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Baja California Sur tries to shield itself from criminal element

March 17, 2009 |  1:32 pm

Driving Baja California's transpeninsular highway means traveling through a sea of cactus and occasional stops at checkpoints.

Many aren't aware that Mexico's Baja California peninsula consists of two states: Baja California and Baja California Sur.

Now the latter, prompted by drug-related violence and other crimes occurring in the former, has enacted a three-point "shield" program it hopes will keep BCS safe and discourage criminals.

It's called "Baja California Sur, Estado Seguro," and it's essentially a stepped-up checkpoint effort that might, at times, represent a lengthy inconvenience for tourists.

The first phase was implemented at the ferry station in La Paz, an entry point for motorists from Sinaloa, which is home to the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel. The second phase was implemented near San Ignacio, close to the state's border with Baja California on Mexico's transpeninsular highway.

A third phase will be implemented at the international airport in Los Cabos. The shield program involves random checks that are much more thorough than those typically carried out. Mexican citizens and tourists are being fingerprinted and photographed, and asked to produce vehicle registration and vehicle identification numbers.

Loreto Bay on the Sea of Cortez.

It has caught some motorists by surprise. One tourist, on a Vagabundos del Mar travel club message board, described the experience as "hell" and said it took more than an hour to complete the process.

However, not all are being asked to comply. Sean Collins, founder of Surfline, a swell forecasting service, e-mailed me this morning to say his recent surfing trip was without a hitch.

"I just drove my Xterra all the way down Baja to La Paz, across the ferry to the mainland, and from Mazatlan all the way down to Salina Cruz," Collins wrote. "I went through about 10-12 Federal and Army checkpoints, and was waved through every single one. Not once was I stopped and only a couple times was I even spoken to."

This morning I called Maria Cataldo at Discover Baja travel club and she had just spoken to Rafael Pena, a BCS tourism official. Pena told her that the program has resulted in some arrests, mostly of thieves in stolen vehicles, and is designed to provide tourists with peace of mind.

"He said it's for the tourists' own good, to know they're entering a secure state," Cataldo said.

--Pete Thomas

Photos: Driving Baja California's transpeninsular highway means traveling through a sea of cactus and occasional stops at checkpoints. Credit Gail Fisher/Los Angeles Times. Second photo is of Loreto Bay on the Sea of Cortez. Credit: Jack Swenson/Loreto Bay Co.