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Rosarito Beach violence? Visiting reporter finds no visible sign of danger

January 12, 2009 | 11:17 am

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I drove to Rosarito Beach last Thursday to experience first-hand the perils associated with travel to the Baja California tourist haven, which is currently without many tourists because of warring between drug dealers in the vicinity.

I struck out. The danger vibe just was not there.

Truthfully, I was more worried about entering Mexico than I was when I arrived and started walking the city's main drag.

The street bustled with men, women and children -- almost all of them, sadly, were Mexicans. Any tourist stood out and was politely ambushed by bar and restaurant employees craving tourist dollars.

Oscar Tepetla, a waiter at Iggy's Corner, twisted my arm, so I agreed to buy a cold cerveza. He told me he has lived in Rosarito Beach most of his life and has only witnessed violence on TV.

The only other customers were a Mexican couple, enjoying lunch in a corner booth. Tepetla said business was this slow, even on weekends, and he blamed a poor economy and bad press.

A year ago, he said, you could always find surfers, fishermen and carefree travelers in this and most of the other establishments on the avenue.

I told him that only once since I arrived did I even think about flying bullets: while eating lunch with Hugo Torres, the town's mayor, whose comments will appear in a blog post later this week.

Torres' life has been threatened as he has been busy rooting out corruption within the police force --successfully, he claims -- and taking other steps to improve his city's image, which has been unfairly tarnished by the narco-war and sensational headlines in newspapers north of the border.

His bodyguards, who lurk in strategic shadows, are imposing fellows.

I traveled down with Philip Friedman, founder of 976-TUNA, whose interview with Torres will air Saturday on Friedman's weekly 6 a.m. radio show on KLAC-AM (570).

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With us were Friedman's sons, Philip Jr., and Patrick, who spent part of the day fishing on the pier in front of the Rosarito Beach Hotel.

The hotel's restaurant, which specializes in fresh seafood and serves a delectable grilled whitefish, was full of locals, many of them ex-pats. But the hotel itself was largely empty.

The beach was deserted, but it was a weekday afternoon, a cold wind howled and there was no swell to lure surfers.

We pulled out in late afternoon, and so we'd enjoy a clearer perspective, a tale of two very different cities, we cruised through downtown Tijuana.

The vibe changed entirely. This is the main trouble spot in northern Baja, seemingly a place to steer clear of.

We saw a truck full of armed soldiers, some of them wearing masks. We saw trepidation, even desperation, on the faces of residents.

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I bought a newspaper from a street peddler, and on its cover was a color photo of a dead man shot during the previous afternoon. His chest was bloodied as he lay on a crowded sidewalk.

At one point, three police cars behind us fishtailed U-turns and sped away, sirens blaring. The next day we learned there were more killings in Tijuana.

It is good to be home. But I can honestly say I look forward to my next trip to Rosarito Beach and that I may never drive through downtown Tijuana again.

--Pete Thomas

Photos: The Rosarito Beach Hotel and its fishing pier, upon which Patrick Friedman snags the bottom, are lacking in tourists but the entire town hopes for better times in 2009. Nearby Tijuana, especially come nightfall, appears to have far more serious troubles

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