A troubled beach paradise
Mayor Hugo Torres has always pitched his seaside city as a cut-rate paradise. But even this relentless hometown booster is stumped these days: How do you sell the Mexican good life in the midst of a drug war?
The city’s bustling main drag, Benito Juarez Boulevard, has been the scene of two shootings since September, including a drive-by slaying of a 15-year-old boy and three others in a pet store filled with frenzied puppies and canaries.
Gunmen shot down one police officer guarding a park. Two more officers were killed after finishing their shift, another two while on patrol. After the seventh cop killing in one month, officers in October marched on City Hall asking Torres for bulletproof vests and more guns. About 30 police officers have resigned in recent weeks.
Torres, a trim 72-year-old, surfs in front of his oceanfront home, which is guarded by six heavily armed officers. He used to visit California regularly to promote Rosarito Beach. There’s not much point now, he said.
“I need something to tell the American people, what we have accomplished,” Torres said in his exquisitely appointed City Hall office. “We have to fix the drug war.”
As Mexico’s offensive on organized crime has pushed the death toll in drug-related violence to about 4,000 this year, U.S. officials have warned citizens about travel in border areas because of the “increasingly violent fight for control of narcotics trafficking routes.”
Their Mexican counterparts, however, say the nation’s resort towns are safe, and Mexico’s tourism board said the number of travelers to the country increased by about 5% in the first seven months of this year, compared with the same period last year.
If that’s so, they don’t appear to be showing up much in Rosarito Beach.
Once the economic engine of this city of 140,000 people, tourism has declined to such a degree that some hotels are considering closing for the winter. Dozens of curio shops and restaurants already are shuttered. And mega beach clubs that once attracted hordes of college students sit empty.
“It feels as quiet as an Oregon beach town. It’s like: Where are all the people?” said Margaret Barr, a visitor from Portland.
No tourists killed
Torres invariably answers concerns with a statistic seldom mentioned in the sensational headlines: No tourists have been killed or targeted in Rosarito Beach, he said. And unless people come to sell or use drugs, they shouldn’t encounter problems.
“Tourists are not targeted; citizens are not targeted. But the violence makes it feel dangerous to be around,” Torres said. “It’s very hard to know who’s going to be hit next.”
But even Torres acknowledges that it is difficult shaping perceptions when grim-faced federal agents patrol the town in Hummers, and tourists are stopped at checkpoints by Mexican marines with 50-caliber machine guns.
The owner of the landmark Rosarito Beach Hotel, the mayor long ago hitched his fortunes to the city, which he helped incorporate in 1995. In its heyday, the hotel, which sits on a pristine stretch of sand, drew stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, and it remains a favorite of Southern Californians who fill the hotel on summer weekends. Or used to fill it.
After serving as the town’s first mayor, Torres returned to managing the hotel, watching Rosarito Beach double in size and become one of the fastest-growing cities in Mexico.
The city also became known for its corrupt police department, where officers supplemented their $800 monthly salaries by extorting money from tourists, many of them guests at one of the area’s eight large hotels.
Torres said he decided last year to come out of retirement to clean up the corruption.
“If I owned a hot dog stand, I’d probably move. But I can’t move my hotel, so I have to change the town,” Torres said.
It hasn’t been easy. Within two weeks of his hiring a reformer as secretary of public security last December, 12 police officers tried to kill the secretary in a shootout at police headquarters. A bodyguard died in the attack.
In September, the gang war in nearby Tijuana spilled over the arid hills, with rival factions of the Arellano Felix drug cartel vying for control of key trafficking corridors through the area’s marina and isolated coastline.
Since September, at least 31 people, most of them with links to organized crime, have died in Rosarito Beach, according to the Baja California attorney general’s office. On Tuesday, the body of a 28-year-old man was found in an empty lot. A loaded .22-caliber handgun was in his belt, authorities said.
Torres has received a couple of threatening phone calls from people claiming to be linked to a drug cartel. He now travels everywhere with a heavily armed security detail. A mild-mannered grandfather of five, Torres plays down the danger.
“If I don’t forget about these things, I wouldn’t sleep at night,” Torres said. “And I sleep every night.”
Many in the American expatriate community of about 14,000 say the mayor is putting up a good fight. Few U.S. retirees have been affected by the violence and most residents don’t plan to move from a place where their fixed incomes afford them oceanfront views.
“We’re sort of pretty resilient,” said Anne Hines, a Canadian married to an American who publishes a newsletter for expatriates. “We’re distressed more for Hugo Torres than our own particular safety.”
Torres, who works 12-hour days, veers from routine duties to war-like crises. He visits poor colonias where residents thank him for paving roads or delivering electricity, and holds meetings at his city hall office for people concerned about rumors that their children will be kidnapped from schools.
On Halloween, the mayor urged children not to wear masks, lest criminals take advantage of the merriment to wreak more havoc. Halloween went off without incident.
Torres also encourages fellow business owners to lower their hotel and restaurant prices. At the Rosarito Beach Hotel, the midweek rate for a standard room is about $29.
There are bright spots. Next year, Hollywood is coming to town: The third film in the “Chronicles of Narnia” series is scheduled to begin shooting at nearby Baja Studios, which should pump millions of dollars into the local economy.
Torres claims to have wrested control of the police department from corrupt officers. And the drug war can’t last forever, he says.
“I’m an optimist,” Torres said. “My destiny is tied with Rosarito.”