Zonkeys, Donkeys, & Surviving the most dangerous city in the world

Tijuana, Mexico – a city that straddles the U.S. border and is one of eternal infamy through its movie image and very real image. Both of which paint a picture of a city that’s infamous for sex, vice, drugs, the infamous donkey show, and a whole host of things in between.

One of our team has visited Tijuana many times, so this article looks at the important difference between the Tijuana Zonkey, the Tijuana Donkey Show, and most importantly, whether it really is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

What is a Zonkey?

Victor Reyes has been photographing tourists atop Tijuana’s “zonkeys” since he was 12, and says at one time he could earn $150 a day. Now, he’s lucky to earn $15, he says. Here, Reyes poses with his donkey, Ruben.

Also known as Burros, a Zonkey is the epitome of Tijuana: tacky, bizarre, and cruel. Long story short, it’s a donkey made to look like a Zebra by painting fake stripes on the Donkey’s body. Why? To entertain tourists of course! The Zonkey owners patrol Tijuana with these bizarre-looking creatures looking for tourists to take a photo with them for a fee.

Legend has it that the Zonkey was born in the middle of the 1930s following a gambling ban being enacted in Mexico. As a result, one of the favorite gambling spots in the border city of Tijuana called Agua Caliente Casino closed down. Outside were two Burros carts that tourists still flocked to in order to take photos. Cue local entrepreneurs.

Soon after, local Tijuana residents began creating custom donkeys decked out in traditional Mexican art and bringing them downtown to charge tourists for photos with them. Innovation is key to survival in business, so by the 1940s, one sharp-minded local added Zebra stripes to his donkey which showed up great in the black and white photos of the period.

Today, the Zonkeys remain in Tijuana but in much smaller numbers due to the drop in tourist numbers to the city. The drop is a result of the 9/11 attacks, subsequent security lines in the Tijuana border with the United States, recession, then the infamous drug war that led to people being terrified to enter Tijuana.

The Zonkey is an iconic part of Tijuana history. Hell, Tijuana FC even features it on their club crest. There are currently people working to save the heritage of the Tijuana Zonkey, which you can read about here. However, the Zonkey is not to be confused with the infamous Tijuana Donkey Show which brings me onto my next point.

The Tijuana Donkey Show

Ok, anyone who’s even vaguely heard of Tijuana will have heard of the infamous Tijuana Donkey Show. It’s been mentioned in various Hollywood movies and is essentially the Mexican version of Thailand’s ping pong show. However, unlike the Asian equivalent, it doesn’t exist.

A donkey show is a term used to describe an urban myth of a live sex show in which a woman has intercourse with a donkey. Legend has it that it was once performed in Tijuana back in the 1930s 0r 1940s. This isn’t true and was debunked by Gustavo Arellano. Today, it is just the subject of naive, young tourists who waste a large chunk of their vacation in Tijuana trying to seek it out in order to have a story to tell their friends.

Is Tijuana one of the most dangerous cities in the world?

No, it isn’t. I’ve been to Tijuana more times than I can count. Is it safe? of course not. No city of over 1 million people is safe. The main reason for the title of ”one of the most dangerous cities in the world” is because of the extraordinarily high murder rates in the border city. On average, Tijuana now has 138 murders per 100,000 citizens. That equals about seven murders every day and is a huge increase from previous years.

These murders are almost entirely between local cartels battling it out over turf, drugs, and human trafficking. The alarming spike in killings has been blamed on the rival Sinaloa and Tijuana cartels. The former is the infamous criminal organization founded by the well known Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. The latter, which also goes under the name of the Arellano-Felix Organisation, is classed as one of the most violent cartels in Mexico.

A good and easy rule of thumb to stay safe in Tijuana is to identify and stay away from the danger areas, you have no business going there anyway. The tourist area is largely safe. Whilst this is an unpopular opinion, it’s real: as a tourist in certain places around the world you are more likely to be protected by organized crime than be a victim of it. Tijuana is a prime example of this. It’s not uncommon to see heavies walking around who have been hired by local clubs to protect tourists and protect the business.

Overall, stay away from drugs, don’t do stupid shit you wouldn’t do at home, and don’t get so wasted you don’t know what you’re doing when enjoying the Tijuana nightlife. Follow those rules, treat locals with respect, and you’ll be fine. Most importantly, enjoy yourself and run away from anybody who offers to take you to the donkey show!

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