Amid Drug Violence, Can You Still Travel To Rosarito Beach?
By Ted Hesson
From the car in the outlet mall parking lot in southern San Diego we could see a winding stretch of the border fence; beyond the fence, tawny hills and tough shrubs, terrain that was wilder and more natural than Southern California’s artificially landscaped residential neighborhoods. A giant tri-color flag — green, white, and red — flapped in the breeze. Mexico.
My friend Will and I sat in the bed of his Toyota pickup truck on a Wednesday morning in late July, searching on our phones for information about crossing the border without a passport, since Will had forgotten his documentation at his apartment in San Francisco.
Passport issues aside, we also had some concerns about safety. Will and I were in the midst of a weeklong trip to Southern California in late July, and before reaching San Diego, we had spent some time in Los Angeles and the San Diego suburb of San Marcos. At each stop, I sounded out my friends about a possible day trip down to Rosarito Beach, the 130,000-person Mexican city 30 miles south of the U.S. border. Each friend gave me the same response: Don’t go.
I wasn’t surprised. Back in New York I report on immigration issues, and I had read article after article about the brutality of the drug war in Mexican border cities and towns, and how the violence has escalated in recent years. When I Googled “Rosarito” and “crime,” I found articles about beheadings, executions, and kidnappings.
A decade ago, California residents — gringo and Latino alike — would day-trip down to Rosarito and Tijuana in search of good fish tacos and cheap booze, as well as illicit pleasures, like drugs and prostitution. But over the past few years, increasing news reports about violent crime, occasionally against Americans, caused tourism to plummet. The H1N1 flu scare in 2009 didn’t help matters, either.
After reading so much about the border, though, I wanted to draw my own conclusions.
So, in spite of Will’s passport situation and warnings from friends who said that we “shouldn’t even go through the turnstile” into Mexico, we found ourselves sitting in front of a Ralph Lauren outlet store nearby the border, contemplating whether or not the trip would be possible.
Will’s white Toyota pickup truck is actually decorated with black vinyl stickers so that it resembles a spotted cow (just for decoration/general amusement), and it wasn’t long before a white-haired, white-mustached mall security guard approached us on a golf cart.
I told the guard about our plans to visit Rosarito, and, as it turns out, he actually lives there and commutes to work in San Diego. Hearing the security guard — a staid-looking, retiree-aged gringo — speak about Rosarito, the trip seemed perfectly feasible: Will didn’t need a passport, a California driver’s license would do; we could take Federal Highway 1D along the coast in Mexico for some nice scenery and to avoid the frenzy of Tijuana; and we could buy daily car insurance at a place near the outlet mall for as cheap as $5.
I asked him about the violence. “Yeah, there are killings, but that’s only between the cops and the cartels,” he said. “If you’re not part of that, they’ll leave you alone.”
With that, we thanked him, bought some insurance, and drove towards the border.
In March of this year, three U.S. Consulate employees were shot to death in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city to the south of El Paso, Texas. Among the victims was a married couple — the wife pregnant — who were shot in their car as their seven-month-old daughter sat in the backseat. In July, Mexican police arrested a gang member linked to the Juárez drug cartel.
After the high profile killings, the U.S. Department of State issued an advisory for US citizens traveling to northern Mexico, citing the escalating drug violence.
But in some ways, the advisory just documented what those living on both sides of the border already knew: Americans believe that Mexican border towns are too dangerous to visit.
Rosarito tourism statistics reflect a fall-off in cross-border tourism: In 2000, Rosarito hotels had a 45.8% occupancy rate, according to Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism. By 2008, that figure had declined to 26%, amid years of steady decline.1
In California, my friends had spoken about nightly news reports of violence along the Mexican side of the border. Such reports are not misleading: Since Mexican president Felipe Calderón took office in December of 2006 and launched his war against cartels, 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence, and some of the brutality, if not directed at tourists, has taken place in Rosarito. The day before our July visit, a Rosarito police commander was shot and killed after allegedly uncovering a human trafficking operation.
In spite of those realities, Rosarito’s mayor, Hugo Torres, has been campaigning to change the city’s image, touting a 21% drop in crime in 2009, and a murder rate that has been more than halved, from 54 killings in 2008 to 26 in 2009. And organizers of tourist events, like the Rosarito-Ensenada 50-Mile Bicycle Ride and last year’s Rosarito Beach Surf Pro AM Competition, have made an effort to stress the relative safety of tourists.
Our first impressions after crossing the border from San Diego into Mexico didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the government and infrastructure.
“This looks how I would imagine Iraq would look,” I told Will as we drove towards the coastal highway to Rosarito, with the border fence to our right. We passed dilapidated shantytowns, shells of buildings, and sun-worn men hiking what appeared to be long distances along the side of the highway. The overcast sky — remnants of what the Southern California set call “June Gloom” –– further darkened the mood.
“Wow, it’s a totally different world over here,” Will said. We had cruised through the border checkpoint without needing to show any documentation, and suddenly found ourselves amid crumbling buildings that would have stood out like a decaying tooth in San Diego.
As we reached the coastal highway, though, the blight eased, replaced by the blue and white surf to the west and cinder block houses and small ranches to the east, with low-lying hills in the backdrop. I was somewhat surprised by the prevalence of new real estate along the 30-minute oceanside trek. Condos and gated developments cropped up along the way, many of them in an unfinished state of construction. Signs advertised new homes and condos for anywhere between $60,000-$100,000. Seemed like a steal, compared to what people were paying in La Jolla and Pacific Beach.
“I wonder if the guy from the mall lives in a place like that?” I asked Will.
We followed signs for Rosarito and meandered our way through the city center, the architecture of which reminded me of Latin American cities that I had visited before, including Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. Along the road we saw two-story body shops, restaurants with hand-painted names, cell phones stores — none of the businesses appeared particularly active.
We started to notice some hotels along the main drag, and soon enough I caught a glimpse of aquamarine water down a narrow cross street. We decided to ditch the truck in a parking lot and head towards the sand.
As we walked down to the beach, we tried to get a sense for the city’s vibe. Part of me had expected there to be an element of the legendary Tijuana party scene, which one particularly revelous family friend had described to me as, “All you can drink for $15; you’re drinking, go outside, throw up, come back in, drink some more . . . Having fun.”
Along the walk to the water, we passed a few establishments that might have facilitated “having fun” at one point in time — two-tier bars that seemed perfect for booty shaking and club jams, but each of them was either empty or closed.
Down by the water, we noticed that the June Gloom had burned off, and it was sunny now with an even breeze blowing across the beach. We also got our first taste of Rosarito’s competitive informal economy. Young men vied for us to come drink at each of their respective bars along the beach, but we thanked them and continued on, opting for a cursory walk along the surf before settling down at a table and chairs.
For a Wednesday, there seemed to be a decent amount of people on the beach — although it definitely wasn’t crowded — but the patrons appeared to be Mexicans or U.S.-citizen Latinos on vacation; we hadn’t seen any other gringos since the outlet mall back in San Diego. Walking for about 20 minutes or so, we saw mostly families on the beach. It reminded me of my childhood vacations in Ocean City, New Jersey, a family resort town that was perfect for parents and kids, but not the sort of weekend binge spot that might have better served our demographic.
We passed vendors along the beach selling peeled mangos; bags of chicharrones, the orange-colored fried pork rinds; and raspados, the Mexican version of a snow cone. I eventually went to work on an elote, roasted corn on the cob dressed in salt, lime, chili sauce, and grated fresh cheese.
The corn was a start, but we were ready for a more substantial meal. The beachfront bars were all pretty quiet, with only a handful of customers, so we picked a spot based on one waiter’s promise of a $10 bucket of mini-Coronas.
Not surprisingly, the bar was out of mini-Coronas, but we settled for a couple of $3 Pacificos without complaint. As our waiter, Carlos, took our lunch order — fish and carne asada tacos — we also mined him for some information about tourism in Rosarito.
“Most of these bars seem pretty quiet,” I said. “Is that because of the time of year, or are things slower than they used to be?” After some hesitation, Carlos started talking about the decline in tourism.
“There are stories in the news about killings or headless bodies found in Rosarito, but that’s happening in Tijuana and they’re dumping the bodies here,” he said. “They’re never writing stories about the good things that are happening here.”
Like the security guard, Carlos thought that violent crime was only a problem for those tied to police or the cartels. Also, like the security guard, Carlos had lived on both sides of the border: he lived and worked in Reno for more than a decade until he was deported in 1995, leaving his wife and two children in the states. Both he and his wife had remarried.
Some parts of Rosarito that Carlos mentioned didn’t seem so safe. When I asked him if there were any clubs or bars that we should visit, he referenced a place nearby called Bada Bing, where, for a price, you could get a lap dance or have sex. “Anything you want,” he said.
We decided to pass on that option since a) shady strip clubs weren’t on our agenda; and b) heading to a place like that seemed like inviting trouble. A Google search for Bada Bing later turned up an article about the club owner’s 2007 kidnapping and a startling (if unverified) review of the club that mentioned cartels, HIV transmission, and women forced to work under debt bondage. Maybe it was a perfectly legitimate adult entertainment club, but we didn’t have any interest in investigating it.
We ordered another round of Pacificos and Carlos brought the tacos. I had the fish, which matched well with lime and beer. As we ate, a steady stream of vendors approached our table hawking bracelets, cigars, and small trinkets. Will bought a few small wooden turtles from a girl who couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, and I eventually bartered for some cigars to give to a friend back in San Diego. Although a new vendor seemed to approach every few minutes, no one pushed us to buy anything.
We finished our tacos, but we had some leftovers: refried beans, rice, and chips. One young vendor, maybe 12 years old, stood silently nearby our table until our waiter realized that the boy was waiting for the leftovers. Carlos put the leftovers onto one of our plates, and allowed the boy to sit at the table next to us and finish the meal.
As we settled the check, Carlos told us that it “hurt” to see food go to waste, especially considering the cost of certain food items in Mexico. In the past decade, he said, the prices of certain groceries had risen compared to the prices for the same thing in the US, all this despite Mexico’s weaker currency and higher unemployment. His sentiments echoed what I had learned about food prices during a January research trip to Oaxaca.
Still digesting our meal, we walked toward the entrance of a long pier, passing by a group of guys renting horses and all-terrain vehicles. We had watched the horse and ATV crew while we were eating, and they hadn’t had any customers, save one little girl who they guided around on horseback. Not much business.
The pier was busy with local fishermen and families, some watching fathers and brothers set hooks, and some strolling the length of the planks, taking in the expanse of ocean below.
Past the beach, the pier connected to the Rosarito Beach Hotel, arguably the most notable landmark in the city, and we decided to go inside. Originally a hunting lodge and converted to a hotel in 1925 (according to the brochure), the complex included a very green lawn beyond the beach, a swimming pool, ornately tiled hallways, and an antique bar and dining room that resembled 1950s Havana.
I grabbed a drink at the bar and we considered the possibility of staying the night. In the end, we opted to return to San Diego, taking into account a timetable that had us back in L.A. the next day. The hotel seemed like the perfect spot for a weekend getaway, though, and rooms can be found for as low as $100, according to the website.
With the sunlight fading, we hopped into the truck and rerouted up the coast toward the border. Had we stayed the night, we probably would have hung out at the hotel or at one of the other hotels along the beach, for safety reasons.
Our trip wasn’t over just yet, though, as Will made a wrong turn near the border that deposited us in downtown Tijuana. Amid the confusion, he actually drove the wrong way down a one-way street, which gave us the opportunity to meet one of TJ’s infamous police officers.
As the officer disembarked from his SUV and approached our truck, a few thoughts crossed my mind: Will didn’t have his passport and we had almost no money in the event that we needed to pay a mordida, (a bribe, or, literally, a “little bite”). I had no interest in sampling a Tijuana jail cell.
The officer asked Will for his driver’s license as we tried to explain, in a mix of English and Spanish, why he had driven the wrong way down the street. After looking at Will’s license for a moment, the officer pointed to one of the cow spots on the truck. “¿Es una vaca?” he asked.
The cow question broke this ice, and the officer then gave us directions to San Diego. No bribe, no jail cell; overall a pleasant, if nerve-wracking, experience.
In his rear-view mirror, Will watched the cop return to his car. “That guy was carrying some sort of assault rifle.” I hadn’t noticed.
Aside from worries about violence, my friends had also cited the long lines to return to the US as a deterrent for crossing the border, and the congestion on this particular evening was no different. While we inched our way towards the states, a parade of vendors passed by our truck: fresh orange juice, beach towels, a ceramic depiction of The Last Supper. I bought some churros, for $0.75.
Just as on the beach, most vendors strolled up and down the roadway advertising their wares, but not pushing us to purchase anything. With that in mind, I was somewhat surprised when one bracelet-selling boy, maybe six years old, stopped at my window after I said, “No, gracias.” He stayed there for a minute or so, and I felt uncomfortable — a child his age, weaving between cars, hawking cheap merchandise. After a minute or so, he walked away.
We were a bit nervous at the border. I was fairly certain that U.S. citizens were supposed to carry a passport to Mexico (they are), so I was curious how this might unfold (i.e., would they usher us into a windowless room while agents dismantled the cow truck looking for packs of cocaine). We explained our situation to the agent, how we had been told that a California license would suffice for U.S. entry. After some questions from the agent, including Will’s place of birth, we passed into San Diego.
We felt like the day trip was a success, even if it was only a limited taste of life on the other side of the border. We hadn’t experienced any problems with crime or violence, thankfully, but I knew that if I returned, I would definitely employ the same sense of caution.
One casualty of the trip was that the truck had gotten a bit dusty, which I noticed the next morning as we left San Diego for LA. In the dust of the passenger’s side door, however, was a message, apparently written by the six-year-old vendor who had paused at my door while we sat in traffic at the border. In playful scrawl, it read, “VACA VACA VACA.”
By Ted Hesson
Ted Hesson is the online editor of Long Island Wins, a website devoted to immigration news, policy, and culture in Nassau and Suffolk counties.