Mexico drug war takes toll on tourist town

ROSARITO BEACH, Mexico — Mayor Hugo Torres has always pitched his seaside city as a cut-rate paradise.

Mexico drug war takes toll on tourist town

ROSARITO BEACH, Mexico — 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, one a drive-by slaying of a 15-year-old boy and the other, three people in a pet store.

Gunmen shot down one cop guarding a park. Two other cops 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 bullet-proof vests and more guns. About 30 police have resigned in recent weeks.

Torres, a trim 72-year-old who surfs in front of his heavily guarded oceanfront home here, 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 office. “We have to fix the drug war.”

Travel warning

As Mexico’s offensive on organized crime has pushed the death toll in drug-related crime 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.”

Mexican officials, 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 percent in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period last year. Those travelers 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.

Tourists not targeted

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.

The mayor concedes it is difficult shaping perceptions at a time when grim-faced federal agents patrol the town in Hummers, and tourists are stopped at checkpoints by Mexican Marines with machine guns.

Torres, who owns the landmark Rosarito Beach Hotel, long ago hitched his fortunes to the city, which he helped incorporate in 1995. After serving as the town’s first mayor, Torres returned to his hotel.

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,” he said.

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