Originally published July 26, 2011 at 6 a.m., updated July 29, 2011 at 3:02 p.m.
Tijuana’s most important cultural institution has been the target of a boycott by local artists and writers for the past three years. At the center of it is a politician-turned-museum director accused of corruption.
TIJUANA, Mexico A young museum guide gave a tour of a recent exhibit at the Centro Cultural Tijuana, or CECUT. The show, “Obra Negra,” which translates to “Under Construction” in English, brought together paintings, sculptures and installations by Tijuana artists about Tijuana—and about their city’s connection to the border, capitalism and corruption, among other issues.
Marcos Ramirez, known here as Erre, should have been in this show.
“I was invited, but I’m not in this show, because I’ve had a problem with their choice for director,” he said.
Erre is one of the most prolific artists in Tijuana, working on big installation pieces like his enormous wooden, two-headed interpretation of the Trojan Horse, which was placed at the border between San Diego and Tijuana to highlight the relationship between the two countries.
Seated at a restaurant just across the street from CECUT, Erre said he was not the only one who has been boycotting the institution, and its director, Virgilio Muñoz.
"I didn’t go see the show," said Erre. "I prefer to focus on how me and other artists can make up for what CECUT has failed to do in the last three years."
According to Erre, the new director has failed to fulfill CECUT’s mission to support Tijuana’s thriving border arts community.
The story of the boycott against CECUT is anything but simple. It all started in 1994, when Virgilio Muñoz was the director of a different institution: Tijuana’s Instituto Nacional de Migracion, the state immigration agency. Muñoz oversaw a large staff that monitored and controlled migration from Mexico into the U.S.
"I remember hearing a lot of rumors about corruption, so I went up to Virgilio Muñoz and asked him about it," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana. "He said it wasn’t true, and I didn’t want to push it. But at that time, many government officials at his level where involved in a lot of illegal, incestuous activity.”
Clark Alfaro decided to look into it. Over six months, he met with polleros, or smugglers, Mexican immigration agents, local police and with Virgilio Muñoz’s subordinates. He found an intricate web of corruption, going all the way to the top.
Looking through newspaper headlines from that time, Clark Alfaro said 45 percent of all illegal migrants crossing into the U.S. left from Tijuana. The two main smuggling networks moved an average of 1,500 migrants a month, paying more than $10,000 a month to the state immigration agency in kickbacks.
The Binational Center for Human Rights’ report came out in the spring of 1995, at the same time the Mexican State Attorney’s office was investigating Muñoz. Within days, Virgilio Muñoz was arrested for corruption.
But later that same week, the well-connected Muñoz was released. Over the next few years, he cycled through other political posts in Baja California, like state education secretary. Just three years ago, he was placed back in Tijuana, as the director of a major museum.
Seated in his spacious office in the museum’s basement, Muñoz would not comment on the corruption charges. But he said the human rights groups and artistic community in Tijuana refused to let the past go.
“That’s why we have public institutions, which are in charge of solving a problem," said Muñoz. "Now, whether interest groups then decide to carry on with the problem, that’s another issue.”
Muñoz has called the protesters “people from a small world.” The name stuck, and was appropriated by more than 250 artists and writers in Tijuana who continue to call for Muñoz’s resignation.
“I think art has to respond to what happens in our society," said author Heriberto Yepez, from the group Todos Somos Un Mundo Pequeño. "When you live in a place that witnesses so much crime and corruption, the artist has a responsibility to react and exercise his rights as an artist.”
In the three years since Muñoz has taken the helm of CECUT, seven of its most valuable curators and administrators were fired by the museum. And partly because of the boycott, the institution has also focused less on showing art by Tijuana artists, and more on showcasing for-profit events.
Video by Katie Euphrat