A peaceful getaway or a lawless frontier?

For 30 years, Oscar Saldivar has earned his living at L.A. construction sites.

Every Friday afternoon, his weekend wind-down begins with a long drive south.

He leaves his Norwalk home, travels through Orange County and San Diego, crosses the international border, then passes a couple of military checkpoints manned by men in Kevlar shells armed with machine guns. Finally, he arrives at his six-bedroom vacation house in the Baja town of Rosarito.

If he’s lucky, he gets there in time to catch the flaming orange sun disappear over the horizon.

“We have spectacular views,” Saldivar told me. “And it’s like a small town where everyone knows each other and is really friendly.”

The Baja coast is a Mexican Malibu, a place where a blue-collar guy from L.A. can build a palace overlooking the Pacific. Only one bit of ugliness taints this accessible slice of paradise: the drug wars.

“You go there and you know you’re in the fire,” Hernan Sosa, a 45-year-old welder from Rosemead, told me in Spanish. “You feel it. At any moment, something bad could happen.”

Which is the real Mexico and the real Baja, I wondered. The peaceful getaway or the lawless frontier?

Everyone who loves Mexico is torn and confused these days about what’s going on there. Even Saldivar and Sosa, friends who travel to Baja most weekends.

I met them in Norwalk just before their weekly Wednesday night poker game. I wanted to ask them if -- given recent events -- they were still heading out to their Baja homes on Friday.

Jesus Velasquez, a 51-year-old meat seller from South Gate, answered yes.

“I’m going to retire there,” he said. “And I’m going to live there until I die because it’s the most beautiful place on Earth.”

It’s during the winter holidays that Mexico’s enchantments call out loudest to L.A. families with roots there.

Last month, Agustin Roberto “Bobby” Salcedo went with his wife to her hometown, Gomez Palacio, in the state of Durango. On Dec. 30, the El Monte educator was kidnapped and executed with five other men in a ditch outside of town.

Close to home

Mexican L.A. knows the Salcedo story well now.

Born in the United States, Bobby was the son of immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico, and served his people on both sides of the border. He married a Mexican woman, was elected to office in the United States and led a group that provided aid to his wife’s hometown.

Immigrant families look at the Salcedos and see the best of themselves. Bobby’s slaying makes them feel angry and impotent. His name makes the conversation of the poker friends take an angry turn.

“The problem is that we Mexicans are cowards,” Saldivar said. His countrymen, he said, are too passive and fearful before the power of drug-financed gangs.

Saldivar came to the United States as a teenager and is 47 now. Like Salcedo’s parents, he is a native of Jalisco. Now he has dual U.S. and Mexican citizenship.

“In Mexico, we expect the government to take care of everything,” he told me. “But it’s the people who have to take charge of the situation.” Saldivar has learned that lesson living in California. Citizens here denounce criminal activity to the authorities -- whether it’s a drug dealer or a corrupt official -- even if it means doing so anonymously, he said.

I’ve known Saldivar for about a year. He’s a smart guy who’s active in Norwalk city politics. Once a construction worker, he now owns his own business as a licensed contractor.

“That’s a nice speech, Oscar,” I said when he had finished. “But are you still going to go to Baja on Friday?”

“Of course,” he said.

Saldivar’s not afraid of going to Baja because he thinks he’s immune to Mexico’s drug-related violence.

El que nada debe, nadie teme,” he told me in Spanish, a folk saying that translates loosely as, “He who owes no one, fears no one.” If you live apart from the nefarious drug business, in other words, it won’t touch you.

Most people in Mexico think this way about the drug wars. It’s as if all that killing were taking place in another dimension. There are no “innocent” victims because the dead are all either “narcos” or law enforcement officials who know the risks involved in fighting them. My own experience covering the drug wars in Latin America tells me this is a myth. What’s going on down there isn’t really a “war.” The drug trade is a plague that can touch any family.

Powerful force

Imagine a territory where a small minority of the greediest and most unprincipled people have suddenly been given the power of life and death over everyone else.

The drug trade, with its unimaginable sums of cash, attracts a few intelligent people willing to make a bargain with the devil. But most of its foot soldiers are dumb, desperate guys making rash decisions. That’s why a good person such as Bobby Salcedo can fall into its web.

“Of course a stray bullet could find you,” Saldivar told me as we discussed Salcedo’s death. “But that could happen anywhere. It happens here in L.A. too.”

Another friend at the poker table agreed. “Tell people they should still go to Rosarito,” Velasquez told me. “It’s safe there.”

But Sosa, the welder, disagreed. “There’s no security in Mexico,” he said. “We think things are safe as long as nothing happens to us. But the truth is we’re lucky.”

“I’ve been going for 30 years and nothing’s ever happened to me,” Saldivar said.

Actually, that isn’t quite true.

Saldivar’s life has been touched by the drug trade more than once.

A year ago, his teenage godson committed suicide in Long Beach after battling addiction to crystal meth.

And a few years back, his son, then 12, was approached by crack dealers just a block from their Rosarito vacation home.

Saldivar undertook a months-long campaign to force the local government to increase police patrols. He was so insistent that state officials eventually called in the army. The drug dealers went elsewhere.

Now, Saldivar, told me, he’s going to start going to law school in Tijuana on the weekends. “I want to help make things better over there,” he said. “It’s never too late to get started.”

Saldivar’s relationship to his Mexican paradise is a complicated one.

He and his friends will keep telling everyone Baja really is -- or can be -- as peaceful as it looks. At the same time, making a stop at Tijuana law school is Saldivar’s own way of protesting that things in Mexico have to change.

Velasquez says he hopes one day Saldivar will run for mayor of Rosarito. Until then, he’ll keep on going to his Baja home.

It is 3,500 square feet, and when he goes there, he feels like a king.

“Come and visit it us,” he tells me, “and we’ll barbecue a nice rib-eye steak for you.”

I supposed you have to love a place before you can fight for it.