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Alcohol-Fueled Mayhem is Targeted

San Diego police's tough tactics at the border aim to reduce underage drinking by Americans in Tijuana and prevent drunk driving accidents.

May 25, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — The bars and clubs along Avenida Revolucion are famous -- and infamous -- for luring throngs of Americans south of the border on weekend nights to down tequila shots and dance until dawn.

On the first night of Memorial Day weekend, summer's unofficial start, the strip of vibrating discos lived up to its reputation, with crowds spilling onto the sidewalk beneath the clubs' neon lights and colorful signs announcing all-you-can-drink specials.

But it was far from an anything-goes atmosphere Friday night, as San Diego police officers converged at the border to curb the mayhem on the U.S. side and to prevent young people from driving home drunk.

While a stream of Americans stumbled back home after hours of partying in clubs such as Escape and Margaritas Village, police officers nabbed the ones who were falling over and bumping into fences, arrested them on suspicion of public drunkenness and detained them. If no more problems occur, they are released four hours later and no charges are filed.

"Just sit there and don't say a word," Officer Carlos Real told 22-year-old Ryan Kling after clipping on plastic handcuffs and sitting him down in the department trailer. "If you cause problems

Kling, a plumber from San Clemente, estimated that he had knocked back 30 rum and Cokes in three hours at the club Safari. Nonetheless, he berated the officers and shouted in a slurred voice, "You guys are punks. You grabbed me for nothing!"

The crackdown on cross-border drinking isn't new. Authorities have long tried to reduce the violence and the numbers of intoxicated young people who come home from Mexico in the early morning hours. Volunteers have passed out fliers discouraging drunk driving, the California Highway Patrol has set up DUI checkpoints, and activists have worked with Mexican authorities to shut the all-night bars earlier.

The mission has taken on increased importance since the deaths in recent years of two CHP officers, both of whom were struck by young people believed to have been returning home after nights of drinking in Tijuana. Officer Sean Nava was killed in October 2000 near Carlsbad. The next year, Officer Stephen Linen was issuing a ticket near Encinitas when he was killed. Both drivers were convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to state prison.

Every weekend night, more than 5,000 people cross the border to take part in festivities along "La Revu." Though numbers dropped off somewhat after the 2001 terrorist attacks and during the Iraq war, authorities expect large crowds as the weather heats up, colleges let out for summer and troops return from the Middle East.

At the packed club Animale, a strobe light flashed and a fog machine filled the room with smoke. Waitresses navigated the slippery floor while holding trays of Jell-O shots and serving buckets of Corona beer. On the dance floor, a waiter blew his whistle, tilted Matt Mitchell's head back and poured tequila down his throat. This was the 19-year-old's third bar of the night, and he planned to hit two more, he said. Mitchell, a University of Kansas student, said he was relieved not to have to fool bouncers and officers with a fake ID.

"I barely got into Mexico, and I'm already amazed," Mitchell said, leaning against the wall below bundles of red balloons. "It's been the time of my life."

At El Torito Pub, Sylvia Vasquez sat on the balcony drinking. When her waiter brought more drinks, she jumped up and started dancing with him.

"Nothing beats TJ," said Vasquez, 21, a preschool teacher in Perris. "You can do whatever you want over here. Across the border, it's too strict. It's boring."

The San Diego Police Department's Operation Safe Crossing aims to prevent fights in parking lots and drunk driving on the roads. Starting about 9 p.m., officers check identification and turn away youths who don't meet the Mexican drinking age of 18 and do not have parental permission to go south.

Elisabeth Miller swore to officers that she was 19, but said her wallet was stolen so she couldn't show them an ID. The officers didn't believe her. No ID, no trip to Mexico. So she and her three friends begrudgingly headed back to their cars.

About 2:30 a.m., officers begin detaining obviously intoxicated people on their way home. If they cooperate, they are thrown in detox for four hours. If they don't, they are thrown behind bars. Inside the police trailer, the handcuffed men and women, including Brandi Garrett, sat on ripped gray seats next to a blue trash can.

"I'll admit it -- I got very drunk," said Garrett, a 21-year-old receptionist from Vista. She admitted not liking the situation but added, "As long as they're taking drunk people off the road, it's OK."

By 6 a.m. Saturday, there had been 11 arrests, and one sailor had been turned over to military authorities. Officials said several dozen would-be travelers to Mexico were turned away because they did not have proper ID.

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