One man’s war zone is another’s paradise

Bob and Carol Dawson love living in Baja California, but the region’s violent reputation has put them on the defensive. They have been called delusional and reckless -- all because they choose to live in an oceanfront gated community about 30 or 40 miles and a world away from the U.S. border.

Americans living in this part of Mexico are often grilled, half-jokingly, about their sanity. They get asked whether they’ve seen decapitated heads rolling down the street. Friends wonder whether they wear bulletproof vests or drive around in armored cars.

When the Dawsons moved here in 1999 to retire, they were enticed by the area’s charm and peacefulness. They bought an expansive home with ocean views for $175,000. “Live like a millionaire without a million bucks” is the local real estate mantra.

In recent years, the tranquillity has been eclipsed by the mayhem of battles between the Mexican government and organized crime. Military trucks brimming with heavily armed soldiers have rumbled through the manicured grounds of luxury developments; gunmen pepper local police stations with automatic-weapon fire; and Baja California’s most notorious crime boss once eluded authorities by running through a beach popular among American retirees.

Since 2008, more than 1,000 Mexicans in the northern Baja California area have died in the drug violence. Rarely does a week go by without news of another person being beheaded or dissolved in acid or chopped up and left in a parked car.

But for most expatriates the violence seems as distant as headlines from Iraq. Along the 70-mile stretch of coastline from Tijuana to Ensenada, 14,000 Americans live in a bubble of relative security, many in gated developments or high-rise condominiums where they run a greater risk of being sideswiped by a golf cart or a wave-tossed surfer than staring down an AK-47-toting drug trafficker.

Not that expatriates are oblivious to the drug war. Bill Kirchhoff, the former city manager of Redondo Beach, said he suspects that some of the boaters speeding by his seaside house at Playa La Mision are drug traffickers. He’s not moving back to the States any time soon, though, saying a few precautions can keep people out of harm’s way.

“A lot of people simply don’t understand the level of danger that exists in this kind of environment,” he said. “But if you’re aware of it, you can manage it to a great extent.”

Bob Dawson, 66, said the dangers are exaggerated, but shares a pioneer attitude. “We’re a different kind of breed even to try this,” he said.

From the balcony of their home one row back from the ocean, the Dawsons can see dolphins dancing in the waves and pelicans gliding low over the surf break. Carol keeps watch for the first signs of migrating whales; Bob pours his locally famous margarita mix -- dubbed Bobby-Ritas -- for neighbors.

They just don’t get many visitors.

Loved ones beg them to move and many won’t visit, including their son-in-law, who for much of the last few years has refused to bring their grandsons to visit. “He thinks we live in a dream world,” said Carol, 65. “But if I feared danger to my life, I wouldn’t be here.”

The curving, craggy coastline of northern Baja California, a one-hour drive from San Diego, was once a popular getaway for Southern California residents. They came for the solitude and the surf. They would unwind at gringo bars and spend weekends at funky beachfront hotels.

In recent years, the coastal stretch has taken on an upscale look with condominiums, spacious homes, bed-and-breakfasts, and spas rising on bluffs. In the nearby Guadalupe Valley, hacienda-style inns and wineries sit amid vineyards blanketing the tawny hills.

The area attracts a range of Americans. Young telecommuters and Internet entrepreneurs live alongside artists and urban refugees in hillside villages. Retirees enjoy five-star luxury resorts with vanishing-edge pools, private beaches and shuttle service to the border.

For less than $300,000, people can buy a spacious home on an 18-hole golf course at Baja Mar. Ocean-view houses with balconies and gardens can be had for $400,000.

“Look at this. I can’t live in La Jolla like this,” Richard Cargill, 66, said as he took in the ocean views from his deck at the Palacio Del Mar resort. The retired mortgage banker paid $490,000 for the 2,300-square-foot condominium one year ago. “I call this the smart man’s San Diego.”

For the Dawsons, the appeal was an early retirement. Bob, who used to own a paper packaging company, and Carol, a former flight attendant, cut their expenses 30% when they moved down from Santa Ana. They live in the Las Gaviotas development about six miles south of Rosarito Beach, where 298 homes sit behind high walls and visitors must pass through a gate manned 24 hours a day by security guards. There’s a clubhouse, a pool, tennis courts and a promenade lined with mini-mansions that overlook the palapa-dotted beach.

After the Dawsons bought their home as a weekend getaway in 1996 they passed out keys to relatives, and their two daughters brought friends down on weekends. “This was a party house,” Bob Dawson said.

In those days the beach and pool at Las Gaviotas teemed with families and children on weekends. “It was filled with laughter and noise,” Carol Dawson said. “It was fun.”

Five years ago, anticipating more visitors, the Dawsons expanded their house, adding two bedrooms, a bathroom and an elevator. They started a property management business catering to Americans who owned second homes in the area.

Then the troubles started.

The Mexican government’s crackdown against organized crime struck Baja California in 2007. A few Americans fell victim to the upheaval late that year, when heavily armed men dressed as police pulled over a San Diego-area family on the coastal road. They pointed guns at their heads, pocketed cash and jewelry, and stole their truck and trailer.

That attack, along with the robbery of a surfer and the rape of his girlfriend on an isolated beach, was repeated in media accounts of Baja California violence. Though the situation has calmed considerably, some media outlets continue mentioning the incidents, angering residents and Mexican officials.

To the Dawsons, the recycled reports give the distorted impression that Americans are constantly under siege. Media coverage of “a shootout in the States lasts one day,” Bob said. “We have a shootout here, and it lasts for years.”

The negative publicity has taken its toll. At Las Gaviotas, dozens of houses sit empty, many with “For Sale” signs. Of the 11 homes managed by the Dawsons, not one was rented in September and only a few have been leased since.

Passing through the development’s tall gates for a quick trip down the road to Rosarito Beach, the Dawsons encounter a somewhat shabby landscape of roadside coconut stands and shanties. They drive by construction-supply and appliance stores, restaurants and other businesses where owners have downsized or closed down because the expected influx of baby boomers never materialized.

The Dawsons point to the fancy Las Rocas resort, where their nephew’s wedding was nearly spoiled in April when the maid of honor considered canceling because she was worried about crime. Security concerns have contributed to a shutdown of filmmaking at nearby Baja Studios; entertainment-industry workers on movies such as “Titanic” and “Master and Commander” once injected millions of dollars into the local economy.

Outside the studio gates, where a replica of a tall ship is docked, the Mexican military runs a northbound checkpoint. Masked marines with assault weapons question drivers. In the distance, another marine mans a .50-caliber machine gun.

A marine quickly waves the Dawsons through. “It makes me feel safe,” Bob said as he passed the military’s sign: “Welcome to Baja California. This is a routine military checkpoint.”

Kirchhoff, the retired Redondo Beach city manager, feels uneasy whenever he comes to a checkpoint. “They’re there for a reason and it’s not a good one,” he said.

Earlier this year, Baja California crime boss Teodoro Garcia Simental was believed to be at a party at an oceanfront resort a few miles from Kirchhoff’s property, but he escaped onto the beach, according to officials and media reports.

Kirchhoff said federal police and soldiers scoured the area in helicopters, boats and trucks, and walked up the sand to search neighboring properties. “They were chasing some of the most heinous criminals in Baja. That ought to give anybody cause for concern,” said Kirchhoff, 67.

But it’s not enough to get him to leave his sprawling home perched over the beach and his four-acre ranch near- by. Kirchhoff and other expatriates who have been touched by crime -- usually home break-ins or petty theft -- have adapted to the risks. They drive junky cars, avoid late-night trips and stay away from crime hot spots like eastern Tijuana.

The Dawsons also have their own rules. They never carry large amounts of cash, and they keep a stash hidden in the car just in case they’re robbed. The couple says they use the kind of common-sense rules that people follow in any community affected by serious crime, like Los Angeles or their former hometown. Carol says she feels safer in Las Gaviotas, where she leaves her front door unlocked.

“I heard gunfire in Santa Ana. I’ve never heard gunfire here,” she said.

It’s a point she’s made countless times to her son-in-law, without success. “He was very hard-nosed about coming down here,” she said. “He thought people were putting their children in danger.”

A few weeks ago, Carol was returning from an errand when she was greeted at the front door by squeals of excitement. “Surprise, Grammy,” yelled her two grandsons. Her son-in-law, seeing that crime has declined significantly from two years ago, made the trip from Laguna Niguel with his family.

It was like old times. The boys batted a Wiffle ball on the putting green, took walks on the beach with their three golden retrievers and played in the pool. Carol’s daughter and son-in-law got side-by-side massages at a spa, played golf at Baja Mar, and the family dined at the La Fonda restaurant down the coast.

Carol Dawson and other expatriates see signs that things may be turning around. Some hotels are selling out on weekends and there are more surfers trickling down south of the border. Then there’s her son-in-law’s change of heart.

“I think he finally realized,” she said, “that it can’t be all that bad.”