Tourists will continue to be a growing source of revenue for Puerto Peñasco, but not for the city’s police, says the mayor of the Mexican town some call “Arizona’s beach.”
For too long some police officers were used to extort visitors, said Mayor Ernesto “Kiko” Munro. “They would stop them at any corner under the excuse they had run a stop sign or were driving over the speed limit, when we didn’t even have the equipment to determine that.”
The new mayor, who took office last September, said under his administration the municipal police have orders to not hassle visitors, but instead to hand out warnings when appropriate.
“It’s a change in attitude,” he said.
The city has gone a step further and launched the Tourism Auxiliary Unit, a group of men and women who are there to render aid and serve as a buffer between tourists and law enforcement.
The mission of the 20-member team — the first in Sonora — is to make tourists feel safe and comfortable while they’re in Puerto Peñasco, said Luis Molina, head of the group.
Members of the auxiliary are bilingual and trained in first aid and self-defense. They have knowledge of the area and are able to guide people to where they’re going, as well as offer information on the town’s history and areas of interest.
They do not carry guns or give out citations, Molina said, but they carry handcuffs and are trained to make an arrest if necessary.
Since the unit began operation on Feb. 26, it has been involved in a few arrests but has mostly helped lost tourists and provided first response at a couple of accidents. That was the calm before the storm, officials said.
Starting this weekend, Puerto Peñasco is expected to receive about 150,000 visitors over the spring break and Holy Week holidays.
“What do they call it? Trial by fire? This is going to be a good experience for them,” said Donna Whitman, who is with Tucson-Mexico Sister Cities and is a member of a citizens’ advisory committee created to oversee the auxiliary unit.
“They’ve been in training for some time, they weren’t just thrown together,” she said. “They were chosen for their experience, for the skills that they have.”
Walking the line
By Friday, everywhere you looked there were Arizona, California and Texas license plates, and area hotels expected to be at more than 80 percent capacity for the season, officials said.
For many, the fun started early.
Antonio Martinez and Alicia Gonzalez, visiting from Tijuana, were walking the Old Port area with their children about 2 p.m. when a young woman stumbled out of a restaurant, grabbed their little boy and started dancing with him.
She was clearly intoxicated, they said, and seemed like the ideal beneficiary of the new auxiliary unit.
“If they’re there to help those people, then it’s a great idea,” Gonzalez said. “What if they fall; what if someone tries to take advantage of them?”
College kids are a constant source of concern during spring break, officials said, because of a lower drinking age in Mexico, and the fact that for many this is a first vacation away from their parents.
Part of the auxiliary unit’s mandate is to allow visitors to have the fun they’re looking for, while keeping everyone safe.
“As a tourist town we have to walk the line between tolerance and law enforcement,” Molina said. “But that line is risk. Once someone becomes a risk to themselves or others, the unit will interfere.”
Their interaction with tourists goes from warning them to stop what they are doing, including escorting them back to their hotel room, to detaining them and calling police.
“If a tourist represents the risk of a fatal accident, he would be safer in jail,” Molina said.
This approach sounds like a good way to handle things, said Beverly Romero, a University of Arizona student who was waiting for a taxi with a group of friends.
“We’re here to have fun and if there’s a way to get a warning if someone’s doing something stupid, that’s better than (facing) the cops,” she said.
A slow day
A cool wind kept many tourists out of the water Friday, so they took to the streets and the sand dunes, still wearing their beachwear.
ATV rentals are everywhere in Puerto Peñasco, and while a helmet comes with every rental, it is more common to see it strapped to the front bumper than on a rider’s head.
By midday, the auxiliary unit had already reported about 10 accidents involving ATVs, officials said. Most of the time it’s just someone’s pride that’s hurt, said unit member Jorge Daniel Gomez.
“They’ll flip their ATV while riding in the dunes, we show up, they decline help and ride away,” he said. “But at some of the speeds they get up to and not wearing a helmet, it’s dangerous.”
Gomez assisted in a more serious accident Friday, when a Utility Task Vehicle rolled over and the driver’s fingers on one hand were almost severed.
In 28 years as a paramedic, 21 with the Red Cross and seven with the fire department, Gomez said he has seen everything.
Half of the members of the auxiliary unit are certified paramedics with years of experience, Gomez said. They know where accidents tend to happen, are familiar with the geography and can quickly get help for someone who’s injured.
In their uniforms of khaki slacks and white shirts, the auxiliary unit patrols the areas where tourists mostly congregate: the beach, from Playa Bonita to Sandy Beach; the malecón or Old Port area — the seaside strip filled with bars, restaurants, fresh fish stands and curio shops — and La Choya Bay.
Depending on their patrol area, they walk, bike or ride an ATV along their beat.
With most spring breakers just getting into town, Friday was a slow day, they said, but the radio chatter as unit members Francisco Leyva Montijo and Alexis Garcia Perea walked down the beach sounded anything but.
As the sun went down there was an ATV accident with an ambulance and police en route, a speeding driver spotted with an open container, and a white sedan taking up two lanes and barreling toward the hotel zone.
“He almost ran me over,” a unit member radioed.
A different Peñasco
The Tourism Auxiliary Unit is part of a real change in Puerto Peñasco, not just a sop to safety concerns or a public-relations stunt, officials said.
“As far as the unit goes, that’s the idea behind having an advisory committee, to keep the auxiliary accountable, that it doesn’t become a ghost agency that’s there for show,” Molina said.
The committee, made up of Mexican and American community members, is there to provide oversight and support to the auxiliary, said Donna Whitman, who is part of the group.
She said they receive biweekly incident reports and will soon start working on surveys to see how tourists and residents are responding. If improvements or any changes need to be made, they will make recommendations.
“They will be changing the mindset of a lot of people,” Whitman said. “I think Mayor Munro has made a very firm statement of what he expects from the police department and this group.”