Rosarito Beach regulars won't stay away despite Mexico's drug war

The music thumps, the lights flash, the shot glasses wait for willing lips. But the bouncers are reduced to kicking at the curb, hoping somebody, anybody, will round the corner. Friday nights are slow lately in Rosarito Beach's party zone, and everyone knows the drug war is to blame.

Hundreds of corpses discovered in and near Tijuana. Some of them headless, others dissolved in barrels of lye. People hear that, and they stay away.

At least, most people do. But on this recent Friday night, just before 9, two men and a woman come striding up the street. Americans, young and thirsty; buddies since undergrad days at UC Santa Barbara. They bypass Papas & Beer. They sidestep Club Vibe and Coco Beach. They eye Iggy's and its sole customer. And then they hop on stools and order shots.

"If you're not doing drugs, you're not gonna get in trouble," explains Josh Davis, 24, of San Diego. "As long as you stay on the well-lit paths, you're OK. But then again," he adds with a grin, "my night's not over yet."

It may not be surprising to hear that as bodies accumulate in Tijuana (843 homicides in 2008, compared with 376 in the much larger city of Los Angeles), Rosarito Beach's hotel occupancy rates spiral downward. On Feb. 20, the U.S. State Department issued a 12-paragraph "alert" on the perils of travel in Mexico, especially near the border.

On March 2, the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went a step further, warning American college students to stay away from Tijuana and Rosarito Beach during spring break. Despite deep discounting and a peso that has lost a third of its value in the last six months, this night (shortly before the ATF warning) reveals about 450 empty rooms at the Rosarito Beach Hotel.

Those who dare

But there's another side to this equation. What about the 50 rooms that are occupied? Who are the Americans who have never stopped coming down to Rosarito? What are they thinking?

In six hours of Friday-night circulating in Rosarito, a reporter and photographer come across several U.S. tourists, ages 23 to 60, none of them newcomers to Mexico.

A few of the Americans fit the traditional description of a Rosarito reveler -- college students or recent grads -- and one of these revelers is an alumna of the reality show "The Bad Girls Club." (That would be Andrea Sharples, 24, of Los Angeles, raising a glass in Iggy's with her friends Davis and Reed Clark.) But several of the other visitors are retired, and some have been driving down here for decades.

"It comes down to common sense," says Steve Howard, 60, beginning a three-day weekend at the bar of the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Howard, who has been coming here from San Diego County since 1962, says of his companion and himself: "We like our alcohol, but we don't do drugs, so it's a matter of not participating in the lifestyle."

And then there are the Pejakoviches of Sacramento, who are more worried about their financial future than they are about Mexican crime.

"Life was good until six months ago, when everything burst," says Dan Pejakovich, pausing with a cigarette at the front door of the hotel. Pejakovich, a 59-year-old construction manager and inspector, left his job late last year. He and his wife, Melana, 55, estimate that their Sacramento house has lost half its value and might take months or more to sell. And they're alarmed by the scale of the recession.

And so, after years of living well and vacationing in places such as Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey, they've come south to check the housing situation in northern Baja. For six days, they've been visiting upscale residential enclaves and meeting a few of the estimated 14,000 American expats who live in the greater Rosarito area; the overall population is about 55,000. Of course they've been thinking about security, and they've decided it's not a problem.

"The drug people are fighting the drug people," says Dan Pejakovich. It is "a little disconcerting" to see soldiers wearing masks, he admits. "But then you realize it's for their protection, so you say, 'OK.' "

"It's not going to affect us," said Melana Pejakovich. "Are they going to shoot up the Rosarito Beach Hotel just for the hell of it? No."

You'll hear the same argument from Randy and Gwen Graff of Missoula, Mont., who bought their condo here in 2007. They're winding up a two-month stay, their first full winter in Rosarito.

"We've always traveled around Baja," says Randy Graff, 60, a recently retired airline pilot. "We like it because it's slow, and we almost have the place to ourselves." As for the crime, "it's just amazing how the media seem to play it. It's really not that big of a problem," he says.

Most of Baja's drug-war deaths have been registered in Tijuana, about 12 miles north of Rosarito. And perhaps the most notorious case -- the January arrest of a suspected cartel associate who authorities say has laid claim to dissolving 300 bodies in vats of lye -- took place near Ensenada, about 50 miles to the south. A 2007 spate of armed robberies and carjackings against Americans played out along the same geographical lines. But Rosarito has seen plenty of its own trouble too.

In February 2008, Daniel LaPorte, 27, of San Diego and a 28-year-old woman named Libey (also known as Libe) Craig, of La Mesa, Calif., were killed in an apparent soured drug deal that also left three Mexican nationals dead on the outskirts of Rosarito Beach. Authorities said all of the dead had drug-related arrest records except LaPorte, a suspected marijuana smuggler whose remains were found in a barrel of chemicals.

Since September, at least eight Rosarito Beach police officers have been killed, more than two dozen have resigned, and the town's main street, Benito Juarez Boulevard, has been the scene of at least two shootings. In one, a drive-by assailant shot and killed a 15-year-old boy and three others in a pet store.

In November, one drug cartel apparently tried to kill a gunman from a rival cartel outside a Rosarito taco stand. Soon after, authorities said, five members of the first cartel were found, their bodies dismembered, in cars outside the same taco stand.

Few of the fatal cases involved Americans -- which leads the State Department to phrase its cautions with extreme care. Officials warn of "serious risks" to American travelers in northern Baja, citing "a notable spike" in "robberies, homicides, petty thefts and carjackings" in the last year. They also urge travelers to visit "only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours," and carry cellphones that work with international networks.

To some this might amount to a stay-away warning -- "but that's not the case," said a spokesman at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. The idea, he said, is just to provide information "so that travelers can make their own informed decisions."

So Rosarito's boosters persist, hoping for a spring break surge, pushing its broad beaches and low prices, the movie props at the Foxploration theme park, the surfing contest coming April 3-5, the Rosarito-Ensenada bike ride April 18. And Ivan Barron and Blanca Martinez of National City, Calif., have heard the call.

They huddle in beach chairs by a fire ring, enjoying the full attention of two waiters. Barron, 33, wears a cowboy hat and clutches a Miller beer can. Martinez, celebrating her 36th birthday, sips a margarita. For about $150, Barron says, they have three nights in an ocean-view room at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, along with three free dinners and three free margaritas each.

"I told her they must have made a mistake or something," says Barron, laughing.

The killings?

"My parents live right here in TJ, so I come every weekend anyway," Barron says. "Those guys who are getting killed are getting killed for a reason."

'Food, clubs, girls'

Up on the main drag at El Nido restaurant, Ryan Griffith, a 23-year-old cook from Carlsbad, Calif., and Denis Mikhailenko, 24, a business major at Cal State San Marcos, have no family in Mexico, but they're thinking along the same lines.

"Food, clubs, girls, cheap liquor," says Mikhailenko. "You can live like a king for way cheaper than you ever could in a place like San Diego. And you feel wanted here."

After perhaps a dozen visits over the last two years, Mikhailenko says he and Griffith figure they're safe as long as they treat everyone with respect, break no laws and don't go down any unfamiliar streets. And the rest of their Friday evening?

"Depends on where the night leads us," says Mikhailenko, heading out to the street.

As the evening wears on, Barron and Martinez tiptoe back from the beach to their $50-a-night ocean-view room. The Pejakoviches head out to dinner at the Rosarito Applebee's. At Iggy's, the UCSB gang of three hangs on until around midnight.

As for Griffith and Mikhailenko, let their story show that even in dire times there are happy endings, of a sort, to be had in northern Baja.

"We actually drove to Ensenada," Mikhailenko reports later via e-mail. "We watched some live music and ate good food. We then finished the night at a strip club."

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christopher.reynolds @latimes.com

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