February 20, 2008 / 8:45 PM / in 10 years

Drug war dampens Tijuana's booming art scene

TIJUANA (Reuters) - The seediness of this crime-hit border city inspires sculptor Raul Cardenas to make his cutting-edge art. But when stray bullets from a drug gang shootout shattered his studio window, he was forced to move to a safer part of the city.

“Two years ago it was different here, people wanted to come to Tijuana. Now every few days someone is kidnapped,” said Cardenas, who makes conceptual sculptures in the sprawling city of factories and shanty-towns just south of San Diego.

Tijuana, a city known since prohibition times as a haven for Americans looking for a tawdry vacation, has gained a reputation as a cultural hotbed since artists began setting up here in the early 1990s and turning the heads of international curators with unique, often political art.

But a recent spike in violence is putting a cramp on the cultural scene as tourists flee and galleries shut doors.

Mexico’s drug war is boiling over in Tijuana with over 300 people killed here last year, overwhelming residents accustomed to common crime but not to so much bloodshed.

A consortium of smugglers from the Pacific state of Sinaloa, led by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, is waging war against other cartels. Drug gang killers have dumped severed human heads on streets and scrawled ominous messages on their victims’ corpses.

President Felipe Calderon responded to the violence by deploying 25,000 troops around the country in an unprecedented campaign and now traffickers fight daytime gun battles in crowded neighborhoods with the army and police.

Tijuana’s bawdy bars and seedy streets where prostitutes lean against open doorways have attracted free-living artists, photographers and musicians from both sides of the border. But the growing drug violence is turning some away.

Glenna Jennings, a California photographer who collaborates with U.S. and Mexican artists in Tijuana, wanted to open a gallery for performance art in one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods, “Colonia Libertad.”

“The recent violence has had an effect on our plans and things have been ‘tabled’ for the moment,” Jennings said.

She now works in the lively port town of Ensenada an hour south of Tijuana, which along with nearby Rosarito also has a blossoming art scene. But violence is spreading there too.


One brazen case hit the news last November when a group of heavily-armed men snatched the body of a fellow trafficker from a morgue in Ensenada to thwart a police investigation.

Bad publicity is spooking American visitors, said Rosarito gallery owner Lorena Mancilla. “Tourists in general, but mostly art buyers, have stopped coming,” she said.

Cardenas, his new studio now in a residential neighborhood, says everyone in town knows someone who has been snatched and held for ransom as drug smugglers hit by Calderon’s crackdown look for new ways to make money. Some victims return without fingers, others never come home.

But Cardenas, like many others, finds inspiration in the cultural mix along the U.S.-Mexico border and doesn’t want to leave.

For a recent museum piece, he sewed satellite-positioning systems into the clothes of five people who regularly cross the border and traced their movements back and forth on a series of colorful maps.

One artists’ collective called Bulbo has started a discussion group loosely modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous to help people cope with the rough side of life in Tijuana.

Marcos Ramirez, whose studio overlooks the border, is creating an installation at a Texas gallery around video of him machine-gunning a car, a commentary on the violence.

“I make art to balance out all the evil,” said Ramirez, who is known in the art world as by his signature “ERRE.” “Many people can’t handle Tijuana. I’m fascinated by it, but I’m crazy,” he said.

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