To meet Davis, I spent 20 minutes passing through consulate security. A series of large concrete traffic dividers painted Day-Glo orange create an irregular perimeter around the consulate. A dozen or so gray-uniformed guards, all Mexican nationals, patrol this perimeter. The guards wear laminated ID tags that, on the back, describe in English and Spanish the symptoms of exposure to biological and chemical agents.
Sitting on a slight rise across the street from the Tijuana racetrack, the consulate, built in 1961, is a spare three-story rectangular structure faced in white marble. The building's simplicity, and its proximity to, of all things, a racetrack, suggest an era when American power in general and America's relationship with Mexico were less complex. If the consulate's present security arrangement appears provisional, it's because, as Liza Davis told me, the State Department is now looking to buy land for a new and much larger Tijuana consulate. Real estate prices in central Tijuana mean that the new consulate will likely be built farther out.
"The consulate's permanent staff," Davis said, "are already dreading the commute."
Before I could meet Davis, I had to pass through the security booth on the consulate's west side, where two armed guards flanked a heavily reinforced window. Another guard, behind the window, communicated via intercom with all visitors. Inside the booth, three other guards manned an X-ray machine and metal detector. No cigarettes, cigarette lighters, or matches, no cell phones or other "electronic equipment" are allowed to be taken into the consulate. The guards examined my blazer and my blazer's pockets. They examined my shoulder bag and its contents. There was debate as to whether or not my tape recorder constituted "electronic equipment." While one guard made calls regarding the tape recorder, another scrutinized my photo ID and business card. The phone rang: my tape recorder could enter the consulate.
The consulate's lobby resembles every waiting room you've ever seen in any U.S. government agency: rows of plastic chairs face a wall of bank-teller-type windows. Above the windows hang framed headshots of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. (As of this writing, the consulate had yet to receive Secretary Rice's official photograph from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.) To the lobby's left, a massive metal gate opens to a stairwell leading to the consulate's offices. Upstairs, the surroundings would soothe even the most ardent small-government zealot. Bookcases packed with books on American art, history, and literature line narrow hallways. Posters about Fulbright scholarships adorn office doors. If anything, the consulate's offices resemble those of a small community college.
"I have many bosses. My ultimate boss is, of course, the Secretary of State," Davis said when I finally sat down with her. "But my orders, writ large, come from the ambassador in Mexico City. He is the president's representative in Mexico. He is the highest-ranking U.S. government official in Mexico. What he says goes in Mexico. Also, my boss is the public affairs officer at the embassy in Mexico City. He's technically in charge of the public affairs programming in Mexico. I also report to the consul general here. And I also report to the Western Hemisphere Bureau at the State Department in Washington.
"If the ambassador wants to do something in a big policy way, if he wants to change U.S. policy in Mexico, I'm not doing that. And I'm not talking directly to Washington about that, nor should I be. That's all going through the U.S. embassy in Mexico City to the State Department and sometimes to the White House. As far as the consul general here is concerned, his boss is the ambassador.
"We have about 125 employees in Tijuana. We've got two facilities, this one here and one down in the Zona Rio district, which is just for visa processing. We have foreign service staff, and civil service staff -- people who commute from San Diego, and what we now call 'locally engaged staff' -- Mexican citizens, like my assistant Lorena Blanco. For most of the foreign service staff, a tour at this consulate is three years, and you can extend for an additional year. The civil service and locally engaged staff are permanent.
"In the foreign service, on your first tour you are what we call an 'entry-level officer.' The way it works now is that as an entry-level officer, your first tour is what we call a 'visa tour,' which is a two-year tour at a consulate or embassy somewhere in the world where you're going to do visa interviews. We have a lot of those entry-level officers here in Mexico, and we've got five or six here in Tijuana. So, any given summer there are three or four entry-level officers rotating in or out. And next summer, I will leave and the consul general will leave. It's not fixed: everybody's on their own schedule. It's not like the House of Representatives, where every two years everybody's reelected. Here, it's staggered."
With a constantly changing staff, who maintains the consulate's institutional memory?
"To a large extent it's our locally engaged staff. That's why every embassy and consulate has a majority of locally engaged staff. My staff, for example, are professional staff members. Lorena is like a media executive in many senses. She's in charge of all our press relations, and it's her job to maintain those relations no matter who the public affairs officer is. Lorena knows who all the players are in the media."
Davis's manner was casual and outgoing, and when I asked about her personal history, her accent changed, little by little, from generic American to soft Southern drawl.
"I was born and raised in Lexington, Virginia, three hours south of DC. I majored in German at the University of Virginia, and I have yet to serve in Germany. I had the classic liberal arts education. I also studied French and a little bit of Russian. You'll find that you really can't generalize about foreign service officers. There are a lot of international relations majors, journalists, everything. Some went to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, and some went to the University of Oregon. They come from all over.