TOPICS > Economy

Baja’s Tourism Suffers Amid Mexico Drug War

September 15, 2010 at 5:24 PM EDT
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A drop in tourism and manufacturing has left the Mexican state Baja, California, with a struggling economy. Jose Luis Sierra of New America Media reports on how the drug war and recession have played a role.
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GWEN IFILL: And now: how one town is coping with the one-two punch of a recession and a drug war. We go to the Mexican state of Baja California. The reporter is Jose Luis Sierra of New America Media.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA, New America Media: For decades, Americans have come to the beaches of Baja California, Mexico. But now Mexico’s drug war has hurt the important tourism industry.

LINDA LOPEZ, visiting Mexico: All the things that you hear, all the negativity, you know, the gangs, the violence.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: This is Linda Lopez’s first trip to Mexico in years. She came reluctantly just to see her family.

LINDA LOPEZ: We haven’t come in a while because of the fear factor and what people say about Tijuana, the drug cartels, the shootings, and because of that, we have got all the luxuries in the United States; why would we come to Mexico?

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: Hugo Torres is the mayor of Rosarito Beach and the owner of its biggest hotel.

HUGO TORRES, mayor of Rosarito Beach, Mexico: We were having over a million visitors, over a million-and-a-half in the good times of the tourist activity. And they are down below that probably from 60 percent to 70 percent in the last two years.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: In 2008, the city was struck by a wave of murders. There were also charges of police corruption in collaboration with drug traffickers. Since then, about half of the police force has been sacked and replaced, and a special tourism unit was trained in the U.S. to help visitors feel more secure. Edgar Morales is one of the new officers. He represents a new corruption-free face.

EDGAR MORALES, Rosarito Beach, Mexico, police: There were stories about corruption and dirty cops and things like that. But now it is totally different. We have new people. We have young people. So, it is — it’s definitely a different atmosphere.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: There is also a strong federal military force in Baja. The soldiers man roadblocks and check cars for drugs and weapons. There have been only nine homicides in Rosarito Beach this year, but tourism is still down. That means fewer jobs and lower wages.

FELIPE RODRIGUEZ, Mexico (through translator): The last three years, the economy has really fallen off here. A lot of the people who worked in hotels are looking for jobs in factories, or they’re going to Tijuana or other places.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: And drug violence is just one problem. The global recession also killed the real estate market. Today, half-built condo towers and housing developments dot the coast. They were planned for American buyers.

KANOA BIONDOLILLO, realtor: We had 200 probably, I think, over developments planned to be built along the coastline that were — were submitting permits to be built. And, since then, all the pre-construction has stopped.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: Americans Kanoa Biondolillo and his father, David, started a real estate company when the market was hot. And now they have had to lay off employees.

KANOA BIONDOLILLO: We originally built out our office space to — to support 30 to 60 agents. And, currently, we are running around 10, about six to 10. So, that’s — that’s basically what — what the marketing is supporting right now.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: Are you optimistic about it?

KANOA BIONDOLILLO: We are celebrating getting by right now. So, for us, getting by is a celebration.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: The global recession has also hit Mexico’s manufacturing industry, including foreign-owned plants.

ALEJANDRO BUSTAMANTE, president, Plantronics Mexico: I have been 15 years with a company, and it’s been the worst year that we have experienced.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: Alejandro Bustamante is the president of Plantronics Mexico. It assembles electronic headsets. He says his company has cut production, which hurts income and workers.

ALEJANDRO BUSTAMANTE: A lot of companies, during the economic crisis that we have passed, had to do important adjustments, some as low as a 5 percent reduction. Some others had to go up to a 20 percent reduction. It goes from production to revenue to people. It varies depending on the type of industry, as I mentioned before.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: Others here say none of the country’s social and economic problems can be helped as long as so much money is being spent on the drug war.

GASTON LUKEN, federal legislator: There aren’t battles that we win and battles that we lose, but the war is going on. The casualties keep on mounting.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA:Gaston Luken is a federal legislator in the opposition party.

GASTON LUKEN: Obviously, those dollars will be taken from education, from social programs, from economic growth. I think there is very little incentive for change or very little leeway for this administration to do something effective.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: The real estate developer says, change will only will come when Mexico can restore its image as a safe place.

KANOA BIONDOLILLO: We love Mexico. We want to get back to getting people to think about Mexico as fun in the sun and Margaritaville and those types of things, and stop associating Mexico with blood and violence.

JOSE LUIS SIERRA: But with Mexican cities filled with police and soldiers, that may not happen soon.