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— The journalists here had expected to be hearing all this from Perla Ibarra Leyva, the secretary of public security in the city government. Instead, de la Torre turned up. Some journalists muttered dark thoughts about a power struggle in city hall. But the hot interest is on how fairly de la Torre's cops are enforcing cero tolerancia. Particularly as Frontera, the town's new daily, has snapped a picture of Tijuana's mayor, Francisco Vega de la Madrid, in his car without a seat belt, and nobody has prosecuted him.

De la Torre gives his speech. Photographers and TV cameras get their shots. Los Madrugadores members shoot questions. I notice a reporter scribbling what looks like a poem. And behind him, a poor-looking artist with a paper block and charcoal has started sketching the three speakers. "I just do it as a gift to them," says Francisco Javier Octavio Ramirez Halder.

But the real news scuffle starts when de la Torre apologizes for leaving early and strides outside. A dozen reporters swarm out behind him. One asks if he's happy with the results of Zero Tolerance. "Personally, I think it's very satisfactory. I see that we have gained about 30 percent [in fines for traffic infractions]. Drivers are doing their stops [correctly at lights], and they're looking all around, because they know that if they commit a traffic violation, and there's a patrol car close by, they will be ticketed."

Three or four reporters hit him with what the street is saying: that Zero Tolerance is just a scam for the city -- and the cops -- to make more money. This annoys de la Torre enough to stop him in his tracks. "I've said it before. It is not a means to make more money. We are basically enforcing a code, that was approved, which values life and controls traffic and makes for a more orderly city, which is what the citizens deserve."

"But aren't you afraid that there'll be more extortion?" asks a reporter. "What are you going to do about that?"

"We have doubled supervision. We have internal investigators, we have you, the media, and we have the public prosecutors. If uniformed officers try to pressure [drivers for bribe money], they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We also ask citizens that they don't bring back old customs of giving money to the police officers, easy money. Because then both parties would be [liable]. Now officers have better conditions -- better salaries, other privileges. If there are any concrete accusations, we will not be soft-hearted."

Then he turns to me. "And every now and then we have those shaved-heads coming down from Barrio Logan and other [San Diego] places disturbing the peace and order here. Especially on the weekends. We will definitely apply Zero Tolerance to them too. We are not going to allow that."

His men close in. They hustle him down the steps to a waiting smoked-glass black Chevy Suburban with four antennae on top and escort wagons fore and aft. In a moment he's bundled in and they're gone.

Back in the Minaret Room, the Madrugadores are praising Dr. Gustavo Almaraz Echegaray, one of their founders who died recently. After a speech and a minute of silence, they induct a new member. He rolls up in his wheelchair to receive his papers and Madrugadores pin. As he returns, everybody, including the journalists, pats him on the shoulder and says "bien merecido" ("well deserved"). Then the journalist who was writing the poem gets up and reads. It turns out it is an epigram -- a poem based on the letters of the speakers' names. The whole room laughs and applauds. The wit is too quick for me to catch.

But isn't this all too cozy to be taken seriously as an independently reported political debating forum? Zeta political columnist Adela Navarro Bella doesn't think so. "It's a very serious group. Serious and respectable. Businessmen from the traditional, established families of Tijuana. They try not to define themselves [politically]. They try to be open and middle-of-the-road, in the best sense. They invite speakers of all different colors. These rooms become stages for politicians to talk about their platform, to get their ideas out."

And politicians don't come to the Madrugadores just because the press is there, Navarro says. "The members themselves are important people to try to convince. Madrugadores and other groups have made themselves platforms for ideas. They contribute to diversifying the democratic life of the city."

Victor Clark Alfaro, who spoke to the Madrugadores last year, isn't quite so sure. He says he didn't fit their traditional brand of politics. Clark runs the often-controversial Tijuana-based Binational Center for Human Rights. "All of the [members] are middle-class and upper-middle class. It is true that they try to keep their group politically above the fray. But they don't like people who question authority. They questioned me a lot and hard. They'd say, 'You human-rights activists are defending the bad guys, the delinquents.' Some didn't appreciate the fact I help Mixtec Indian street sellers. My impression is that their [sympathies] are with the establishment."

* * *

For this year's coming election battles, Héctor Santillán believes the Madrugadores won't be able to snare the top contenders such as PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) presidential candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa. "That will be difficult," says Santillán. "Presidential candidates want multitudes. Big groups. So we are going to concentrate on inviting our senators and deputies up for congressional positions in Baja California, for senators and congressmen at the federal level. But we'll have them here, no matter which party. We'll invite all of them."

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