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No tourists in Tijuana

Amid fears of drug-related violence and an economic downturn, Tijuana businesses suffer.

People walk past shuttered stores at Revolution Avenue in the border city of Tijuana May 13, 2008. (Stringer/Reuters)

TIJUANA, Mexico — In a starkly empty store filled with colorful Indian dresses, sprawling sombreros and quarts of tequila, vendor Humberto Beltran flicked angrily through the sales log.

“Look what we’ve sold this week. Today — nothing; yesterday — $5; the day before — $2,” he moaned, waving his hand across the empty pages. “We can’t live on this. What are we going do?”

Amid a U.S. recession, a fever pitch fear of the Mexican drug war and now an epidemic of swine flu sweeping across Mexico, Beltran says business at his border city store has nosedived 85 percent this April compared to the same time last year. (Read more about the toll the flu is taking in Mexico, and about how the flu shuttered Mexico's cantinas.)

Other shops that line Tijuana’s once thriving Revolution Avenue tell the same story: The American, European and Japanese tourists who once showered them with dollars, euros and yen are all staying firmly north of the fence in California.

This exodus of the gringos comes as Mexico faces its worst drug violence in recent history. The vast smuggling empire of Tijuana — home to the busiest border crossing on the planet — has been one of the flashpoints.

But many of the city’s politicians, tourist officials, and merchants blame the American media for hyping the problem to levels of hysteria and scaring the customers away.

“They are just trying to sell newspapers and they have portrayed an image that is unreal,” said Jahdiel Vargas, director of the Tourism and Convention Committee. “One story even compared Tijuana to Baghdad. That is just way over the top.”

Vargas and others are quick to point out that the bloodshed in Tijuana has actually declined dramatically between the fall and the spring.

In the last quarter of 2008, there were 515 murders in the city of about 1.6 million as two factions in the Tijuana cartel fought a bloody turf war. In the first quarter of this year, there were 108 killings, following a reported truce between the fighting factions.

Such details have escaped much of the U.S. media, which has focused on the general explosion of violence across Mexico over the last 18 months.

The state’s deputy attorney general, Salvador Ortiz, also feels that American media has spun the story out of control.

“Of course journalists must report on the violence but they can be irresponsible,” he said. “We must remember that the killings are not affecting regular tourists at all. If they were we would let them know straight away.”

Ortiz said that two Americans who were recently murdered — a pizza shop owner decapitated in February and a California deliveryman stabbed on the beach in March — may themselves have been mixed up in crime and drugs.

Store owner Beltran even goes as far as to accuse U.S. business interests of actually conspiring to give Tijuana bad press.

“Cities like San Diego are losing business because of the recession, so they try and stop tourists coming into Tijuana to keep them there and make up a few extra dollars,” Ortiz said.