Colorful Mexican Pinata Street Oaxaca Juarez Mexico
Credit: iStock

TIJUANA, MEXICO — Zonkeys are a unique animal inhabiting this Mexican border town and found mainly along the central commercial drag on Avenida Revolución. A zonkey is a donkey painted white with dark zebra stripes in order to stand out in its unnatural habitat and attract both sober and drunk visitors onto their saddles and into pricey tourist photos.

Zonkeys are a symbol of this border town and, like so much else here, appear to be one thing but are actually another.

Tijuana is portrayed as crime-ridden, dirty, impoverished and a destination for caravaning Central Americans seeking to cross the border into the United States. It is a wall—and fence—riven city with steel stakes that are piled not only across the polluted, national boundary crossing the Tijuana River but also along streets, onto beaches and far into the water on the Pacific Ocean’s shore. That is the sight you see when standing on a bridge or in a high-rise building looking north.

What you don’t see is actually quite different.

Tijuana is not only the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere, it is one of the fastest growing and most important cities in 21st century Mexico. With congressional passage of the new and improved NAFTA free-trade accord—now known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)—Tijuana is poised to take off toward a stronger and more stable future.

Despite USMCA’s economic promise, there are plenty of things that have not changed over the years: Americans regularly cross the border by car or on foot to shop for prescription medications from Mexico’s highly regulated and discounted pharmaceuticals. While college kids still come to this city for its boisterous bar scene and drink recklessly, more visitors come to town seeking legal drugs: cheaper insulin, blood pressure meds, over-the-counter ibuprofen creams and inexpensive statins. Makeshift border shops with big, hand-painted signs promising a 70 percent discount from U.S. prices push prescription drugs, while on downtown streets, clean, well-lighted pharmacies leave American visitors bewildered at the astronomically high cost of drugs and healthcare at home.

Licit and illicit drugs flow north, and so do people. Unchanged over the decades is that Tijuana is the prime staging point for migrants trrying to enter the United States. In 1996, I spent a day with a special unit of a Mexican federal policing force known as “Grupo Beta.” We visited groups of migrants throughout the city that were gathering to make the illegal crossing. Driving around the Tijuana River levees in unmarked Ford LTDs, members of Grupo Beta stopped to check on huddled clusters of people along the riverbanks. The plainclothes officers’ goal was to make sure these itinerants heading to el Norte were safe from being ripped off, rolled or raped by local gangs or law enforcement. These service-oriented cops were working to keep migrants safe in Tijuana. They were not there to stop them from crossing the border. In fact, Grupo Beta regularly offered advice on the best times and locations for a safe and successful crossing into the United States.

Times have changed, and so have border politics. Now, Mexico has agreed both to keep Central American and other migrants and asylum seekers on Mexican soil with the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Tijuana’s foreign population is swelling with those seeking northern refuge and entry. New groups of Asians and Africans are on the streets, creating temporary homes. Haitians work the streets hawking inexpensive goods.

Tijuana’s character and complexion are changing. The once marginal prosperity brought by the initial influx of American manufacturing at maquiladoras is now a stream of revenue and budding strength with the looming prospect of a successful USMCA. Large full-service condominiums built near the border promise elder care and “medical tourism” for adventurous American expats who want to stretch their Social Security checks.

Tijuana’s booming tourist economy is overtaken by manufacturing. American and foreign companies moved just south of the border to remain competitive. They can still take advantage of the labor cost differential, but less able to exploit workers in unsafe conditions. There are around 600 Tijuana-based manufacturers working in industries ranging from automotive to aerospace. If the USMCA deal gets over the finish line, investors will have greater certainty for corporate planning and financing.

USMCA is not all business. The deal promises a better environment and quality of life. The deal includes $300 million for border water clean-up plans, including the Tijuana River, swollen with toxic sewage and effluvia that flows — and sometimes overflows — into California (Disclosure: My wife, California’s lieutenant governor, works on cross-border issues).

Tijuana is still a border town with border problems. Like the zonkey, however, it may look like a freshened-up old nag, but it has a lot of kick in it.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).