When the mayor of Tijuana refused to apologize for comments he made about a caravan of Central American migrants, the coalition of human rights groups who demanded his contrition couldn’t say they were surprised.
Because Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum, a 65-year-old attorney born in this border city, is never sorry.
“No, no, I’m not going to apologize,” he said, defiantly. “Better that those who are against Tijuana apologize to us.”
A veteran member of Mexico’s conservative National Action Party, Gastélum was elected Tijuana’s mayor in 2016, a year with a crowded field when only about a third of the city’s 1.29 million voters cast ballots. He won his seat with less than a quarter of the votes cast.
Gastélum served in both state and federal office as a legislator. He also served as the president of his political party, PAN, in Tijuana.
Since his election, the mayor has struggled with his approval ratings. A well-established Mexican polling company, PluralMx, reported in March 2018 that only 4 percent of Tijuana residents approved of Gastélum.
But polls and political observers note his support among Tijuana residents has increased since he spoke out against the migrant caravan.
A PluralMx poll released on Jan. 9 has Gastélum leading against any other potential candidates for mayor by several percentage points. Victor Alejandro Espinosa, a political analyst at Tijuana’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte, compared it to President Donald Trump galvanizing his base of voters in the United States.
Just as Trump wins support among a specific segment of the U.S. population when he uses inflammatory rhetoric, there are certain segments of the population in Tijuana that Gastélum has been able to mobilize by playing to their fears of migrant populations, Espinosa said.
“It is a shame, but this could help explain the positive trajectory of support for the mayor among this segment of the Tijuana population,” he said.
Gastélum is the first Tijuana mayor eligible to run for reelection under a Baja California constitutional reform that eliminated a longstanding rule that mayors cannot succeed themselves in office. He has already pulled papers for his reelection bid.
Fluent in English, partly from attending fifth and sixth grade at the former Robert E. Lee (now Pacific View Leadership) elementary school in San Diego, Gastélum sat down in his spotless office in Palacio Municipal in Tijuana for an interview with the Union-Tribune last week.
“Tijuana is a migrant town,” he explained. “We’re barely 129 years old. My mom was a migrant. My grandparents were migrants. So, we are not afraid of migration. What we do not want is bad behavior.”
Gastélum said he defined “bad behavior” as smoking marijuana and rushing the border, which he conceded only a small percentage of the larger group participated in.
Tijuana officials said they arrested about 280 of about 6,000 Central American migrants whose voyage north stalled in Tijuana. Those arrests were for petty crimes such as drug possession, public intoxication and disturbing the peace.
Some members of the caravan agreed that a small handful of marijuana smokers, who refused to leave an area outside Benito Juárez, a makeshift shelter in a sports arena near the border, gave the larger group a bad name.
The Central Americans are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries.
In Tijuana, and internationally, the mayor drew sharp criticism when he said his city was unable to handle the influx of people, referring to the caravan as an “avalanche.”
But rather than apologize, Gastélum appears to be doubling down on his commentary, vowing that Tijuana will “not spend a single peso” on another caravan making its way north through Mexico to the U.S. border.
“I’m not going to compromise Tijuana’s economic resources to fulfill a wish of the federal government to try to show themselves as very humanitarian,” he said.
“Why don’t they escort them to Ciudad Juárez or Nogales or Agua Prieta? No, instead they escort them here?” he asked.
Newly-elected Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been more tolerant of the Central American caravans, hoping to entice migrants with jobs to stay in southern Mexico. López Obrador is also calling for the investment of some $30 billion over five years to stimulate economic development in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
While the plan sounds promising, so far the actual jobs have not materialized in Chiapas, a southern state of Mexico. Meanwhile, a new caravan left San Pedro Sula in Honduras on Jan. 14 and began arriving at the Guatemala-Mexico border in recent days and weeks.
Mexican officials have said more than 12,000 people, mostly from Honduras, have applied for humanitarian visas in southern Mexico, since then. Many say they plan to use their visas as a way to travel through Mexico to a northern border where they hope to cross into the United States.
By Thursday, a group of 2,700 had already left Mexico City traveling north, U.S. officials and Mexican Federal Police told the Union-Tribune.
Meanwhile, Gastélum, has filed an appeal with Mexico’s federal court, opposing a ruling that bars him and other municipal officials from making derogatory comments about Central Americans on the basis that it violates his freedom of expression.
Enrique Morones, the president of San Diego-based Border Angels, a human rights advocacy nonprofit, took offense to some of Gastélum’s words about the first caravan, even charging him with promoting violence against the migrants, mostly from Honduras.
Morones said he was especially offended when Gastélum referred to the caravan as a “tsunami” of people and when he warned the migrants against criminal behavior.
“How dare him call the migrants criminals, bringing diseases. He is promoting violence,” Morones said. “Hate words lead to hate actions.”
His concerns were echoed in the words of the federal court ruling that barred municipal government officials from issuing statements “contrary to the protection and respect of migrants.”
Migrants in Tijuana had rocks thrown at them while they slept. On another occasion, a canister of tear gas was tossed into a shelter where migrants were sleeping. Two Honduran teenagers were brutally murdered after leaving their shelter for unaccompanied minors.
Gastélum, who has close personal and political ties to the governor of Baja California, said he was only standing up for the rights of Tijuana people, and he admitted much of the commentary against the migrants was based in fear.
He said he worried that 50,000 Tijuana residents could have lost their jobs in the U.S. if the border had been shut down for several days.
“People asked what made Tijuana people hate the migrant people,” he explained. “No, no, no, we were afraid. The people of Tijuana were afraid that the United States would be shut down. That they would shut down their doors and their borders.”
He said other cities only had to deal with the caravan for two days as it was passing through town, whereas Tijuana had to address the issue on a long-term basis.
“They’ve been dealing with them real fine, real great. The love them. Okay …. because they didn’t have to deal with them indefinitely,” he said. “They were just passing through. Now, here’s where the buck stops.”
Gastélum, a married father of four who maintains a residence in Bonita, a rural subdivision near Chula Vista, made international headlines when he was spotted wearing a red “Make Tijuana Great Again” hat.
The mayor brushed off concerns about the hat, saying he put it on after a little girl handed it to him. The slogan, he points out, is akin to San Diego being known as “America’s Finest City.”
“Why can’t we dream of being a great city? Why not?” he said. “I want to make a great town of Tijuana. At least, being the finest city in Mexico. From there on, why not be the greatest city of Mexico?”
Labeled by critics as the “Trump of Tijuana,” Gastélum laughs when he hears his new nickname, which some would say is not as bad as his childhood nickname: “Patas” or “Feet.”
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked about the newer moniker.
“He is the president of your country, and I respect him,” Gastélum said. “I don’t mind being called after him.”
He received his first nickname, “Patas,” in grade school, as part of a taunt that referred to his lighter-colored skin. It was originally “Guero patas saladas” which literally translates into “light-skinned, salty feet.”
Over the years, the entire phrase was shortened to just “Patas.”
Gastélum doesn’t mind that nickname either.
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