TIJUANA -- Four nights earlier, a 19-year-old U.S. sailor was stabbed to death in a brawl at Myster E’s, a bar and dance parlor on notorious Avenida Revolucion.
But the next Friday, the place was once again packed with young American sailors and Marines--talking loudly over the blaring music, dancing with available women, and downing enormous amounts of a high-octane concoction called AMF, short for a pungently unprintable phrase that begins “adios.”
Each reveler has this in common: He is absolutely certain that nothing bad can happen to him here. He’s young and indulging in what has long been a rite of passage for young enlisted personnel.
For as long as there have been sailors and Marines in San Diego, Tijuana has beckoned as an “anything goes” place for hard drinking and fast partying. The drinking age is 18, the nightclubs and strip joints rock all night, and prostitution flourishes.
“The military can be pretty confining,” said a Marine who had just returned from Afghanistan. “Tijuana is where we go when we want to cut loose and get [messed] up fast.”
Under an arrangement with the Mexican government, Navy Shore Patrol officers visit the jails of Tijuana and Rosarito twice a day to try to bail out sailors, Marines and other military personnel who have cut loose unwisely. The Shore Patrol’s station at the San Ysidro border crossing is staffed 24 hours a day to handle problems south of the border.
At San Diego bases, younger personnel are routinely warned about the dangers of going to Tijuana, particularly about the nightlife strip along Revolucion.
“A young sailor on payday is a good target,” said Chief Petty Officer Dan Smail, whose job includes lecturing sailors who are seized by the urge to go to Tijuana or bust. “It’s as if the sailors have a neon sign on them.”
Among Smail’s tips: Be wary of quick friendships, avoid cab rides, stay away from corner ATMs, keep your wallet in your front pocket, and, most important, don’t do anything foolhardy like drinking to excess.
“You never know which will have ears to listen,” Smail said. “Sometimes we act like mothers and fathers to these kids, but they’re adults, and they’ve got to learn to make their own decisions.”
Marines and sailors returning from a six-month tour in the Arabian Sea were lectured on the ship home by a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy: “Unless you left something there, there is no reason for you to go to Tijuana.”
When a ship based in Bremerton, Wash., pulled into San Diego for an overnight resupply, the captain banned the crew from going to Tijuana.
When she learned that a group--later known as the Tijuana Seven--had disobeyed her order, she immediately convened a punishment hearing in front of the crew.
In January, the Navy adopted a policy already used by the Marines. It allows the three lowest ranks to go to Mexico only with permission from a senior noncommissioned officer and only after getting an individual safety lecture and providing the name of a “liberty buddy” who will accompany them.
On busy weekends, the Shore Patrol checks for liberty chits as sailors and Marines stream through the southbound turnstiles. Younger personnel without chits are turned back and reported to their commands for punishment.
The liberty chit and “liberty buddy” plan did not protect Joshua Dietrich, 19, of Albuquerque, N.M., who was within days of his first overseas deployment aboard the transport ship Denver.
On the night of June 8, Dietrich and several friends from the Denver went to Myster E’s for a last round of partying before their ship was to leave on a six-month tour in the Arabian Sea.
As the music blared and the drinks were being downed, somebody said something raw to a woman in the Denver group. A drink was tossed, punches were thrown and Dietrich was stabbed in the heart. He staggered down the stairs into the busy avenue and collapsed.
“They covered him up and he laid there in the gutter for a long time,” said Roberto Rodriguez, a cabdriver who was standing on the corner outside Myster E’s. “It was all very sad.”
Mexican authorities say they have no suspects in Dietrich’s killing and don’t know the nationality of his attacker. Marines and sailors aren’t the only Americans who frequent the bar. Myster E’s is popular with college students and high school students with fake IDs.
“These Americans come down here and fight and drink,” said a barker for a strip club near Myster E’s. “You should never get into a fight when you’re in somebody else’s country.”
The military counsels sailors and Marines that, if they must go to Tijuana, they should go in groups for their own protection. But there is a point of view that being in a group can actually encourage risky behavior.
“If a sailor is in a group, he thinks he can be bold and get into a fight and not get hurt,” said Tijuana Police Officer Antonio Villegas Martinez, whose beat includes Avenida Revolucion.
The United States has no “status of forces” agreement with Mexico. In other countries, such agreements allow the military to investigate off-base incidents and assume jurisdiction over any military member arrested or charged with a crime.
But in Mexico, without such an agreement, there is no assurance that even intervention by high-level U.S. officials can free a sailor or Marine from jail.
A Marine sergeant sent to the border to retrieve two Marines who had gotten drunk was arrested by Mexican authorities because he had an unloaded, disassembled rifle in the back of his truck.
He was in jail for two weeks despite pleas for his release by a general and several members of Congress.
“We tell them: Yes, Mexico is very close but it’s a foreign country and it’s their rules, not ours, that you have to obey,” said Chief Petty Officer David Aguilera, chief of the Shore Patrol’s border station.
While word of Dietrich’s death spread quickly at San Diego bases, it didn’t slow the southward flow of fun seekers.
The same day he heard of the fatal brawl at Myster E’s, Seaman Philip Rawson, from the Northern California city of Anderson, applied for a liberty chit for Tijuana.
“We’ve had a lot of problems down there,” Smail told Rawson. “It’s not necessarily the safest place.”
The 18-year-old listened attentively and promised to be careful.
“It’s a party atmosphere down there,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about it.”