Political Capital

Carlos Bustamante '69


A dark underground parking lot is lined with row after endless row of cars. Men and women flow in and out of the elevator, followed by their ear-bud sporting, vest-clad bodyguards. A couple of delivery boys carrying lattes and Chinese food catch a ride just as the doors are closing.

On the 18th floor of Tijuana’s iconic Grand Hotel – nicknamed “The Towers” by locals – the doors open. To the north, windows reveal a panoramic view of the border city. To the south, unusual October rains have yielded an emerald carpet of green grass at the Tijuana Country Club. At the end of a long gray corridor lies a solid wooden door with an intercom on the wall. Waiting to be buzzed in, it feels a bit like trying to gain an audience with an inaccessible Wizard of Oz.

Inside is a bustling office. High-heeled women maneuver adeptly around men carrying papers. The receptionist is nearly lost behind a vast desk that’s several sizes too large for her small stature. Everything is burgundy, gold and dark wood.

Welcome to the office of Carlos Bustamante: Businessman, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) member, conservative and mayor-elect.

With a population of nearly one and a half million people and its critical geographical location, Tijuana is not an easy city to govern. A Latin American leader in electronics and medical equipment manufacturing, the city is also a strategic crossing point for illegal drugs destined for the market to the north. Bustamante’s personal history is interwoven with that of Tijuana, one of the youngest and most important major cities in Mexico. It is a troubled city still, even as violence is on the downswing following a period of unprecedented terror that resulted in more than 3,000 deaths and major disruption to the lives of its citizens.

But at this moment, in Bustamante’s office, these challenges feel surmountable. Cherry wood paneling runs floor-to-ceiling, adding a sense of gravitas to the room. Behind his huge desk, an impressive bookcase is laden with framed photographs of smiling children beneath a stuffed eagle with open wings that seems to scan the room from above.

When he leans back to ponder before answering a question, he is perfectly framed. Clearly, this is a man accustomed to being perceived as larger than life. “I have a sense of responsibility towards this city,” he says, emphatic. “Every penny I’ve made has been invested in Tijuana, and it has paid back.

“For a long time I wondered, ‘Why are we in such bad shape? How come things don’t happen?’ Finally, I moved from complaining to doing something: becoming a candidate.”

Last July, Bustamante was elected to be the 20th mayor of Tijuana, winning out over his opponent, Carlos Torres, a young politician anointed by Mexican President Felipe Calderón, leader of the National Action Party (PAN). Torres launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign through electronic media and social networks in which he cast himself as the clear favorite.

Bustamante went into the race trailing his opponent by 20 percentage points. He opted for old-school politics, a conservative campaign and the slogan, “Tijuana needs it.” He launched an aggressive lobbying component to win over powerful guilds such as teachers, taxi drivers and entrepreneurs. After a fierce contest, he closed the gap and won by a full five percentage points over his young opponent.

“I still have not figured out how I won,” he says with an honest laugh. “I think it was a combination of factors. In Tijuana, we do not like it when people are imposed upon us. And my opponent ran a bold campaign, even stating, ‘I’m the new mayor.’” He leans forward. “I said to him, ‘Just wait to see who people want, and then we’ll talk.’ But it was me they wanted.”

In place of his left hand, Bustamante has a prosthetic. Although he hardly moves that arm – in fact, it lies almost always at his side – the rest of his body language makes the absence imperceptible. He lost his hand after an accident in his youth; he prefers not to discuss details publicly. The 66-year-old Bustamante – owner of hotels, shopping malls and the aircraft maintenance service company Matrix Aeronautica – admits to being technologically challenged, averse to gay marriage and a supporter of military rigor. His strategy when it comes to keeping current is to surround himself with people whose skills complement his shortcomings.

“I’ll be the only old one in my administration,” he says, completely serious.

When dealing with work, he does not interrupt, raise his voice or lecture. He does give precise orders in short sentences. He never repeats an instruction. He doesn’t need to. All it takes is the flicker of an eye or a hand gesture, and the people around him do what needs to be done.

Frankly, it’s all about the attitude.

The third of four children, Bustamante was born in National City on Feb. 8, 1945. He spent his childhood across the border in the family home in Tijuana’s Colonia Cacho, an old neighborhood where properties could span whole blocks and houses had no fences or bolted doors. His father, Alfonso Bustamante, began working as a teenager at the legendary Agua Caliente Casino, frequented by many Hollywood stars during the Prohibition. After his marriage to Emma Anchondo, Alfonso worked as an associate at Pacific Bank, where he acquired financial skills that he shared with their children. He invested his savings in a home-delivery gas business, the source of the Bustamante family fortune.

Bustamante and his siblings were given a strict Catholic education at the Colegio La Paz; the boys also received military instruction at the Army Navy Academy in Carlsbad. During their upbringing, work and family honor were values stressed ad infinitum. One of his most enduring childhood memories is being 11 years old, terrified of not knowing English, and facing a totally foreign environment alone.

“I like to think that the reason why I was shipped out to boarding school was unrelated to my behavior,” he says with dry understatement.

At the Army Navy Academy, he learned to speak English, get up at dawn, drink strong coffee and stand for hours without showing signs of fatigue.

Bustamante returned to finish high school in Tijuana’s all-male Instituto Cuauhtlatohuac before enrolling at the University of San Diego and majoring in business administration. He earned his degree in 1969.

“In my day, USD was segregated into two different universities,” he recalls. “To the left was the school for women and to the right was the school for men. We were not allowed to mingle. Those were very strict nuns and anyone who dared to cross the gardens ended up being sorry.” He pauses, remembering. “I did not experience all the fun that students enjoy now that it’s coed.”

Bustamante reminisces about being a cross-border commuter during his college years. Going through the port of entry was an experience far different from the current stress-inducing 24-lane-northbound monster that it is today. He would show up at the little white shack that was the San Ysidro port of entry every morning with other students from prominent Tijuana families and wait for a sleepy guard with one eye open to let them through.

“There were about 10 of us classmates from Tijuana who were in this same boat. I would take turns driving with my friend Raimundo Arnaiz, son of the general of the same name.” He thinks for a moment, then elaborates. “The general is credited with saving the not-yet-President General Lázaro Cárdenas. He had orders to execute him by firing squad, and he did not carry them through.”

Bustamante is well used to navigating between the two cities; he remains deeply connected to San Diego. In his new role as mayor, he sees political integration as a main component of his agenda. His campaign talking points stressed finding common ground with the neighboring city and taking a regional approach to urban issues.

“San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders is my good friend,” Bustamante says. “Just two weeks ago, we went together to Washington D.C., because we want Tijuana and San Diego to be seen as one region with a revolving economy.”

But there are already hurdles in his path. Bustamante opposes the federal regulation that restricts U.S.-dollar transactions and increased customs inspections upon entry into Mexico, which has prolonged waiting times for the southbound border crossing. He is an outspoken critic of the federal government and accused President Felipe Calderón of making decisions without consulting the affected border-dwelling stakeholders.

“I’m told to keep quiet because I’m a public servant, but if I don’t say it, no one else will.”

In 1972, Bustamante married Carolina Aubanel – the granddaughter of Gustavo Aubanel, second mayor of Tijuana – with whom he had four children: Carlos, Arturo, Carolina and Emma Luisa. They divorced a few years ago. Two of his children also call USD their alma mater.

Carlos, the eldest – whom Bustamante describes as his opposite – never felt comfortable in the Army Navy Academy that he attended prior to earning a BBA from USD in 1990.

“Carlos spent a summer in the military and did not like it. His personality is different from mine. He is a true politician, because he inherited it from Grandfather Aubanel. Mark my words,” he says proudly. “He’ll be governor of Baja California.”

His daughter Carolina studied international business with an emphasis in business administration at USD, and will soon start public service as Tijuana’s director of Integral Family Development, a position traditionally held by the mayor’s wife.

His youngest daughter, Emma Luisa, holds a degree in communications from the Tecnologico de Monterrey; the baby of the family, Arturo, is a communications major at the Jesuit Universidad Iberoamericana.

While Bustamante has been deeply concerned with protecting his family for the last 15 years, he still regrets that as mayor-elect, he needs to have an entourage of bodyguards and armored cars at his service.

“I’m self-conscious about the horde of people that follows me around, but I have to pay attention to the people who know about security. I’m no coward, but I’m not going to be foolishly rebellious and endanger those I love.”

Bustamante says that when they were teenagers, his children asked him not to assign them bodyguards in an effort to try to fit in better in their schools and have a “normal” life. He didn’t give in, and for that, he is grateful.

“Around that time there was a kidnapping attempt against Carlos. Having bodyguards is what saved him. You adapt and seek to improve the security issues that affect us all so much.”

The recent nationwide elections – which Bustamante’s ticket won – also saw victories by at least another dozen PRI candidates at all levels, including six governorships. It reflected a trend similar to the GOP’s recent victories in the U.S. As a member of the PRI Party since 1965, Bustamante is known as one of the most proficient entrepreneurs and administrators of the country, and his skills and reputation have served him well in positions such as presidential campaign manager for former President Ernesto Zedillo. This victory marks his first time in an elective office, although he had run for mayor once before.

To those who say that 70 years of PRI government ruined Mexico, Bustamante responds that the past 10 years of PAN administrations have been much worse for the country. He claims that it was during those 70 years of continuity when large infrastructure projects and massive social services were created, efforts still enjoyed by Mexicans.

“The PAN has been in power during times of abundance, in which they have squandered oil revenues, and have moved away from the electorate. This was reflected in the polls. Now, we are given a new opportunity and we must not miss it.”

In his new position, Bustamante is primarily concerned about public safety; he sees a big challenge just to maintain the downward trend in violence that Tijuana has seen in the past year. That welcomed change has been attributed to close coordination between active and retired military who have been appointed to key positions in law enforcement, implementing military discipline in their agencies.

But the last 12 months have been plagued by claims of torture by human rights organizations – including the U.N. and the European Union – pointing to the former Public Safety Secretary, Commander Julian Leyzaola Perez, as the responsible official. Like many Tijuana natives, Bustamante prefers to see the bright side of Leyzaola and his accomplishments, and points out that it was under his watch that violence decreased.

“I am very drawn to military tradition and respect. Here in Tijuana, General Duarte [who heads the troops in Tijuana] is hailed [by the people] as never before in public events, just like Secretary Leyzaola. Therefore, the challenge will be to continue this synergy in my administration.”

His second concern is the city’s economy, specifically public debt, accounts payable, reducing spending and keeping his promise not to raise taxes during his term.

“When I’m in office, the first thing I want to know is why there are 3,000 municipal-government appointees. What are so many people doing there? God only knows _ ”

Bustamante’s voice trails off as he takes giant strides at marathon speed followed by a retinue of bodyguards, businessmen and staff. He’s on his way to a breakfast meeting with the Political Association of Baja California, one of the many groups who helped him during his campaign.

The gathering has almost taken over the Mariachi Restaurant in Zona Rio; the vast majority of the nearly 200 attendees are men, wearing dark suits and red shirts, the official color of the PRI. The few women in attendance wear dark business suits, light makeup and discreet up-dos.

Bustamante is invited to address the expectant group, flanked by frantic waiters serving coffee. Then, the moderator invites the audience to ask questions “and keep it brief” as plates of chilaquiles and machaca and eggs are distributed throughout the room. Those who speak seem to stand at attention before a superior military officer; they call him a “prestigious industrialist” and see him as an entrepreneur like themselves who has also experienced in the flesh what it is like to be a victim of threats to his family and have his companies impacted by organized crime.

A man takes the microphone and talks about the revitalization of the downtown area, of compelling the wealthy owners to invest in their storefronts. Another man speaks of no-bid construction, of a business center, of reclaiming public spaces. Strategies are also discussed to monitor public accounts and to ensure state resources. Applause echoes after each suggestion. Sometimes it comes from one table and sometimes from another, evidence of the complex divisions that exist even in small groups when it comes to talking about how to manage this city.

Bustamante listens carefully to each speaker, concentrates on each request. As he listens, he is transformed into a master politician. He sits up straight in his chair and starts volleying information, a verbal tennis pro, fast and accurate.

Regarding the bi-national airport: “As long as they refuse to pay local taxes, what can we offer the airport people?”

He is asked to allocate money to a campaign to raise pride about Tijuana: “Don’t just tell me. Do things yourselves.”

Presented with the idea of weekly town hall meetings, he makes a face: “There are people with good ideas, but there are also professional critics.”

When reminded about a recent scandal surrounding the previous mayor in which he was seen holding hands with a famous actress, Bustamante makes himself the brunt of the joke, gesturing with his prosthesis.

“I promise that I will not be grabbing anyone’s hand, not a single one.”

The room erupts in laughter. Even Bustamante permits himself a tiny smile. Then, he turns back to the matter at hand. It’s time to get back to work. — Mariana Martínez Esténs