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Fox shares energy with Tijuana crowds

By Sandra Dibble

December 22, 2000

TIJUANA -- Mexican President Vicente Fox brought his exuberant, hands-on style to the U.S.-Mexico border yesterday when he visited a customs checkpoint and a migrant shelter.

"We want to change things, and change them fast," Fox told government employees and local leaders at the San Ysidro border crossing.

At the end of his third week as president, Fox continued to display the energy that drove him through the July presidential campaign.

While addressing an official gathering at the border, he paused to smile and wave at southbound cars. He even greeted a busload of Asian tourists, who rushed to the side of their bus to seize the unusual photo opportunity in the secondary inspection lanes.

Outside the Casa del Migrante, a shelter run by the Catholic Church, Fox plunged into a neighborhood crowd, hugging old ladies, kissing babies and emerging with a lipstick-smeared cheek.

This was Fox's second presidential trip to the border, his first to Baja California. He stressed the same themes he highlighted last week in brief visits to the Arizona and Texas border: the need to eliminate corruption and the importance of respecting the rights of Mexican immigrants returning home from the United States.

But whatever the message, what was most evident yesterday was the Fox style, his use of everyday language, his delight in getting close to ordinary people.

As nervous security forces hovered around him, dozens of people reached across barricades to touch the president outside the Casa del Migrante, which sits on a hillside overlooking the city. Wearing an open-neck shirt and silver belt buckle with his name spelled out, the 58-year-old president reached out and touched them back.

"Thanks for having women in your Cabinet," said Mari Cruz de Miramontes, a housewife who traveled across town to see him.

Fox, a member of Mexico's National Action Party, broke 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party with his election in July. Now he also seems bent on breaking with the strict protocol of his predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, who tended to maintain a dignified distance from crowds.

Fox was accompanied by half a dozen top aides, including former Baja California Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, whom he has named his commissioner for the northern border. Also escorting him was the current governor, Alejandro González Alcocer, and Tijuana acting mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum.

After stops in Tijuana and Mexicali, the state capital, the president flew to the state of Coahuila, which shares a border with Texas.

During his brief visit to Tijuana, Fox discussed his views on a range of topics, from the need to create jobs and educational opportunities to the flourishing drug trade and the violence that has plagued Mexican border cities.

The president criticized the yearly process by which the United States "certifies" the drug-fighting efforts of other countries. But he was optimistic about the future of U.S.-Mexico relations.

"It seems to me that we're going to get along," Fox said. "We're going to understand each other and open a new phase in relations with the United States on border matters, of migration, drug trafficking."

Kevin Middlebrook, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at University of California San Diego, says the change in style Fox has brought to the presidency -- such as his trips to the border to embrace returning Mexican immigrants -- could also indicate a change in substance.

"We need to see what kind of a policy agenda the two governments work out over the coming months," Middlebrook said. "It's early to draw conclusions, but the gestures really do represent significant changes."

In Fox's meetings yesterday with government officials and migrant advocates, he was told of the hardships endured by migrants who cross illegally to the United States. Tens of thousands of migrants come to Baja California each year from the interior, hoping for jobs or a chance to cross to the United States.

Fox said his government will defend all Mexicans in the United States, whether they are there legally or not.

At the Casa del Migrante, where the current population includes 62 Mexicans, one immigrant from Sierra Leone and 15 Iraqis, staff and residents listened with interest to the president's words.

Rafael Hernández, 31, of the southern state of Chiapas, said he has tried three times in the past two days to cross to the United States. He would prefer to stay in Mexico, but he can't survive on the $3 a day he earns as a carpenter's assistant.

"If I could earn $6 or $7, I would stay in Mexico," he said as he watched the president drive away in a bright red Ford Suburban. "That would give me enough to feed my wife and son."