Cops, Reporters, Spies, Lawyers, Politicians - Everyone Goes To Tijuana's Big Boy

TIJUANA, Mexico - In Hollywood's "Casablanca," everybody went to Rick's Cafe Americain.

In the real-life Tijuana, a city with a cinematic air of border intrigue, everybody goes to Bob's Big Boy - "El Big," as the franchise is known here.

Cops, reporters, spies, lawyers, political bosses and former, current and future government officials - they all haunt the diner with the statue of the short, fat guy in front.

The Big Boy franchise sits on Boulevard Agua Caliente, the city's main drag, across from the bullring and not far from the racetrack. El Big serves around-the-clock coffee, burgers, enchiladas - a classic trans-border mix of cuisines.

But the hottest item is the conversation about news and politics, crime and conspiracy: a web of whispers as labyrinthine and melodramatic as the reality of today's Mexico.

"Instead of chasing around town after the news, you go to Big Boy," said Dora Elena Cortes, a Tijuana correspondent for the Mexico City-based El Universal newspaper. "And the news comes to you."

Although the talk at Big Boy often revolves around sinister topics, the atmosphere is disarmingly homey - a juxtaposition typical of Tijuana.

The green-uniformed waitresses are friendly and efficient. Parents bring their boisterous children. The simple facade, circular booths and gleaming laminated tables invite you to linger.

Simultaneously, though, Big Boy exudes a sense of action, a whiff of the milieu where politics, police and the press intertwine.

Francisco Perez Tejada, last year's unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), dodged the cameras on election night. But he surfaced here on a recent evening.

"It is a refuge for police and politicians," Valenzuela said. "Probably some of the best and worst things that have happened to us in Tijuana were organized there."

Indeed. During a roller coaster of Mexican crises starting in 1994, the city has been ground zero. And from the March 23, 1994, assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio to other front-page crimes and scandals, El Big has been buzzing.

It was here that a reputed Lebanese gunslinger hung out with tough-looking characters until he turned up dead in a bullet-shredded Chevrolet Suburban on the night of March 3, 1994, a victim in the epic downtown shootout pitting federal agents against turncoat state police and their gangster bosses.

It was here that the ex-cops who formed Grupo Tucan, a dubious security team for the ill-fated campaign rally where Colosio was shot, huddled ashen-faced during the weeks when they were rounded up as suspected conspirators.

It was here that a regular customer with connections in the domestic espionage agency in Mexico City predicted - a few days before the fact - the government's dramatic televised unmasking of Subcommander Marcos, the leader of the Chiapas guerrilla uprising.

In such treacherous times, sources are reticent about seeing their names in print, said Manuel Cordero, who works with Cortes at El Universal and is the consummate Tijuana police reporter.

"The first thing they say is: `You didn't see me, buddy, you didn't talk to me, you don't know me.' Then they tell you what's going on."

The Mexican press has shaken off a history of government control; its evolution has sped social reform. Like watchdogs unleashed, Mexican journalists are confronting the powers that be with courage and ferocity. Although the pay and budgets are improving, the profession retains a muckraking swagger. And although fax machines and computers are tools of the trade, they still assume the phones are tapped and do business face to face in a safe place.

Like Big Boy.

One assiduous late-night customer is David Rubi, the legendary chief of the Grupo Tactico Especial (Special Tactical Group) of the municipal police.

The Grupo Tactico, part SWAT and part flying squad of yore, consists of about 60 youthful, athletic men and women who wear black uniforms and careen around town hanging off the sides of police trucks.

Rubi played a historic role during the pandemonium after Colosio was shot. He intervened at the urging of the frantic crowd and blocked the path of military guards who were driving off with the captured gunman. As television cameras rolled, Rubi pointed his rifle at the federal guards and forced them to accept an armed escort to police headquarters. Conspiracy theorists are convinced that he prevented the death or disappearance of the assassin.