Tijuana has in many ways been a success story since the 1990s—and at least some of that success owes to the border walls. Over the years, the walls, along with bulked-up security, have imposed order on a chaotic border, where extortion, rape and robbery had been common. More broadly, the walls were the first nudge that forced the city to focus inward and wean itself, over many years, from its dependence on easy money from elsewhere. Eight former polleros I spoke with for this story, including Raul, told me that after the walls went up, their smuggling business began to taper off; they no longer facilitate illegal crossings. (Illegal immigrant apprehensions at the southwest border overall have dropped by more than 70 percent in that time, from well north of 1 million annually in the late 1990s to about 300,000 in the 2017 fiscal year.) Meanwhile, though for different reasons, U.S. tourism to Tijuana slowed substantially.
Over the past 24 years, including a decade living in Mexico City, I have made dozens of trips to Tijuana and watched the city slowly mature from a kind of wild west dependence on migrant-smuggling and American tourism to a more self-contained and economically viable metropolis. I grew fascinated by the emerging city that few in the United States seemed to recognize—a place with burgeoning opera and classical music scenes and a distinctive and high-quality cuisine known as Baja Med. In some areas, older buildings are being redeveloped and in-filled. Locals have created boutiques, clothing lines, microbreweries, small but striving tech and film industries, art galleries and more—all of which serve Tijuana’s middle class and a new cohort of rambunctious, globally aware hipsters who have grown up since the mid-1990s. Bus depots that once deposited tourists or prospective migrants near the border daily have closed. The old hooker hotels are fading, and lofts and artist spaces have sprouted up. Today, Tijuana’s economy is among the most robust in Mexico.