San Diego Edmundo Batista Rivera and Conrado Gaxiola Val, though business competitors, greet each other as old friends. Batista rises from his table at Azulejos restaurant in the Hotel Camino Real in Tijuana's Zona Rio, and the two smile, shake hands, and share a laugh or two before sitting down. Batista and Gaxiola own Metromundo and Gaxiopsa Publicidad, respectively, Tijuana companies that build billboards -- carteleras in Spanish. Though new billboards are popping up daily in the border city of more than two million, the two are not happy with the state of their trade. Batista begins the tale of his discontent with a little history.
"Many years ago, in the Avenida Revolución, we had billboards. But about ten years ago, the municipal government wanted to renovate Revolution Avenue, and they had about 20 billboards taken down. Now there are only one or two billboards in that area. It's a tourist area with lots of business. Personally, I think we should have billboards over there. But the municipal government won't give permits. And in this area, Rio Tijuana, the federal government decided not to issue permits to put billboards. Now this area is municipal, but in those days it was federal, and they wanted to keep the area clean. So we have tried to respect that order in Avenida Revolución and in the Rio area. But recently, in Mexico City, the municipal government stopped allowing new billboards and started taking billboards down. So many billboard companies, about 100 of them, are coming to the north, especially to Tijuana and Monterrey. And they're not respecting those restrictions."
Batista pauses to take a bite of sweetbread -- "With your permission," he says to his guests -- then continues his story. "These companies are arriving. They've got power. They've got money. They go to your home, to your building, and they pay you a lot of money, and they put up a unipolar on your property. It doesn't matter if there's a billboard there already. The unipolares they can make very high so that it is above one that's already there. It's very dangerous. This is what happened during a big storm in Mexico City." He shows his guests a photo clipped from a newspaper of a couple of large billboards that fell during a windstorm, crushing a small two-story building.
A unipolar is a large billboard, as large as 12 by 4 meters, supported by one heavy steel pole bolted to a concrete footing. It's not the added competition from the south that has Batista and Gaxiola upset, it's the manner in which the out-of-town companies are doing business. "These guys come from Mexico City with their big unipolar billboards," Gaxiola explains. "They come in the night, they put up the billboard in the dark with a big crane, all without a permit from the city. Then, when the municipal government asks for a permit, they just pay the fine and the billboard stays there."
The concrete footing, Batista says, they pour and cure days before they erect the billboard. "They dig a big hole there, usually behind a screen so you can't see what's going on, and they pour a big base. While it dries, they build the billboard somewhere else. Then they bring it on trucks, they lift it up with a crane, and bolt it onto the base. It takes maybe three hours."
The fine levied by the city for such nonpermitted billboard construction is, in Batista's estimation, laughable. "About 9000 pesos, $1000," he explains. "The maximum I've heard of is $1800. Now, Conrado and myself, we're not very powerful. But these companies have a lot of money. They can pay that fine very easily. A unipolar with two faces costs about $30,000 in materials. So when they get a $1000 fine, they just laugh."
Advertising clients for the new billboards are pre-arranged. "If they build it," Batista explains, "it's because they already have the client, usually a large Mexican company -- Corona, other breweries, cigars, brandy, or wine. If they don't pay the fine, sometimes the municipal government puts a sign that says canceled over it, but they just pay the fine and the billboard stays there."
Luis Valdivia is a Tijuana resident who directs Médicis Communications, an advertising firm with offices in Tijuana and San Diego. "There's a very bulky new billboard at the border crossing that has a big pole in the middle," Valdivia says, "and one side extends to the left and the other side extends to the right. Right now, on the left side, they just put up a sign for Barona Casino. On the right side, they put up a sign, I think, for Pardee Homes. With that particular billboard, the problem was it was placed on federal land. But the people who put it up didn't realize that, in addition to getting a federal permit, they needed a city permit, because the city controls whether you can put up a sign. So when they had put up the structure and were getting ready to put the signs up, the city closed it down and covered it with a bunch of stickers showing the word clausurado, which means closed by the authorities. The stickers stayed up for a few months. But starting on January first, they were able to put up the signs, so I guess they worked it out with the city."
In addition to the fly-by-night style of the out-of-towners, Gaxiola and Batista complain that the Mexico City companies are building in areas that the city has designated off-limits, particularly Revolution Avenue and the Rio zone, and getting away with it. "And they're putting up too many. You walk out the front door of this hotel," Batista, growing animated, says, "and glance either right or left, and you'll see eight, nine, ten billboards in one glance. I counted eight billboards on a building near here."
"That area of the Rio zone," Valdivia says, "where Paseo de los Héroes ends, there's one block where you see about five to seven structures, and each structure has 2 billboards, one on top of the other. You're talking about 10 to 14 different billboards at a glance. You generally have about six seconds to read a billboard. Which one are you going to read? Especially in an area where you're merging into traffic and you're watching out so that you don't crash into somebody."