Tijuana civic leaders pledge allegiance to the Mexican flag in the Minaret Room
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.
Héctor Santillán Muñoz: "A very good morning, invited guests, members of the press and compañeros Madrugadores."
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."
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."