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Tijuana Survives Mad Rush : Police Credit Cooperation, Enforcement

Times Staff Writer

2 a.m. Saturday, on the first day of spring break, it seemed like things were almost out of control on Avenida Revolucion, this border city’s main tourist drag.

Fights appeared to be breaking out at regular intervals, sending city police cars--lights flashing, sometimes reversing at high speeds--racing up and down the half-mile stretch favored by young U.S. revelers.

“Hey, I was just trying to break up a fight,” Ron Rowe, his face a pattern of blood, was vainly trying to explain to Tijuana police as they slapped handcuffs on him and placed him in the back of the patrol car. “I didn’t know what was going on. Suddenly I was bouncing off doors and rails and getting punched all over the place,” protested the lanky Rowe, a 21-year-old San Diegan.

‘You’re Going Home’

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“Don’t worry,” Tijuana police Capt. Miguel Angel Valencia assured him in broken English. “You’re going home.”

In a novel program, Tijuana authorities were turning over many of those detained to San Diego police, who waited for them at the border port. It was one of many creative approaches employed by authorities on both sides of the border who had feared the worst during spring break.

In another law-enforcement twist, San Diego police specially deployed at the border gateway turned back about 100 unaccompanied minors headed for Mexico, invoking a seldom-used California law prohibiting those under 18 from leaving the United States without their parents’ permission.

In addition, beefed-up police units awaited bacchanalians returning to the U.S. side, arresting some and dispatching others to the county drunk tank for sobering-up purposes.

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One man, inebriated and with a gash on his forehead, returned to the United States in novel fashion: Friends placed him in a grocery cart and pushed him to the border.

The first stop for Rowe and others, however, was the Tijuana police station, where the already frightened Americans may not necessarily have been reassured. In the cluttered reception area, two U.S. teen-age girls, each of whom had been hit in the head with a flying bottle at a popular club, seemed near shock. Nearby, a transvestite prostitute was involved in a heated argument. Three Air Force personnel were handcuffed and destined for the adjoining city hoosegow, the result of an incident that appeared to center on the disputed ownership of a hot dog.

In the midst of it all, a young man walked into the station nonchalantly, his face a mass of blood and glass.

“It’s been a bad night,” concluded the ever-smiling, ever-active Valencia, who was winding up a 15-hour day, no overtime.

Despite appearances, things never did get completely out of hand Friday, and authorities on both sides of the border credited the intensified police presence and unique cooperative arrangement between U.S. and Tijuana officials.

Though minor injuries were numerous, police reported no major incidents. In San Diego, too, where police increased beach patrols, the first day of spring break seemed to go well.

“It went spiffily,” said San Diego Police Lt. John Gregory.

On Saturday, reports of major disturbances were still scarce, Gregory said.

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“I still haven’t heard anything from our officers who are working down there, so I’m assuming things are still pretty quiet,” he said Saturday evening. “If there had been a problem they would have called me. It looks like things are staying calm.”

As expected, thousands of U.S. youths did descend on Tijuana on Friday evening, many of them college students savoring their week off. Increasingly, it seems, Tijuana, once reknowned as a bastion of after-hours sleaze, is becoming a kind of borderland Fort Lauderdale, drawing fun-seeking youths with a variety of attractions, notably its throbbing bars and legal drinking age of 18. (The legal limit in California is 21.)

Students and non-students were among those who headed south this weekend, a reverse migration that at one point Friday night spawned an unusual, mile-long traffic backup entering Mexico.

“Tonight is going to be awesome,” said Paisha Chadwick, 19, of Carlsbad, just before she entered the metal revolving door leading to Mexico. “This is going to be the night.”

Added Jon Tegtmeier, a sailor based in San Diego: “It’s always wild down there, but tonight it’s going to be loaded. It’s going to be most intoxicating. We’re going to rage. It’s going to be crazy.”

Some of the younger would-be revelers, however, never got to experience the feeling.

Checked IDs

As promised by authorities, San Diego police were posted near the pedestrian entrance, requesting that those who looked too young provide some proof that they were 18--or had their parents’ written permission--before being allowed to continue south of the border.

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“This is stupid,” concluded Kerrin Fenske, 17, of San Diego, one of the first to be refused permission to enter Mexico. She said she had rehearsed her lines, but when asked her birth date, she had mistakenly given the correct year, betraying her youth.

Another girl had the foresight to bring a letter--forged, she acknowledged later--granting her mother’s permission for her Mexico outing.

For those who did make it across, there was heightened vigilance by the Tijuana police, much of it overseen by Valencia, who is second-in-command of a special, tourist-oriented 45-member “bilingual” police squad (few of whom appear to speak substantial English). At 27, Valencia, a Mexico City native who says he always wanted to be a policeman, is one of the department’s highest-ranking young officers--and also one of the few who has attended university; he is also a fervid believer in professionalizing the force on which he has served seven years.

It is a difficult goal for a department that has a history of corruption and only pays its officers about $35 a week. Many officers, including Valencia, have second jobs.

During much of the night, the captain cruised up and down the tourist strip in his patrol car, occasionally accelerating to breakneck speeds on the teeming avenue and rumbling down one-way streets in search of transgressors, screeching out orders on his radio to subordinates. He was also in radio contact with San Diego police.

For two journalists who spent much of the evening in the back of Valencia’s sedan, the scene on the avenue outside seemed to buzz by like clips on a rock video, the pulsating sound that emanates from the many neon-glazed clubs serving as an apt sound track.

“Take it easy! Take it easy!” Valencia ordered as he bounded out of his patrol car and arrived on the scene outside a bar where Colin Daniel Carlson, 20, lay sprawled on the ground, a deep cut on his forehead.

Bloody Wound

“The guy just hit me for no reason,” Carlson explained, as he lay on the street, clutching a handkerchief on his bloody wound, while police officers and gawkers on the crowded street gathered around him. “I’ve never seen the guy before in my life.”

“Give the man some room!” shouted another onlooker. “I’m a lifeguard!” he explained.

Valencia’s patrol car and other units sped from bar brawl to street fight in a seemingly endless cycle, occasionally taking the inevitably besotted Americans and Mexicans into custody and transporting them to the police headquarters. (Hampering progress somewhat were the numerous jump starts needed to start the captain’s vehicle, which he said was donated by the area chamber of commerce.) Most of the violence seemed related to drinking. No officer was seen drawing a weapon.

Inevitably, those taken into custody included both participants and observers of the sundry brawls. About 20 Americans ended up in the Tijuana jail, mostly for minor infractions, authorities said.

Though Valencia and higher Tijuana authorities have vowed to reduce corruption, many Americans interviewed complained of alleged extortion by Tijuana policemen. Some said police approached them with unappetizing propositions: Pay a fine of $15 to $30 for assorted infractions--such as fighting, being drunk or having an open bottle of liquor--or go to jail. Most opted to pay.

Despite such incidents, most visitors seemed to enjoy the evening. “A lot of Americans come down here with the wrong attitude,” concluded Andrew Whitney, 18, of San Diego as he returned to the United States, just as morning sky was beginning to brighten. “You gotta stay out of trouble, keep a low profile, and you can have a good time.”


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