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Americans may be safer than they think as tourists in Baja California

Darey Castro is a minor celebrity in Mexico’s banda and grupera music community. Though he’s had several songs on the charts, his greatest claim to fame is surviving an attempt on his life. In 2004, he was shot four times during an incident that killed four of his band mates. The bloodletting occurred as a result of his affiliation with two warring drug cartels. Today he lives in Los An ge les and says he is forbidden to return to his native country.

In 2007, Castro calmly explained to me in the plush offices of his Los Angeles–based music label that U.S. territory has already been carved up by Mexican cartels. He’s been forbidden to travel to Arizona because the southern part of that state is controlled by a rival faction. But he also said Americans aren’t in danger. In fact, he said, in Mexico it’s common for cartel gunmen to check IDs before carrying out executions. Mexican natives with American citizenship are often spared. Mess ing with gringos is generally proscribed south of the border, as heat from the DEA and FBI——and subsequent pressure from the Mexican army and federal authori ties——is highly uncomfortable for the narcos.

When Mexican president Felipe Calderón came to office in 2006, he cut traditional ties with organized crime and declared war on the drug trade——a war many upper-level Mexican authorities and intellectuals say is unwinnable. Those authorities know what officials on both sides of the border have known for years: The drug paradigm in Mexico is as simple (and immutable) as supply and demand. As long as the United States remains one of the world’s most insatiable narcotics markets, ambitious Mexicans will continue to supply the drugs, despite the threat of jail time and death.

One of the great ironies, from Mexico’s point of view, is that Americans have lashed out so vocally at the brutal tactics of that country’s cartels, despite the fact that Americans are so clearly perpetuating the violence. Rosarito, Baja California, is a city caught in the middle of the complex and dirty polemic. A traditional thoroughfare, the sleepy beach town has——along with all of Mexi co ——seen a dramatic increase in violence in the past 10 years.

In April, San Diego Magazine began a three-part series detailing the grisly 2006 murders of three Rosarito police officers. I felt compelled to write the series because those forgotten officers were described to me as honest cops doing their jobs; at least one of them was a hero and a martyr who gave his life in the pursuit of his duty.

I knew that telling the story was going to paint Rosarito in a bad light. It was, unfortunately, a necessary peripheral projection. Between 2003 and 2008, I spent more than two years living happily in Rosarito. During that time, I entertained dozens of guests from the United States and Spain, and we had wonderful experiences. La Fonda resort near La Mision, La Bufadora and especially Baja wine country in the Guadalupe Valley were all highlights. The Baja I knew was a safe ha ven for gringos, and it was pleasantly removed from traditional American tourist venues. The truth is, among the estimated 14,000 U.S. citizens living peaceably and contentedly in Rosarito, the Americans I knew there enjoyed the tourism decline——it meant shorter lines and fewer drunken gringos.

The problem is that the decline has hit Mexico’s tourism industry——one of the country’s most important——directly in the pocketbook. Honest and hard-working Baja Californians are sinking under the lateral weight of the drug war, along with the irony that the Americans eschewing weekend trips south of the border are often separated by mere degrees from those buying the drugs fomenting the country’s narco battles. But instead of giving in to the pressures facing small towns all over the country, Rosarito has taken a rare stand against the forces warring with the Mexican government.

Mayor Hugo Torres is the owner of the legendary Rosarito Beach Hotel. He’s spent his whole life in the quiet beach town and says he’s now too old to leave. He is determined to clean up the city’s image and its beleaguered police force. When he came to office in 2007, he realized that Baja’s governor and President Calderón were both committed to fighting organized crime; the three levels of government were in unison. 
Torres took the suggestion of the Mex ican army and hired a former Special Forces captain, Jorge Montero, as his police chief. Montero has beefed up the department’s personnel count from 149 to 208, conducted exhaustive background checks and replaced 62 officers. The bulk of those replacements have come directly from the Mexican army in an attempt to stanch corruption that’s plagued police forces throughout the country.

Torres spends his days talking to the 25,000 public school students in Rosarito, warning them of the dangers of drugs. Combating a burgeoning domestic drug market, he says, is his administration’s primary goal. Though fighting the cartel system is a job constitutionally relegated to federal authorities and therefore outside the purview of Rosarito’s police department, the mayor says his office has made it clear to local organized crime that it will have no inroads with Rosarito cops, nor will it be given any quarter in the city. Security is heavy for both Torres and Montero, and it should be——the mayor has publicly pledged that the fight will go on.

Meanwhile, Torres says, Americans aren’t in any danger in Baja California——and he has a point. Mexican mafiosos don’t want trouble with U.S. citizens. They’re happy to do their work in the dark, outside of headlines and without heat from federal authorities on either side of the border. A thriving tourism industry, meanwhile, is good for organized crime——it means more money in the economy for sales, and healthy economic factors provide good cover. The fact is, Americans, at least those not involving themselves in drug sales south of the border, have never been a target in Mexico.

Though several years ago a spate of robberies targeted American citizens, it stopped as mysteriously and suddenly as it started. Authorities have offered no explanation. Betting money is that a rogue and amateur crime element was behind those robberies, and other organized-crime elements handled the matter. In the unwritten rules of Mexico’s crime world, Americans are off limits. Because of that, I never felt in danger as a U.S. native living in Baja. In fact, I felt safer for my citizenship.

Torres is an old tourism stalwart. He knows Americans (his college degree is from San Diego State University), and he knows how to please travelers. His office 
is committed to making the Rosarito ex perience safer and more fun for the community’s U.S. guests. The city has even instituted a new ombudsman position dealing strictly with Americans and American concerns, and it’s filled the top ranks of the police department with committed former soldiers.

“Americans are totally safe here,” Torres says. “If you look at the history of the past 20 years, they’ve always been safe.” But he adds, “My recommendation is that if you are involved in dealing drugs, don’t come to Tijuana or Rosarito——you will prob ably be killed.”

Sand Diego Magazine
Published Monday, October 26, 2009 9:28 AM by Kanoa Biondolillo


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