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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

Baja Attacks Raise Concerns About the Safety of Travelers

January 16, 1998|PETE THOMAS

The news was disheartening, but not altogether surprising: "Two Northern Nevada men, who hadn't been heard from since the second day of a planned two-week fishing trip to Mexico in November, have been found dead in Baja California."

The bodies of Alan Swan, 37, of Gardnerville, and Herb Dohr, 42, of Reno, were reported to have been discovered Dec. 9 in San Quintin, a small agricultural village about 200 miles south of the border, but it was more recently made public that they were found in nearby El Rosario.

The men, reportedly killed by sharp blows to the head, were identified by relatives last week and a homicide investigation is underway.

And while their families grieve, tourists considering a drive down the desert peninsula are left wondering how safe they will be.

Those dismissing the apparent murders as happenstance may want to consider a few other episodes in the same general area in the last several months:

* Last March, a couple from Placerville, Calif., was passing through El Rosario and pulled over on a deserted section of highway to spend the night in the trailer they were towing. The man and his wife were awakened by knife- and machete-wielding bandits who smashed their windows, slashed their tires and demanded all their cash.

* A month later, in the San Quintin area, which is popular among fishermen and surfers, there was a rash of robberies in campgrounds and hotel parking lots. Thieves reportedly were breaking into cars and trucks--in some cases while people were sleeping only a few feet away--prompting hotel owners to hire armed guards.

* Earlier this month, Fred Jones, executive director of the Vagabundos Baja travel club, issued warnings to members based on reports of two families being robbed in the area. One family's vehicle was stolen and the other's was "shot up" and rolled over, with two children inside.

Said Earle Robitaille, former chief of the Huntington Beach Police Department and an avid Baja traveler for 40 years, "I told this story to a friend [last week] and he told me a group of his surfing buddies experienced the same group of armed thugs while on a trip there.

"They were robbed at gunpoint and the M.O. was identical . . . jerked out of their tents in the middle of the night, blankets thrown over their heads, kicked around a bit and everything of value thrown into a waiting pickup and their vehicles stolen."

Robitaille, 66, who on his popular Amigos de Baja web site (www.bajanet.com) had been issuing pleas to other Baja travelers to be on the lookout for the two missing Nevada men, warned visitors to avoid the area after the bodies were discovered. And he was critical of Mexico's efforts in handling what has obviously become a serious situation.

"The business people in the area better start forming some sort of vigilante group to deal with a problem the Mexican government is incapable of dealing with, or they are going to have no business to worry about," he said.

In a statement obtained this week by Jones, Felizardo Palacios of the State Tourism Delegate in Ensenada acknowledged that the bodies of Swan and Dohr were found Dec. 9, more than 200 yards apart near a river in El Rosario, and that "The district attorney in San Quintin is investigating for a quick conclusion, and officials are searching for parts of the truck that were stripped down."

Palacios also said, "Officials are traveling to San Quintin, Guerrero Negro [farther south] and El Rosario to check on security for tourists and try to improve security. The tourism department has been, and continues trying to educate tourists to stay in areas closer to town and to stay away from remote areas."

That's the same advice given by Baja travel clubs.

But Robitaille, drawing on his police experience, offers a few more tips for traveling south of the border:

* Try to travel with other vehicles and don't drive at night.

* Don't camp on the roadway anywhere unless you have a group of RVs. Try to stay in an improved commercial [RV] park.

* Split your money into four or five stashes and hide them separately. Carry only enough cash for one day at a time.

* Don't flaunt large bills and leave expensive rings, watches and jewelry at home.

* Check window and door locks in any hotel or motel room and if they are broken, get another room.

"Mexico has a growing crime problem that is equal to or exceeds that of most countries in the world," Robitaille said. "That, coupled with weak and decentralized government and law enforcement, does not make for comfortable travel. . . .

"What it really amounts to is, if you fly in and go straight to the hotel and fish all day, you will have few problems unless you do something stupid or provocative in and around bars at night. Travelers who are driving just have an increased risk due to increased exposure."

THE CHUM LINE . . .

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