On Friday I spent the day touring the coast from Tijuana to Ensenada with Saul Alarcon who works with me at WiLDCOAST and Joe Sharkey who writes the New York Times “On the Road”column. Joe was reporting on how the staff of WiLDCOAST/COSTASALVAjE, the bi-national organization based in San Diego and Ensenada I run, stay safe in what has become one of the focal points for Mexico’s Narco War while attempting to preserve a stunning but degraded coastal region. (This really hits me every time we carry out a special event in Tijuana involving local dignitaries and they are guarded by machine gun-carrying policemen).

The issue of safety was foremost on our minds. As we crossed the border back into the U.S., Saul received a call on his cell phone from a colleague, Eugenia, in Ensenada. Eugenia informed him that her cousin, caught in the crossfire of a narco massacre at a roadside restaurant in the farming and fishing town of El Rosario with her family last week, had just passed away at a hospital in Tijuana.

It was a miracle that Eugenia’s cousin’s husband threw their two children to safety. Unfortunately the children witnessed gunmen shoot their mother through the aorta and the murders of three other diners. The gunmen had tracked their victims to the tiny roadside diner in El Rosario, a quiet farming and fishing village on the edge of the great Central Desert wilderness Anton Chigurh style.

Despite the escalating violence in Baja California, life goes on for the more than two million people who live in northern Baja California. But due to the very real threat of kidnappings, many members of the Mexican elite have fled their country to safe havens throughout Southern California and the Southwest. Others surround themselves with bodyguards and wear bulletproof clothes and drive armored cars.

As for tourists, the mainstay of Baja’s economy, they have already voted with their feet. We counted a total of six tourists on our tour through Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Ensenada and in the long line walking back across the border in Tijuana. We didn’t see a single surfer on the entire coast despite the glassy conditions and small clean surf. The lack of coastal access and the horrendous levels of pollution don’t help attract hordes of surfers either.

Does the media exaggerate the issue of the narco war and security in Baja the problem? Absolutely not. Anyone who travels south of the border should be careful and concerned about security.

There are four things to be concerned with: 1) Getting caught in the crossfire of a narco-firefight; 2) Being robbed by narco gunmen; 3) Being robbed by corrupt police officers; and 4) Being robbed by drug addicts and criminals in urban areas and more remote areas of the peninsula once perceived to be very safe.

As someone who has spent the past 20 years working throughout the Peninsula, things have changed in Baja. The residents of the region are the first to take the issue of security seriously. So here are some tips to help you stay safe:

1. Avoid travel south of the border if you can avoid it. Do you really need to eat overpriced fish tacos in Tijuana or Rosarito Beach?

2. Don’t drive anywhere at night. Stay off the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road or Highway 1 after dark.

3. Don’t camp in isolated areas alone especially between El Rosario and Tijuana. Stay in campgrounds or with families you know. Crystal meth addiction in rural Baja has caused a crime wave in farming village and fish camps alike.

4. Travel in caravans. Stay safe in numbers if you are heading south of El Rosario.

5. Don’t underestimate the danger. It is better to over overcautious than a victim of crime.

It is unfortunate that old Baja California is disappearing. I just hope that for the sake of the amazingly honest, generous and friendly people who inhabit the Peninsula, that this unfortunate situation will change for the better.

Does this mean that I have stopped traveling south of the border? No. But as someone who has lived in sketchy places in El Salvador, Morocco and Peru, I am the first to recognize that it is better to be safe than sorry. My family and I will spend the Christmas holiday at a remote surf camp four hundred miles south of Tijuana. But we will plan and carry our trip as we do any other foray into the Third World. Very carefully.


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