CHULA VISTA, Calif. – A border city that has long watched illegal immigrants pass through on their way to low-wage jobs up north is increasingly welcoming a very different kind of arrival: wealthy Mexicans seeking refuge from kidnappings and other violence.
Francisco Villegas Peralta is among the new residents of Chula Vista, where new boulevards run past gated communities and trendy malls.
He said he knew he had to get out of Tijuana, Mexico, one July morning when three SUVs trailed him from his house through Tijuana's streets. He escaped, and moved soon after with his wife and three children to a one-story house in one of this city's more modest neighborhoods.
"I feel a sense of relief as soon as I cross the border," his wife, Lorena Flores, said in the living room of their sparsely furnished home, which the couple bought for $585,000. She rarely visits Tijuana; Villegas drives there daily to check on his five restaurants.
The lawlessness along the border prompted Mexico's new president to send troops to disarm local police in Tijuana last week. Some officers are suspected of being in cahoots with drug smugglers.
Villegas, who heads the Tijuana chapter of Mexico's restaurant association, has counted about 200 people — and that's just among restaurateurs and their families — who have left the border city of 1.3 million in the past two years.
A drive through Chula Vista shows that Villegas has plenty of company.
A Starbucks-style Mexican coffee chain with about 40 stores in Tijuana opened its first U.S. store here in November. A private elementary school that caters to Mexicans filled up six months before classes began.
The city has nearly doubled to 230,000 people since 1990 as new housing tracts have sprung up on the plains and rolling hills beyond Chula Vista's aging downtown. City Hall is sandwiched between San Diego's skyscrapers and the Mexican border, eight miles in either direction.
The well-to-do newcomers cross the border legally, using green cards, investor visas or temporary permits for shopping trips or other short visits.
Juan Jose Plascencia, whose family owns upscale Tijuana restaurants, moved to Chula Vista two years ago and opened his first U.S. restaurant in May.
"People feel at home here," said Plascencia, ticking off the names of other new restaurants whose owners have left Tijuana. "First, people rent. If they like it, they buy."
Kidnappings-for-ransom in the last year or two appear to have fueled the northward push.
Josie Ortiz, a real estate broker who works in Chula Vista, sold about 20 homes last year to Tijuana residents, up from about 10 in previous years. One was a food distributor who moved here after a Mexican police investigator said his name appeared on a kidnapper's list of potential targets. Another was a Tijuana restaurant owner who got a call from a stranger who said, "We're after you."
One homemaker, who asked not to be identified because she fears for her safety, said she moved to Chula Vista last month with her husband and 4-month-old girl after two friends were taken from their home as they prepared for work one morning. They were released within two months after paying ransom.
"If you live and work in Tijuana, the kidnappers will study you, see your patterns, try to figure out your routine," said Jorge Ahuage, another broker who caters to wealthy Mexicans seeking U.S. homes.
Last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent 3,300 soldiers and federal police to Tijuana to hunt down drug gangs. The soldiers swept police stations and took officers' guns for inspection amid allegations by federal investigators that a corrupt network of officers supports smugglers who bring drugs into the U.S.
Villegas, whose father settled in Tijuana in 1952 as a dishwasher, still owns a home there and hopes to return.
"Tijuana is going to change," said Villegas, 45. "It cannot continue in the grip of criminals."
But he is also installing new wood floors in his Chula Vista living room and making plans to put grass next to his backyard swimming pool. In March, he plans to open a restaurant — his first in the U.S.