Back to the Beach

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Valley News Issue: August 2013
Group Free
Pin It

Though statistically safe, Rocky Point paid for cartel violence like any other stigma-plagued Mexico tourism town. But some Valley sun-lovers are reclaiming “Arizona’s beach.”

A few years ago, before Sinaloa cartel henchmen started carving up their rivals – along with police and innocent bystanders – and certainly before the legendary tourism town of Acapulco became the murder and existential-terror capital of Mexico, Tyson Milanovich had no trouble finding friends to accompany his family on their yearly trip to Rocky Point.

PHM0813 HT01

And why would he? The sleepy fishing town on the Gulf of California – located closer to the Valley than San Diego, and exponentially more affordable – has been a favorite destination of beach-minded Arizonans since the late 19th century, when sport fishermen from Phoenix would coach across the border to cast their lines into the languid, brackish swells. As the decades passed, families, real estate investors, retirees and spring break revelers joined the fun. Rocky Point became known – somewhat presumptuously – as “Arizona’s beach.”

Then came 2006. That was the year newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon initiated Operation Michoacán, deploying 6,500 troops to the southwestern state of Michoacán to uproot its tangle of drug gangsters. The actual result was more like a stirred-up hornets’ nest. Viewed as the opening salvo in the six-year-old Mexican Drug War, the military action in Michoacán, and later campaigns, disrupted the balance of power between the country’s drug cartels and triggered spasms of violence across Mexico. Astoundingly, Mexico’s murder rate tripled between 2007 (8.1 per 100,000 residents) and 2010 (23.7 per 100,000 residents), according to the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

Not coincidentally, that was about the same time Milanovich and his brood started going solo to his godfather’s little slice of beachfront heaven in Playa Miramar, about 20 minutes east of downtown Rocky Point. “We used to have some friends who went with us before [the cartel violence], but now they don’t want to go,” the Ahwatukee media professional says. “I get it. They have kids. I guess they read one too many newspaper articles, and it freaked them out.”

Why isn’t Milanovich freaked out by the wanton violence in Rocky Point? Mostly because wanton violence in Rocky Point doesn’t exist – at least, not in Juarez-style volume. Business advocates on both sides of the border are doing all they can to coax lost tourism dollars back into town with precisely that message – that, and maybe a Crosby, Stills and Nash show on the beach. The question is: Will it ever be like the old days?

PHM0813 HT02

The Disneyland Fallacy
Mexico’s epidemic of cartel-sponsored murders has become an economy unto itself. Whole industries – security garments, domestic air travel, personal protection – have enjoyed collateral growth because of the violence. Other industries – most notably, tourism – have suffered tremendously. Academically, the violence has been scrutinized, rationalized and qualified – coolly and dispassionately examined for what it means and doesn’t mean about Mexico’s national character. Three researchers from the University of San Diego even ran an exhaustive study that sought to distinguish gangland-style cartel murder – mass graves, beheadings, back-of-the-head bullets, etc. – with garden-variety, non-cartel-affiliated murder. Their findings: Upward of 70 percent of the country’s homicides in the peak year of 2011 were cartel-linked. Take away those crimes, which are disproportionately targeted at other criminals, and Mexico isn’t much more violent than New Mexico, the thinking goes.

The concept of a propositional fallacy has also been used to qualify cartel violence and its perceived threat to travelers – which is to say, just because parts of Mexico are dangerous doesn’t mean all of Mexico is dangerous. It seems like an intuitive piece of logic, but many Americans – and, perhaps, the media – seem to gloss over it. They forget that Mexico is a vast, diverse country of 750,561 square miles – the world’s 14th largest country, in fact – and impossible to paint with one brush.

Tell it to Henry Altman. The Valley-based entertainment producer and real estate investor owns multiple developments in Rocky Point and a mammoth, 60-acre tract west of town. He’s a Rocky Point believer, and to him, blacklisting Rocky Point because of violence 500 miles away in Juarez makes about as much sense, say, as skipping Disneyland because of a shootout in Oakland.

“It was the slanted media and bad press if you want to know the truth,” Altman says, when asked to speculate on the reasons Rocky Point tourism dipped by 50 percent between 2007 and 2010. “The sensationalism of anyone getting killed in a cartel fight, and then it’s unsafe to go anywhere for any reason. And it’s not just because I’m a property owner in Mexico. It’s very hard to combat that kind of mass-media group thinking.”

The numbers generally support the idea that Rocky Point got a raw deal – if tourists indeed avoided the town because of violence fears. As noted in an April 2011 Phoenix New Times blog post, the last known murder of an American in Rocky Point occurred in the early 1990s – and that was a woman whose American husband hired a hit man to kill her.

According to U.S. Consul Chad Cummins – the State Department’s chief diplomat in Nogales, Mexico – the last known act of violence against an American in Rocky Point was a home invasion and sexual assault in July 2012. That was also the last time his department issued a travel warning for Americans. “I’m happy to say, since then we have not had any incidents, and that’s very good news,” he says. “The truth is, the violent crime rate is not particularly high in Rocky Point.”

Rocky Point has a population of about 57,000, which can swell by as much as 20,000 on peak tourism weekends. One could make the argument the town is safer for Americans than, say, comparably-sized Goodyear, which saw 97 incidents of aggravated assault in 2010.

Which isn’t to say that Rocky Point – known in Mexico as Puerto Peñasco – has been untouched by cartel violence. In June 2010, Police Chief Erick Landagaray Macias and his bodyguard were both shot by presumptive cartel assassins, and a dramatic July 2012 midday shootout resulted in the death of five suspected cartel members and a police officer. It’s this kind of high-profile, unabashed violence that contributes to Mexico’s PR problem. Targeted at Americans? No. But vicious, messy entanglements that could potentially ensnare tourists? Yes.

PHM0813 HT03

Beside the “Point”
For Rocky Point, there’s also the added stigma of its Sonoran connection to Nogales, the homicide-ridden border town some 120 miles away. Once a kooky day-trip destination for Arizonans – easy meds, cheap margies – Nogales was transformed into one of Mexico’s bloodiest, nastiest cities by the drug war (see graphic, page 26). “People came down to enjoy nightlife and tourism,” Cummins says. “But that dried up and disappeared. It’s nothing like it used to be. The old curio shops mostly dried up. Currently, the city is making a big effort to attract medical tourism and other industries... but the place has changed. If you came down here on Friday at 10 p.m., you wouldn’t see anybody.”

The state of Sonora also suffered a brutal PR blow with the implausible arrest in May of Goodyear mother of seven Yanira Maldonado, a devout Mormon whom authorities accused of smuggling 12 pounds of marijuana under her bus seat. Arrested at a military checkpoint about 90 miles from the U.S. border, Maldonado – who was returning to the U.S. from a family funeral with her husband, Gary – was released less than a week later, but only after authorities allegedly demanded a $5,000 bribe, incurred the public scorn of Senator Jeff Flake, and were confronted with video evidence that proved her innocence.

The incident served to bolster the perception among many Americans that Mexican law enforcement entities are prone to corruption and capricious arrests. After all, everyone seems to have a story about a cousin or a friend’s cricket partner who was shaken down for a Benjamin while driving lawfully on Mexican roads.

All the same, Rocky Point Convention and Visitors Bureau chief Javier Muñoz counsels objectivity. “I can tell you that [police harassment] depends on where you are and at what time,” he says. “I can tell you that we as Mexicans have more difficulties when we go to the U.S., getting our permits, and sometimes being treated like thieves, and all we want is to go shopping. I won’t say that it doesn’t happen... but it’s more urban legends than fact.”

Milanovich, the Rocky Point regular, agrees the dirty-cop cliché is “probably overblown.” He continues: “I spent three summers as a glorified babysitter in Mexico, as a tour guide for students. I lived in Mazatlán six weeks a year, and dealt with local police. And there were very few problems. The kids got in trouble for the same things that would get them in trouble on this side of the border.”

Classic “Rock”
For the first time since the start of the drug war, the number of homicides in Mexico actually went down over a calendar year – to a three-year low of 20,560 in 2012, according to the Mexican National Security System. The picture was even more positive in Sonora. In 2011, for the first time since 2007, Nogales did not make Mexico’s Top 10 list for highest homicide rates, falling below 12 per 100,000 residents – about a quarter the rate of Detroit.

As if by magic, tourism in Rocky Point seems to be picking up again. Tourism official Muñoz  reports that spring break visitors topped 20,000 in 2013 – up 2,000 from the previous year – while high-season hotel occupancy rates exceeded 75 percent in July 2012 after struggling to tick 60 percent the last four years.

“It’s difficult to confirm exact numbers,” Cummins cautions. “Sometimes, the [tourism bureaus] offer up a very optimistic appraisal. But the economy is improving.”

Rocky Point business owners and hospitality workers – accustomed to the upward of $2 million American visitors leave behind on a peak weekend – are banking their livelihoods on a better economy. But so is a regimen of north-of-the-border developers, most left holding upside-down land investments when the Drug War and the U.S. housing crisis made landfall at about the same time. Within sight of Milanovich’s beach house is a half-finished guest tower that has sat near the surf like a giant, eerie monolith for the last three years. Such sights are common in and around town.

“The [tourism downturn] hit the economy hard because almost all the developments had to stop construction... with the problems in the U.S. with the banks,” adding to the town’s unemployment woes, Muñoz says.

Those very same American developers are eager to see the region reclaim its rightful status as Arizona’s beachside getaway hotspot – and they’re not sitting by passively. Entertainment mogul/land developer Altman thinks he has the perfect economic jump-starter: Boomer Fest Days, his long-in-the-works, five-day classic-rock bacchanal, staged on a beach just west of downtown Rocky Point. Featuring a boomer-pleasing talent wish-list that includes – or has included – Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, John Fogerty and Crosby, Stills and Nash, the event was originally scheduled for May 2013, then pushed to September, and again to October – the better, Altman says, to take advantage of pleasant fall weather and put as much separation between the Goodyear housewife incident and the festival as possible.

“We want to employ hundreds and hundreds of local teens and college kids, mom and pops, and food vendors, and they’re gonna make a lot of money,” says Altman, whose extensive international real estate resume includes four years as president of Coldwell Banker Affiliates of Central America. In addition to 24 music and comedy acts, Altman envisions a celebrity golf fundraiser, sailing events and a PBS special, which he says will “reach 30 million households.”

“It will bring more familiarity to Rocky Point, and be a generational event for baby-boomer culture,” he says, citing the estimated 4,000 fans who attended Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers’ annual Circus Mexicus show in June as proof of the festival’s viability and appeal for American music fans. As for the estimated $600 general admission ticket, they can afford it, Altman says. They’re baby boomers.

As of press time, the final lineup – as well as the October event date – was not confirmed. Check for more information.

Safe Harbor?
Boomer Fest Days isn’t the only dare-to-dream project that may yet restore Rocky Point to the tourism glory of 2006, when an estimated 1.7 million visitors kicked around in its surf, and shoveled away mouthfuls of fresh ceviche at its beachside cantinas. In June, AeroMexico launched nonstop flight service from Las Vegas to Rocky Point’s newly built international airport – proof positive that travel forecasters take the town seriously.

“Las Vegas has two things: It’s very cheap to fly from that airport, and Tucson flights have to [go around] Gila Bend military airspace to get to Rocky Point, which makes it a two-hour flight,” Muñoz says, explaining the rationale not to base the flight in Arizona.

Perhaps more exciting for Valley travelers, there’s “serious talk” of reviving efforts to construct a deep-water port for cruise ships, according to Altman. In an interview with Inside Tucson Business in 2011, Sonora tourism official Javier Tapia identified Holland America and Carnival Corporation as two firms interested in a Rocky Point departure port, which would be dredged out of wetlands to compensate for the coast’s extreme tidal shifts. “The state is putting all of their efforts forward to make it happen,” Muñoz says.

Cruise ships and Stevie Wonder or no, Rocky Point will remain a tempting beachside apple for Valley travelers. Is it worth the risk? That, like any other travel decision, will require a cool appraisal of the factors involved. At present, there seem to be more positives – including a widened and resurfaced Highway 8, which connects Rocky Point to the border checkpoint at Sonoyta, and which Altman says “has shoulders broad enough to support an Airstream with a dually” – than there were just four years ago.

Besides, Arizona isn’t exactly brimming with seaside alternatives, Milanovich notes. “The kids and dogs can run and play and frolic in the water. We’ll fly kites and hit the town. It’s really wonderful. We wouldn’t go if it wasn’t.”