April 10, 2006

Tijuana “zebras” latest casualty of Mexico drug war

By Tim Gaynor

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - Posing in a Mexican sombrero
for a souvenir photograph, a tourist pauses to rub the snout of
a zebra. Throwing back its ears it starts to shift, snort and
heave until a rasping bray erupts.

Actually painted donkeys, Tijuana's fake zebras have been
part of life along a main strip of tequila bars and trinket
stands in this fast-changing city south of San Diego,
California, for more than seven decades.

Daubed with black hair-dye stripes, the white animals are
hitched to oxcarts, each one fitted with painted backdrops
depicting scenes that include Mayan temples, Aztec warriors and
snowcapped volcanoes.

Visitors from the United States and as far afield as Japan
and Italy have posed beside them for $5 snapshots, taken with
ancient box cameras, since Tijuana grew from a two-block border
village to a city with booming tourist bars and stores.

But now the familiar animals have become a dying breed as
jittery tourists avoid Tijuana out of fear of being caught up
in Mexico's spiraling cycle of drug violence.

Last year more than 1,500 people were killed by warring
drug gangs nationwide. And in Tijuana, a key smuggling route to
California, 438 bodies turned up last year, most of them
victims of vicious cartel infighting gunned down in the

That has scared away U.S. tourists, from day-trippers to
students who come to take advantage of the lower drinking age.

"Trade has dropped right off because of the violence, and
the situation is critical," said Vicente Sanchez, a 25-year
veteran of the trade as he scanned the central Avenida
Revolucion strip for visitors to snap with his zebra, Barney.


The zebras are the last link to Tijuana's golden age as a
racy prohibition hot spot that wooed famous U.S. revelers
including Charlie Chaplin and gangster Al Capone south of the
border in search of a drink and a chance to bet.

"It all started in the 1930s when someone decided to paint
the donkeys up with stripes so that they'd look better in
black-and-white photographs," recalled Jorge Bonillas, a
sprightly 75-year-old who has worked with the animals since

The animals first worked outside the city's Agua Caliente
Casino in the 1930s. But when the gambling den was shut by
presidential decree late in the decade they moved to the
Avenida Revolucion, where they have plied their trade ever

Business boomed in the 1940s as Tijuana continued its rise
as a sin city escape for thousands of U.S. servicemen stationed
in wartime San Diego, who trekked south to carouse in the
city's bars and brothels before heading off to war.

Bonillas remembers celebrities of the day pulling on jaunty
sombreros and posing with his donkeys, including world
light-heavyweight boxing champion Archie Moore, and Mexico's
much-loved comic actor Mario Moreno, better known as

During the heyday years that lasted until the turn of the
millennium, the traders formed their own union, and worked the
crowded street in two shifts.

"It was just too much," said Bonillas, who is regarded as
the dean of the donkey wranglers. "We had more work than we
could handle."


Then came the September 11 attacks, followed two years
later by the invasion of Iraq, which the zebra wranglers say
choked off tourism and unsettled trade as many Americans
shunned foreign travel.

The situation worsened last year when violence between drug
gangs seeking control of lucrative cocaine, marijuana, heroin
and methamphetamine smuggling routes erupted in street battles
across Mexico.

The gunfights, killings and kidnappings grew so common in
Mexico border cities that the State Department issued repeated
travel warnings to citizens, advising them to stay away.

Hundreds of craft shops, bars and restaurants in a strip of
gritty border towns stretching from Tijuana in the west to
Matamoros on the Gulf Coast closed as a result.

No figures are available for the number of tourists staying
away but store owners in Tijuana agree traffic has dropped
significantly in recent years.

The donkey wranglers, whose trade had anyway begun to
appear increasingly anachronistic to some visitors in an age of
growing concern over animal welfare, have been particularly
hard hit.

Their number has halved from more than 20 in the boom
years. Several now stay away on weekdays when tourist numbers
drop to a trickle, and warn that the future is bleak for them
and their striped partners.

"It's very sad, but I think they are on the way out," said
Victor Manuel Reyes, shooting a sad glance at his zebra Ruben.

"These little animals are now an endangered species."