Friday, January 18, 2008

Men in Black - Who are These Masked Men in Baja?

A month and a half ago my son and I took an ABC Express bus from Mulege to Tijuana, leaving at 3p.m. and arriving the next morning at 7a.m. We had planned to stay overnight at the Baja Cactus Motel in El Rosario but when we arrived at 11p.m. they were full. Cold & dark, luckily they were slow to take our luggage off so we were able to hop back on the bus and continue North.

Around 6a.m. we were driving past Rosarito Beach and I saw a group of eight or ten machine gun toting, black-masked men standing outside of a medical clinic. A medical clinic, not a bank. The whole thing seemed a bit strange but our driver paid no notice and the building was right on Mexican Federal Highway 1 with a regular stream of cars zipping by. Must be the police on some mission, I thought.

It may have been, or may have not. The Federal Judicial Police of Mexico (black uniforms & masks) - notoriously corrupt - was replaced by the Federal Investigations Agency in 2002. This elite police force wears black uniforms and masks as well and of course are heavily armed. They are often referred to as 'federales', similar to saying 'the feds' in the U.S.

The police force wearing army fatigues, also heavily armed, are the PFP - Federal Preventative Police. They provide street patrols and may be seen on duty at bus stations, airports and patrolling the highways.

That's a basic description of the official version of Men in Black. And officially, they have not always been the good guys. Prior to the recent reported crimes that have terrorized more than a few Baja travelers, masked-men assumed to be a part of one of these police agencies have been accused of horrendous deeds:

New York Times, September, 1996 - Crime Wave Leaves Mexicans Wary of Federal Police.

New York Times, June, 1991 - Mexico To Combat Police Corruption.

Suspected wrong-doers have been dismissed and replaced in droves over and over again.

It's no wonder the U.S. consulate in Tijuana is not issuing new travel alerts (as of the date of this blog entry) for U.S. persons crossing the border... to them this may be old news, more of what has been going on for decades. The main difference is it is now affecting more American Tourists, as opposed to primarily Mexicans, yet the consulate does not see a 'widespread increase' in attacks.

Quoted from a January 5th, 2008 Associated Press article entitled Wave of Crime Washes Away Baja's Tourism: "Charles Smith, spokesman for the U.S. consulate in Tijuana, said the U.S. government has not found a widespread increase in attacks against Americans, but he acknowledged many crimes go unreported."

We can only hope that crimes such as those that have occurred recently continue to be reported (and re-reported in the news media) to the extent that U.S. and Mexican officials are prompted to make effective changes, and Americans, Canadians and other Baja travelers are given accurate, pertinent information about the current risks of travel to the Baja California Peninsula.

Safe travels, Molly, author of Viva La Baja! Relocation Guide to the Baja California Peninsula

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Safety in the Baja & What is the Risk of Travel?

As a follow-up to the previous blog entry on surfing in Baja, a write-up on safety issues is important. You do not have to look far to read stories of recent armed assualts and robbery committed against tourists in the Baja California Peninsula, especially in areas close to the Mexican/Tijuana border - and south down to Ensenada. Border patrol agents have been victims as well.

More than one person reports being held at gunpoint by masked men and robbed. A sexual assult has been reported by a San Diego resident camping in Baja with her boyfriend while on a surfing adventure. If you subscribe to the New York Times, you have seen the article, "Surf's up, and So Is the Crime Rate on Baja's Beaches". For more information and stories recanted by victims jump onto Yahoo and you will find a January 5th article entitled, "Tourists Shun Crime-Hit Mexico Beaches".

An article written by a U.S. border patrol agent and published at SignOnSanDiego.com claims, "... nearly twice a day, the men and women of the San Diego Sector Border Patrol are subjected to violent assaults from criminals operating in Mexico".

So is it safe, or is it not? No one can answer that question, and of course many travel to and from Mexico without incident, including crossing at the Tijuana/San Ysidro (San Diego) border. It is estimated that more than 50 million persons cross annually.

A more important question may be whether the situation is being addressed by law enforcement personnel effectively. Many say no, that criminals are not brought to justice and that much of the crime is committed by Mexican law enforcement personnel themselves, or knowingly allowed due to threat of retaliation or after accepting money/bribes. A November 19th article published on KFOXTV.com states, "Juarez (another border town) and Tijuana are listed on the state department website as having a rising number of car crashes in which police ask Americans for money".

That's the Mexico-end of things... what about our U.S. consulate and their assessment of the current danger to Americans traveling in Baja? There are no current warnings about Mexico on the U.S. Department of State website. Most of the current postings are about new passport regulations.

AllSafe Travels lists links to current travel advisories for Mexico by multiple countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. as well as the U.S. No new safety alerts (for the past three months plus) have been posted by any of these countries.

As an end note, I am living/traveling in Central America at the moment, but plan to return to Baja to live, travel, work and play. Will I worry about safety? Yes. Will I fear for my life around every corner? No.

The main precautions I will take are to NEVER travel at night, will not camp in Northen Baja (from Tijuana to Ensenada and up to Guerrero Negro) unless in a large group, will avoid the Tijuana border (crossing at Tecate if driving), not drive a fancy SUV or newer automobile, and will read posts from other travelers and long-time resident expats on Baja listservs and newsgroups such as Baja Nomad, prior to traveling.

Other than that, most likely will have a wonderful time, in an incredibly gorgeous area of our planet.

Safe travels, Molly, author of Viva La Baja! Relocation Guide to the Baja California Peninsula