You pass through the clanging melody of the steel revolving border gate, past the sizzling meats and radishes and spicy cucumbers in a dozen taco stands, over the stinky Tijuana River, through the paseos with their tequila whistles and barking vendors and onto Avenida Revolución.
You're entering Mexico at a time of great change and great promise. If your senses tell you that this is the old Mexico, they will betray you.
This is the new Mexico.
Down the paseo leading from the border to Revolución, a shopkeeper in a liquor and curio shop is putting away his sidewalk bargains. On the day before the presidential election, he's intrusively asked, "Which of the candidates will be the next president."
With a sly look, he picks up a bottle of amber tequila and points to the liquid inside. "This one," he says.
So Mexican. It is code, clever and obtuse. It is classic Mexico, the onion that you can peel away one layer at a time and never discover the core, the meaning, the absolute truth.
He's saying that the Yellow Party, the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), and its populist champion, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, will win. Six years of President Vicente Fox and his business-oriented PAN (Party of National Action), and nothing has happened. "Everybody in this country is going to vote yellow," he predicted.
But he is quick to note that, in the end, the candidates are "all the same." In that despair is a peel of the onion. The winner really may not make a difference in Mexico, the country that has long moaned, "So far from God, so close to the United States."
As if to fulfill the prophecy of the tequila vendor, the election results late Sunday night have left Mexico in despair and frustration. Like a bad rerun of the U.S. elections of 2000, candidates Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon of the PAN party are locked in a dead heat.
Mexican election officials, who only days earlier had predicted they would announce the new president in record time, on the evening of the election, backed down and said it might be days before the real winner would be known.
Both Lopez Obrador and Calderon immediately went on Mexican TV Sunday night and declared that their polls and those of neutral parties showed they had each won the election. President Fox appealed for calm even as individual Mexicans wondered if once again an election would be stolen.
Yet the confusion, and the potential political meltdown that may begin in the next few days were a bright indication, according to many Mexican political observers.
On the afternoon of the election, José Negrete, a professor at the Colegio de La Frontera in Tijuana, celebrated the closest election in Mexico's history. "This is the first time there has not been a clear frontrunner. In the history of Mexico this is the first time there is not a clear winner. The coin is in the air."
This week the coin, a Mexican peso, is in the air. While Negrete rejoiced in the competitiveness and fierce campaigning and the fact that no political party had a hammerlock on Mexican democracy, other pundits worried that Mexicans might take to the streets. That appears more and more unlikely, particularly given that even if a victor emerges this week, he will not control Congress and his agenda can only be pushed ahead with a coalition with other parties.
No matter who wins, "each of the candidates will have to find a consensus with the other parties," said Negrete.
Just as optimistic about Mexico's political future was Sughei Villa, a political scientist at the Universidad Autonomous campus in Tijuana. "This election has given us greater options than we had previously, and the voters have confidence that the vote will be respected."
Given the closeness of the election and the split decision in the Mexican Congress, the election will probably mean more of the same for Mexico's economy and society, even if its political system continues to mature into a strong democracy.
Emigrants will continue to flee the countryside, where jobs in rural agriculture are evaporating as fast as spilled tequila on a barroom floor. The rich will get richer, the poor poorer and the middle class will barely grow. China will continue to eclipse Mexico as the No. 2 U.S. trading partner (after Canada) and Americans will continue to snap up every beach view from Ensenada to Baja to Chiapas.
The excruciatingly close race means that Mexico is as politically and ideologically polarized as the United States, with voters in the north, along the border, overwhelmingly calling for more jobs, more safety from crime and less regulation of business. In the central and rural areas of the country, the voters called for beans and corn, help for the poor and a stronger safety net as Mexican workers are rudely shoved into the global marketplace.
Lopez Obrador, who was known during the campaign by his initials AMLO, ran on a platform of rolling back parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), particularly the portions that will open Mexico up to a flood of cheap American grain products that will obliterate the peasant farm class in rural Mexico. The pro-business PAN candidate, Felipe Calderon, embraced NAFTA and argued it is the only way to bootstrap Mexico's poor into the middle class.
Economic statistics tell a grim Mexican tale. Not unlike the rest of Latin America, Mexican growth has barely budged in the last 20 years. By international yardsticks, more than 50 million of Mexico's 106 million people live in poverty (that means less than $4 in income per day). A third of Mexico's rural jobs have disappeared, a major reason why 400,000 Mexicans enter the U.S. without documents every year and the bulk of the United States' 12 million undocumented workers have come here in the last decade.
Lopez Obrador and his folksy, populist rallies, where his motto was "Smile, we're going to win," has made no secret of his disdain for the Mexican elite, that 10 percent of the population that controls almost half of all the nation's wealth.
His opponents, led by huge infusions of money from the business community and the overwhelmingly conservative media, have attacked AMLO with advertising showing him with Venezuelan progressive President Hugo Chavez and charges that an AMLO presidency would bring financial catastrophe to Mexico.
But whether Lopez Obrador can roll back NAFTA, or lift his nation's poor, is uncertain at best and unlikely at worst.
On election day, inside one of the PRD's neighborhood campaign offices, Roberto Davalos reflected on the campaign that has changed the Mexican political landscape. Since he was 14 years old, he has been involved in politics. But he started as a worker for the PRI. He left the PRI 17 years ago to work for Lopez Obrador's PRD, joining what he called a "democratic current" that left the ossified PRI party structure behind to build a new, more open political party. Others from the PRI will join him, he says, because they will want to "walk through the door to democracy."
Overlooked in most of the political punditry in the U.S. is the fact that Mexico's political landscape over the last four elections, dating back to 1988 (presidents in Mexico serve only one six-year term), has splintered like a piñata bashed with a 2-by-4. Unfortunately for Mexicans, there were no sweets spilling out of this bashed-in toy.
For 60 years up until 1988, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) had a hammerlock on Mexican politics. They ran the unions and the national oil company, and they doled out election-day payoffs like a well-greased ATM. But in 1988, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of storied Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas, won the election. The ruling PRI party stopped the vote count and did not resume it for a week, during which the Cardenas victory disappeared.
But the damage was done. Reforms instituted before the 1994 election led to one of the cleanest elections in history, won by the PRI, but largely because of the conservative nature of Mexican voters and the perception that a PRI loss would lead to social, economic and political chaos. Not so by 2000, when businessman Fox, representing the business-oriented PAN party, handily beat the PRI candidate.
But Fox's tenure has been checkered. He's made no impact on the narcotics trade or the grip of the narcotics traffickers on Baja California and huge swaths of rural Mexico. The economy has been stagnant, though inflation and the value of the peso have been maintained at respectable levels. Fox built his political credibility on a partnership with U.S. President George Bush, who in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, all but ignored Mexico. (Mexico was ready to vote against the U.S. on the Security Council on the Iraqi War, a move that so infuriated Bush that for five months he refused to meet even in private with Fox.)
At the Juana Maria Salva Tierra school in the far eastern outskirts of Tijuana, it's easy to see why PAN's Calderon did so well. As election officials pulled handfuls of ballots from ballot boxes and began counting them out in public, under the watchful eyes of election observers from every party, Calderon was receiving eight out of every 10 votes cast.
Carlos Nuñez Coca was among the voters putting his black X on the PAN presidential ballot. "They are a more democratic party," the mid-level manager for a major Mexican corporation explained. "The PAN is the most important party because it intelligently combines politics and religion."
His friend, San Diego social worker Sara Aguilar Ochoa, agreed, saying she felt the PAN was closest to the Democratic Party in the U.S. "It's a voice for the people, and I'm the people. They are going to create jobs so people don't have to go to the U.S. You have families being divided, and being from one of those families I know what it feels like."
Ochoa is part of the generation of workers who regularly cross the border-she lives near Rosarito and works in San Diego. She grew up in East L.A. but has returned to her native Mexico. Her experience trying to vote illustrates the glitches that still exist in a system that hand-counted the 60 million votes cast Sunday.
Ochoa went to at least three different polling casillas and was not on any of the lists. She was angered by the oversight and at one point accused a PRI election observer of trying to steal her vote. An hour later, she was still fuming. "Why can't they get this right?"
She was not alone in anger.
Many U.S. residents who hold Mexican citizenship found long lines at the handful of special casillas set up for their vote. At the Special One precinct in the Torre Agua Caliente park, a line snaked through the park and down the street. Yesenia Garcia's husband stood in the line for her. He had been there for two hours at midday and estimated he would be there for another two hours before he would find out if his wife could vote.
From the shade of a nearby tree, Garcia, who lives in Spring Valley, insisted that this, her first vote of her life, was worth the hassle. "This is a very important election. Mexico is coming into a very important time." Like most of the voters interviewed for this story, Garcia refused to say who she would vote for, but she did ominously warn that "one of the candidates is very bad. I came down to do something better for my country and my people."
This polarization is what Calderon counted on to mobilize the middle class and business class to vote against leftist Obrador.
Calderon at one point led in the polls by a wide margin after unleashing a barrage of anti-Lopez Obrador advertising spots. But Obrador pulled even in the last weeks of the campaign by attacking Calderon's honesty and mobilizing a huge wave of voters in rural Mexico.
The splintering of Mexico's political landscape has left one more peel of the onion. The PRI ran Mexico for 60 years with an iron hand because it controlled the presidency and the Congress, made up of a 500-member Chamber of Deputies (like the U.S. House of Representatives) and a 128-member Senate. In 1997 the PRI lost control of the Congress and though Fox's PAN partly briefly controlled it in the early part of this decade, Fox quickly lost that control in a series of midterm elections. All polling and early election results indicate that no party will control either house of the Mexican Congress-the new president will not be able to easily get legislation through, let alone lead a juggernaut of change and reform.
While a Lopez Obrador win would likely provide theatrical anti-U.S. rhetoric, the facts would remain that two-thirds of the investment in Mexico comes from the U.S. and Mexican workers in the U.S. would continue to send back remittances to Mexico between $20 billion and $25 billion (in all, foreign workers send $39 billion out of the U.S. every year). And while the U.S. postures long and hard about illegal immigration from Mexico, it badly needs Mexican factories to produce cheap components for American products that must compete in the increasingly competitive global markets (80 percent of U.S. trade with Mexico is companies moving their own goods over the border).
In fact, there are some Mexican observers who believe that the new president will be deadlocked so often by the split Congress that voter dissatisfaction with all the Mexican political parties will turn into a messy mole far more bitter than sweet. (Mexico's system for electing Congress is one of the last remnants of the PRI's stranglehold on the country. Forty percent of all the members of Congress represent no district and have no constituents. They are appointed based on the local voter results for each party, and because the PRI has the best local organizations, they maintain a disproportionate number of members of Congress, who are loyal to party demands, not voters. Because PRD is a coalition of progressive parties and has very little local organizing muscle, it will do poorly in this distribution of seats.)
Thus the irony of the election is that while it has clearly demonstrated that Mexico has entered the exclusive club of mature democracies, it has set the stage for voter backlash seeking a new strongman, like a Peron or a Chavez or a Castro.
While poor Mexicans-about half of the country-want a better life, many PAN voters were motivated by the dream of a safer, saner life. Yet even crime may be part of the onion that is Mexico.
Take the sudden spate of beheadings in Mexico that began in April in Acapulco. On April 20, in that luxurious resort city that sits in the middle of the hottest narco zone in the Southern Hemisphere, the head of the city's police commander was placed in front of a state finance building with a note nearby saying, "So that you learn respect." Next to the commander's head was the head of a fellow police officer. Both had been in an earlier shootout with known narcotics traffickers.
The commander was one of the 140 police officers killed this year in the hot zone of Guerrero and Michoacan, states that have always typified the unruly side of Mexico's romantic image (Acapulco is in Guerrero, where, during the '70s and '80s, guerillas were active, while Michoacan always had the reputation for growing the best marijuana during the same period). Today the two states are the Main Street for an Old West-style shootout between the current narco gangs, the Sinaloa Boys and the Gulf Boys. It should be noted that pot, while still an elegant and romantic part of the drug industry in Mexico, has been rapidly replaced by methamphetamine, the poor man's cocaine. Because meth can be produced in huge quantities for relatively cheap prices, and because there's such a huge demand among America's working and under class, meth is now the cash cow of Mexico's Narco Boys.
The beheadings are an ominous twist for Mexico's gangs. While there are certainly some Iraqi War influences here, the more interesting onion peel would take us to San Salvador two years ago, when the dreaded Mara Salvatrucha gang, which traces its roots to Southern California, began beheading people to make a point in El Salvador.
The beheadings did not stop with the Acapulco police commander. In early June, a head washed up on an Acapulco beach that had normally only offered up Coronas and blanket vendors. On June 30, two heads appeared in Acapulco, one in front of the main entrance to City Hall and another outside the residence of a city employee connected to the Acapulco mayor. Media speculation is that the heads are the work of the Zetas, an outlaw group of former government agents now working for the drug cartels.
The drug cartels don't just go after police. In late October of last year, a popular Tijuana priest was gunned down in his Thunderbird, and the press accounts made it sound like a gangland shooting. That killing brought out the scorekeepers who noted that Tijuana's homicide count in 2005 broke all records, approaching 400, with the vast majority the result of Old West shootouts among drug traffickers or organized hits on police, prosecutors and wayward cartel members.
The beheadings and lawlessness have now spread to Baja, in the popular tourist town of Ensenada. On June 21, three Mexican police officers went to investigate a caravan of trucks cruising through Ensenada filled with heavily armed men. The three officers were kidnapped and their heads tossed in the Tijuana River the next day. In fact, armed militias working for the drug cartels have brazenly engaged in kidnappings, shootouts and robberies on the streets of Tijuana in broad daylight.
Conspiracy theorists speculated that the brutal run-up to Sunday's election was intended to scare voters, who in Mexico are traditionally conservative and Catholic. In Mexico's shaky democratic period since 1988, safety fears have played a role in keeping voters in the camps of the established PRI or the conservative PAN.
In an analysis of Mexican voter attitudes, Roderic Camp produced a landmark report earlier this year that noted that while unemployment was the biggest concern among voters in 1994, today public security is far and away the biggest concern, with more than twice as many people considering it a reason to vote for a candidate as unemployment. Interestingly, corruption has always been the least of Mexico voter concerns, according to Camp.
Perhaps most interesting-and this is something American observers often lose sight of-is that when Mexicans are asked to rank their social institutions in terms of positive feelings, the Church and the armed forces always rank the highest, year after year. The lowest: political parties and the police.
In the aftermath of Sunday's historic Mexican vote, remember a few important points as we push through the clanging doors of the border gate, or rush down the Baja peninsula bound for the palapas and surf breaks of the beautiful Baja.
Mexico is not cheap Viagra. It is cheap medicines for middle-class Americans without prescription drug insurance.
Mexico is not a fiesta. It is a culture that actually enjoys being with its family and going to church with humility on Sunday.
Mexico is not a whore. It is our younger sister, beautiful and provocative, but innocent and unfulfilled.
Mexico is not a danger. It is the source of Southern California's brawn and entrepreneurs, its diligence and determination.
Mexico is not a real-estate deal with beach views. It is 106 million people that would like to have a house.
Mexico is that onion, and its road to democracy has been very sweet if at times producing tears of despair.
In the days leading up to the election, the Mexican people, explained Professor Negrete, were "anxious" about not knowing who would win. After decades of having the victor predetermined by the political elites of Mexico, it is a new experience to have a closely contested election and an uncertain outcome.
"What you in the United States have enjoyed for many years, it is very new for us," he explained. "We will reach great heights with this election."
Arturo Vazquez provided reporting assistance for this story.