Tijuana ‘Zebras’ Latest Casualty of Mexico Drug War
By Tim Gaynor
TIJUANA, Mexico – 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 streets.
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.
LAST LINK TO THE PAST
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 1941.
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 since.
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 Cantinflas.
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.”
DRUG WAR HITS TOURISM
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.”