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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Rosarito Beach regulars won't stay away despite Mexico's drug war

U.S. tourists who enjoy escaping to this seaside city are continuing to do so despite the recent travel warnings. 'Drug people are fighting the drug people,' goes the thinking.

March 09, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

ROSARITO BEACH, MEXICO — The music thumps, the lights flash, the shot glasses wait for willing lips. But the bouncers are reduced to kicking at the curb, hoping somebody, anybody, will round the corner. Friday nights are slow lately in Rosarito Beach's party zone, and everyone knows the drug war is to blame.

Hundreds of corpses discovered in and near Tijuana. Some of them headless, others dissolved in barrels of lye. People hear that, and they stay away.

At least, most people do. But on this recent Friday night, just before 9, two men and a woman come striding up the street. Americans, young and thirsty; buddies since undergrad days at UC Santa Barbara. They bypass Papas & Beer. They sidestep Club Vibe and Coco Beach. They eye Iggy's and its sole customer. And then they hop on stools and order shots.

"If you're not doing drugs, you're not gonna get in trouble," explains Josh Davis, 24, of San Diego. "As long as you stay on the well-lit paths, you're OK. But then again," he adds with a grin, "my night's not over yet."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, March 10, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Rosarito Beach: An article in Monday's Section A about visitors to Rosarito Beach, Mexico, said Dan Pejakovich of Sacramento left his job as a construction manager and inspector late last year. His current contract runs through July.

It may not be surprising to hear that as bodies accumulate in Tijuana (843 homicides in 2008, compared with 376 in the much larger city of Los Angeles), Rosarito Beach's hotel occupancy rates spiral downward. On Feb. 20, the U.S. State Department issued a 12-paragraph "alert" on the perils of travel in Mexico, especially near the border.

On March 2, the Justice Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went a step further, warning American college students to stay away from Tijuana and Rosarito Beach during spring break. Despite deep discounting and a peso that has lost a third of its value in the last six months, this night (shortly before the ATF warning) reveals about 450 empty rooms at the Rosarito Beach Hotel.

Those who dare

But there's another side to this equation. What about the 50 rooms that are occupied? Who are the Americans who have never stopped coming down to Rosarito? What are they thinking?

In six hours of Friday-night circulating in Rosarito, a reporter and photographer come across several U.S. tourists, ages 23 to 60, none of them newcomers to Mexico.

A few of the Americans fit the traditional description of a Rosarito reveler -- college students or recent grads -- and one of these revelers is an alumna of the reality show "The Bad Girls Club." (That would be Andrea Sharples, 24, of Los Angeles, raising a glass in Iggy's with her friends Davis and Reed Clark.) But several of the other visitors are retired, and some have been driving down here for decades.

"It comes down to common sense," says Steve Howard, 60, beginning a three-day weekend at the bar of the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Howard, who has been coming here from San Diego County since 1962, says of his companion and himself: "We like our alcohol, but we don't do drugs, so it's a matter of not participating in the lifestyle."

And then there are the Pejakoviches of Sacramento, who are more worried about their financial future than they are about Mexican crime.

"Life was good until six months ago, when everything burst," says Dan Pejakovich, pausing with a cigarette at the front door of the hotel. Pejakovich, a 59-year-old construction manager and inspector, left his job late last year. He and his wife, Melana, 55, estimate that their Sacramento house has lost half its value and might take months or more to sell. And they're alarmed by the scale of the recession.

And so, after years of living well and vacationing in places such as Italy, Greece, Egypt and Turkey, they've come south to check the housing situation in northern Baja. For six days, they've been visiting upscale residential enclaves and meeting a few of the estimated 14,000 American expats who live in the greater Rosarito area; the overall population is about 55,000. Of course they've been thinking about security, and they've decided it's not a problem.

"The drug people are fighting the drug people," says Dan Pejakovich. It is "a little disconcerting" to see soldiers wearing masks, he admits. "But then you realize it's for their protection, so you say, 'OK.' "

"It's not going to affect us," said Melana Pejakovich. "Are they going to shoot up the Rosarito Beach Hotel just for the hell of it? No."

You'll hear the same argument from Randy and Gwen Graff of Missoula, Mont., who bought their condo here in 2007. They're winding up a two-month stay, their first full winter in Rosarito.

"We've always traveled around Baja," says Randy Graff, 60, a recently retired airline pilot. "We like it because it's slow, and we almost have the place to ourselves." As for the crime, "it's just amazing how the media seem to play it. It's really not that big of a problem," he says.

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