Violence fuels fears about Rocky Point, but diehards don't fret

Residents see it as the safe beach haven of always despite sporadic crimes that have spooked tourists
2012-09-16T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T17:09:56Z Violence fuels fears about Rocky Point, but diehards don't fretTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 16, 2012 12:00 am  • 

PUERTO PENASCO, Sonora - First, there was the home invasion. Then, a gunbattle in broad daylight. Then a small pair of earthquakes.

And as if to complete a calamitous cycle, last week a flood blocked the highway to Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, the closest ocean beach to Tucson.

It's all been enough to scare off many tourists from north of the border, especially after the home invasion and shootout prompted the U.S. Consulate to issue a new warning in July about travel to the town, known to many English-speaking tourists as Rocky Point.

Seeing the news and warnings, many have asked themselves, 'Why risk it?'

And yet those Americans who still go to Rocky Point look around and ask a different question: Where's the danger? For many who live in and visit this beach town, there's no relationship between the image painted by news accounts of violence and drug-war conflict and the reality they experience. For them, Rocky Point still offers a calm, peaceful time by the sea.

Returning home last week, Tucsonan Cynthia Choate said she had been reticent to travel to Rocky Point due to news of recent crimes there. They included an unprecedented incident: On July 17 criminals robbed and assaulted a group of travelers in a home invasion at a house in Las Conchas, an American-dominated residential area that stretches along the beach to the east of the main town.

"We stayed at Las Conchas, and for the first time ever they actually checked me in at the guard gate," she said.

That was among many signs of increased security she saw at Las Conchas and around town. They also include military checkpoints and trucks full of troops or police officers driving around town. Soldiers went through her Toyota SUV at the new checkpoint as they left Puerto Peñasco last week, she said.

Members of group had a great time on their three-night trip, Choate said, but she noted, "I'm just not used to seeing the big guns" of the soldiers and police.

The biggest problem she and her three traveling companions confronted was at the end of the trip - crossing the Rio Sonoyta to get back to the border at Lukeville, Ariz. Lines stretched throughout Sonoyta, Sonora, as cars and trucks passed one at a time through brown water that rushed by, measuring three feet deep in spots.

SOME INCIDENTS

Fears about security in Rocky Point surged in 2009 and 2010, as general concern about drug-war violence in Mexico hit home with a few incidents in the beach town or Sonoyta, the border town across from Lukeville that is the recommended route for travel to the beach town.

Between that, the recession and a new requirement that Americans carry passports to be able to cross back into the States, American tourism has dropped significantly. It's hit business such as Mike Riggs' Latitude 31 Sports Bar and Grill, one of many American-owned businesses in Rocky Point.

Discouraged after a day in which just six customers came into the restaurant, Riggs said "We're still open, but it's difficult."

Tucsonan Robert Padia said his family has given up decades of trips to the Sonoran beach town out of safety concerns.

"We have not been back for three years now, although I'm fairly sure everything would be fine," Padia said via email. "We have always traveled during the day and with a fairly large group. But I would not be able to live with myself if something happened to my family for margaritas on the beach. We probably will not go back in the foreseeable future."

It isn't the high season for Americans yet - that begins next month and lasts through the spring. But business people are hoping to see at least a small increase in business this year over last.

That may depend on whether tourists believe the vision of life in a Mexican beach town described by Arizonans at the Playa Bonita RV Park along Sandy Beach. One of the oldest such parks in Rocky Point, it caters to many people who've been going there for decades.

Tucsonans Jan Tate and her fiance Joseph Valenzuela arrived Wednesday afternoon for a short stay but are planning to spend much of the year there as time goes on.

"When I come here, I feel like I'm home," Tate said, sighing.

She's been coming to Rocky Point since the early 1980s, and every year spends time on homebuilding projects with a missionary group from Pantano Christian Church. Neither she nor Valenzuela has ever had any trouble there, they said. To the contrary, they feel safe and welcome.

In fact, many residents and longtime visitors to Puerto Peñasco say they are more afraid in Tucson or other parts of the United States.

David and Lori Hvidsten, one-time Tucson residents now living in Phoenix, vouched for their complete comfort in town. David Hvidsten was dismayed by the emptiness of the RV park, where they were staying next to Tate and Valenzuela.

"This is disaster," he said, looking over hundreds of empty parking spaces. "We've been coming here for years, and we've never seen it so desolate."

NOT IN PUBLIC EYE

Visitors and residents may never encounter the underworld activities that quietly take place in and around Puerto Peñasco, just as they may not knowingly cross paths with drug traffickers in Tucson.

But that doesn't mean they aren't going on - just that they rarely burst into the open.

The problem has been that in Mexico in recent years, when they do burst out, it can be in a spasm of public violence. Two days after the home invasion in Las Conchas, a shootout broke out in broad daylight near Rocky Point's recreational sports complex. That shooting, plus more soon after between police and some of the original participants in the shootout, left six people dead, including a police officer.

It was a shocking occurrence, but one that involved outsiders and touched the lives of few people, said Rosie Glover, an insurance saleswoman who has become an informal spokeswoman for the English-speaking business sector.

"That afternoon was a regular day. It wasn't anything that interfered with their (local people's) days unless they witnessed it or were nearby," she said.

The explanation of the shootout has never been clear. Some say it was connected to the earlier home invasion, but more recently the Mexican government offered a different explanation.

Announcing the Sept. 6 arrest of Adelmo Niebla González, a suspected trafficker important in the region's underworld, Mexico's Ministry of Public Safety said a battle between a trafficking group called "Los Memos" and another called "Los Mazatlecos" in the Peñasco-Sonoyta corridor was the cause of the shootout.

The same conflict resulted in a worrisome occurrence Sept. 2 in Sonoyta, the border town that the U.S. Consulate recommends American travelers pass through on their way to Rocky Point. That Sunday night, a convoy of perhaps 20 vehicles carrying armed men drove into the border town and essentially took it over. Many residents went home and waited for the men to leave.

They did after a few hours, and a gunbattle apparently involving them occurred about 25 miles outside of town, prompting the arrival of hundreds of troops and police officers.

An atmosphere of underlying tension persists in Sonoyta, a half-dozen residents said in interviews Thursday. All of them refused to give their names out of fear of reprisals.

Some residents say they have a mild ongoing fear of the drug traffickers, while others said the worse part has been the response - the arrival of so many soldiers and police.

TROUBLES UNNOTICED

For American visitors, the troubles in Sonoyta are liable to go unnoticed as they drive through the town in 10 minutes and are smelling the sea air in Rocky Point an hour later.

Many businesspeople in town worry that the casual American visitor is scared away from Rocky Point. While operating a news website about the town for two years, Glover felt a backlash sometimes when she published news of crime or other negative occurrences.

She believes only telling the truth about uncomfortable incidents will squelch rumors and allow the industry to deal with reality.

"I wince when the cheerleaders go overboard," she said.

Larry Audsley, a Tucsonan who frequents Puerto Peñasco, said some of his traveling companions simply have a lower risk tolerance than he does.

"It's not Mayberry on the beach down there anymore," Audsley said. "So some people can't relax. To me, it doesn't bother me."

Glover wonders if it isn't time for Rocky Point to stop trying to cater to the casual visitor who's worried about traveling in Mexico.

"If someone's a nervous wreck being here, let's not convince them to come here," she said. "I believe we can flourish by attracting knowledgeable travelers who've done their homework."

On StarNet: See more photos at azstarnet.com/gallery

The official warning

The U.S. State Department recommends that American visitors not travel between Nogales, Sonora, and Puerto Peñasco.

Rather, travelers to Rocky Point should cross the border at Lukeville, Ariz. and take the highway from Sonoyta, Sonora, to the beach. They should also stick to main roads and travel during the daytime, the department recommends.

The University of Arizona's dean of students reiterated those recommendations in a message to students last month. The office also recommended that students use a buddy system, always carry identification, keep contact info for the consulate on hand, and be aware when drinking alcohol, especially at bars.

Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or tsteller@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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