When Mexico’s drug-war violence surged in the middle of the last decade, Rocky Point was in a building boom, and the tourist industry assured us the beach town remained tranquilo.
It was — for a while.
Then, around 2007, the narcos made Rocky Point a home base, but still the local promoters insisted things were OK, because the criminals and cops took care of any conflicts outside town.
After that, occasional gunfights and drug-war executions started cropping up in Puerto Peñasco, culminating in a running gun battle that killed six people in July last year. The hospitality interests assured us the trouble doesn’t target tourists or take place in tourist areas of town.
On Wednesday, Mexican military helicopter gunships fired into a resort, exchanging heavy-weapons fire with narcos who had retreated into a Sandy Beach condo complex where they were staying. What are the promoters going to say now, I asked myself Wednesday — “It’s OK because they’re not firing into the tourists’ rooms”?
I’m not one to freak out over violence in Mexico, and even now I would feel comfortable taking my kids to Rocky Point. In my view, the risk remains small, and the biggest danger has long been traffic accidents. But I don’t for a second blame my relatively brave wife, Patty — and thousands of Americans like her — for saying, “You’re not taking my children down there.”
You just can’t explain away helicopter gunships firing into a condo complex.
That doesn’t mean people, especially those trying to promote Puerto Peñasco’s overbuilt real-estate market, won’t try. Investors — OK, speculators — built a string of condo towers along the previously pristine Sandy Beach over the last 15 years, but some were never completed and some others were never filled thanks to the economic collapse and drug-war fears of potential buyers.
It was only this year that tourism returned to a relatively robust level. On Thursday, after the smoke from Wednesday’s hours-long gun battle had cleared, the city’s mayor, Gerardo Figueroa Zazueta, did his best to paint the incident in the best light possible.
“The residents of Puerto Peñasco can relax … as can tourists in the area where many condominiums are found. Security protocols were followed according to law enforcement regulations,” he said in a written statement.
“Tourists living in or visiting the area should feel safe and take comfort in the fact that three levels of law enforcement came together to smother criminal activity, leaving only five dead … all of them presumed delinquents (criminals) at this time.
“We understand the concern, but foreigners should know that this was a military operation specifically targeting those involved in organized crime who, unfortunately, resisted arrest.”
That’s not the worst whitewash I’ve ever heard, but c’mon — “Security protocols were followed”?! All the dead are “presumed” to be criminals?!
And perhaps the biggest howler: “Three levels of law enforcement came together to smother criminal activity” in what once sentence later he contradictorily described as “a military operation.”
As Patty said, when you consider traveling to Rocky Point, you now have to take into consideration that there’s a remote chance that, if you’re unlucky enough to stay near a narco’s condo, a helicopter gunship will be firing into the complex.
The Mexican government explained its firepower by saying the bodyguards of the kingpin they were after, Gonzalo Inzunza , were armed with .60-caliber rifles and shooting back.
Even Rocky Point’s residents and avid defenders are conceding this point and are unhappy with the heavy firepower employed among the undersold tourist towers.
Rick Ramirez, a Tucson hairstylist who used to sell real estate in Rocky Point and still owns a condo there, told me Thursday that he finds much of the U.S. news coverage of crime there “sensationalized,” but he understood this time is a bit different.
“My only concern about this whole thing is that you had a helicopter firing into a condo complex,” he said. “That’s a little bit over the top.”
Ramirez is confident though, that those tourists scared off by this incident will consider traveling to Rocky Point eventually if nothing else happens for some months or even years.
I also talked Thursday with a well-known Rocky Point realist — Rosie Glover, who not only sells insurance but also heads the local government’s visitor assistance bureau. Over the years, she has taken heat for being too pragmatic about the town’s problems, not whitewashing them.
She thinks Rocky Point’s tourist industry needs to focus on attracting people who aren’t easily scared by hearing of these incidents.
“I believe it’s not healthy for someone who doesn’t want to come here, to come here. It’s stressful, and that’s not good for anybody. Nor is it healthful for us to try to talk people into coming, and beg people to come,” she said.
But even Glover, who grew up in Pitiquito, Sonora, and is as bicultural as they come, couldn’t resist pointing out that the military operation was narrowly targeted:
“They didn’t shoot willy-nilly into the resort. They were shooting specifically into one villa.”
You can’t blame a segment of Arizona tourists if they don’t take comfort in that.