equipment such as patrol cars and bullet-proof vests."

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