TIJUANA — The election of opposition candidate Vicente Fox as Mexican president has sent hopes surging in Baja California, which bolted from the ruling party 11 years ago and ever since has complained of unfair treatment at the hands of the federal government.
State officials in Baja and municipal leaders in Tijuana--both of whose governments are led by Fox's party--said they expect a host of improvements under the like-minded president. Those range from an increase in revenues shared with local communities to an end to squabbling with federal authorities of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, over who bears blame for the region's worsening drug violence.
Tijuana planners are hoping for an infusion of cash to jump-start a proposed light-rail line that has gone nowhere despite appeals for $65 million in federal aid. And state officials want more financial help in running public hospitals and schools--responsibilities that have fallen increasingly to the states in recent years as the federal government has yielded some authority.
But if any place knows not to expect vast and instant change simply by swapping governments, it is Baja. Despite success in cleaning up local government since the state elected Mexico's first opposition-party governor in 1989, Baja California suffers a high murder rate, stubborn corruption and a daunting list of social problems stemming from the state's place as a drug-smuggling corridor and magnet for migrants from the country's impoverished south. Residents' soaring expectations have come down to earth during 11 years of rule by the National Action Party, or PAN.
"Many things take time," said Hector Osuna, a PAN member and former Tijuana mayor who was elected July 2 as a federal senator. "Here, we know that."
Fox, who takes office in December, has vowed that he will not play favorites in doling out federal help. Officials in Baja California said they do not expect--or want--a bonanza based only on common party ties with the new president.
But leaders here said the border state will benefit if Fox makes good on his pledge to speed the shift in power from the federal government to Mexico's 31 states and 2,427 municipalities. Fox has said local governments should be more autonomous and keep a greater share of the tax revenues collected in the communities. The highly centralized federal government now collects virtually every cent raised through taxes and spends all but about a fourth of that directly. The rest is passed out to the states and cities to pay for paving roads, collecting trash, hiring police and a host of other services.
Baja officials have long maintained that the economically vibrant state of 2.7 million residents generates more in taxes than it gets back from the federal government. But they have never proved that because, they say, officials in the PRI-dominated federal government refused to open the nation's financial books to them.
"Now we're going to see," said Jose Cervantes Govea, who oversees state government operations for Tijuana, Tecate and Rosarito.
Tonatiuh Guillen Lopez, an expert on local government at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, said changes in the country's revenue formula will need approval from Mexico's Congress, where neither the PRI nor PAN holds an outright majority. But decentralization, Guillen said, is "an inevitable trend."
Guillen said the region is likely to see better coordination between local and federal officials in confronting a crime problem that is the top worry of residents. Fox has vowed an overhaul of the nation's corruption-riddled justice system and said he plans to crack down on organized crime.
In the past, federal and local authorities pointed fingers at each other with each new spasm of violence in Baja, stronghold of the notorious Arellano Felix drug gang. Fox's chief opponent in the presidential race, Francisco Labastida, cited the region's crime as a sign the PAN could not guarantee the public's safety.
Now state and municipal officials in Baja concede that their party can no longer simply attribute drug crime to corrupt or hapless federal police.
"We can't throw blame to the federal government. This is part of the responsibility we have now," said Renato Sandoval, a Tijuana city councilman and member of the PAN.
Observers also are awaiting the Fox government's answer to a water shortage in the fast-growing border belt. There is early praise for Fox's promise to sketch a 25-year development plan for Mexico, where planning usually has been limited to a president's six-year term.
Some see an advantage in having a president whose party has strong ties to the northern border area. Charles Nathanson, who heads a San Diego group concerned with binational development, said Fox, a businessman, is likely to be inclined to address laments heard along the border: scant cash for construction projects, a lack of credit for small- and medium-sized businesses and barriers to municipal borrowing.
"These are plums waiting to be picked for an administration that understands the border," Nathanson said.
One factor that may give the border greater visibility is the role of local PAN leaders in building the Fox administration. Former Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel was state leader of the Fox campaign committee and is rumored to be among the candidates for key positions.
Baja will serve as an early barometer for how the public responds to Fox. The state elects a new governor, all five mayors and local legislative seats next June--just seven months after Fox is sworn in.
Victor Espinoza Valle, a scholar at the College of the Northern Border who has written on the PAN, predicted a boost for the PAN in Baja, which could become the first state in Mexico to elect three opposition governors in a row.