Rocky Relations

Dan GleasonDecember 2019
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Illustration by Mirelle Inglefield
Illustration by Mirelle Inglefield

Will two cases of mass cartel bloodshed in the Mexican state of Sonora cripple tourism in Rocky Point – aka “Arizona’s beach”?

James Cox has no qualms about visiting Puerto Peñasco, aka Rocky Point – even in the wake of two grisly acts of cartel violence originating in the Mexican state of Sonora, where the popular vacation spot is located.

A retired educator living in Phoenix, Cox first visited Rocky Point three winters ago with his adult daughter. “We loved it,” he says. “We rented a beautiful house and enjoyed the nightlife. I lived in Cleveland for years, in neighborhoods where you had to keep your head on a swivel when you walked at night. So nothing about Rocky Point makes me uneasy.”

His daughter, though, is a different story. Unnerved by the recent news events, most notably the massacre of nine women and children from a Mormon community several hours east of town, she asked Cox to pull the plug on a family trip to Rocky Point this winter. “I don’t want to subject her to any situation where she wouldn’t feel safe,” he says. “We’ll wait to see what is done to make it safer on the Mexican side… before considering another trip there.”

For tourism officials and business owners in Rocky Point – many of whom weathered the lean years of the late 2000s, when the stigma of cartel bloodshed and the onus of a massive global recession conspired to choke off travel to the area – it must seem like history repeating itself. A four-hour drive from Phoenix, the fishing village sits on the Sea of Cortez, surrounded by wide, inviting beaches with inexpensive hotels and snazzy rental homes, and a squirrely cantina scene for the party set. For all these reasons, Arizonans have been flocking there for decades. Rocky Point tourism officials say that a whopping 80 percent of its U.S. visitor-base historically comes from Arizona, which helped spawn its somewhat paternalistic-sounding nickname: “Arizona’s Beach.”

The aerial view of Colonia LeBaron, Mexico, where family and friends of shooting victim Christina Langford Johnson gathered for a funeral service on Saturday, November 9. Johnson was one victim of a cartel ambush that claimed nine lives. In the attack, Langford Johnson jumped out of her vehicle and waved her hands to show she was no threat to the attackers and was shot twice in the heart, community members say. Her 7-month-old daughter, Faith Marie Johnson, was found unharmed in her car seat.; Photo by Marco Ugarte/AP Images
The aerial view of Colonia LeBaron, Mexico, where family and friends of shooting victim Christina Langford Johnson gathered for a funeral service on Saturday, November 9. Johnson was one victim of a cartel ambush that claimed nine lives. In the attack, Langford Johnson jumped out of her vehicle and waved her hands to show she was no threat to the attackers and was shot twice in the heart, community members say. Her 7-month-old daughter, Faith Marie Johnson, was found unharmed in her car seat.; Photo by Marco Ugarte/AP Images

So the prospect of Arizonans losing their appetite for Rocky Point travel is certainly an existential issue for the city’s estimated $300 million tourism industry. Meanwhile, we norteamericano Rocky Point fans are obliged to ask ourselves the same question that always arises during Mexico’s cyclical waves of cartel violence: Is there really anything to fear?

The recent news stories are undeniably horrific. In early November, cartel gangs brutally murdered three women and six children of the extended LeBaron family, generational Mormon expats who hold dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico and live most of the year in Chihuahua, near the Sonora border. The Mexican government’s official version is widely accepted: The victims, in a three-vehicle convoy, were en route from one of their ranches to another. Their SUVs closely resembled those being driven by a drug cartel gang, and a rival gang in hot pursuit mistakenly opened fire. The murders occurred in an isolated, very remote mountainous area, some nine hours’ drive east of Rocky Point. (In perspective, it takes about that long to drive from Phoenix to El Paso.)

Compounding the problem for Rocky Point tourism, the murders happened only a few weeks after the chilling discovery of some 60 bodies in five mass graves just outside of Rocky Point, bodies still unidentified and causes of death uncertain until forensic examinations conclude. Those recent incidents, having gone viral, have ramped up fears of traveling perhaps anywhere in Mexico.

Almost immediately after the LeBaron murders and the unearthing of those graves, Rocky Point hotels noticed an uptick in cancellations of Arizona bookings. The revenue loss did not immediately dent Rocky Point’s coffers, only because the timing coincided with Mexico’s Revolution Day Memorial holiday weekend. Luis Alberto Gonzalez, marketing director for the Sonoran Tourism Department, says those vacated rooms “were quickly filled and the beaches were packed.”

But the true concern is long term. Travel into Mexico can be hyper-responsive to news events and safety issues. Following a U.S. Department of State travel advisory in 2009, along with reports of swine flu, a change in U.S. passport requirements and multiple reports of mass killings across Mexico, travel across the Lukeville port of entry – the main ingress for Rocky Point visitors at the U.S. border – plummeted from 451,000 vehicles to 313,000 vehicles over three years, a decline of 30 percent.

Excavators unearth bodies found by a group of Mexican mothers in search of missing loved ones near Rocky Point, Mexico, in November 2019.; Photo courtesy Sonora Attorney General Department
Excavators unearth bodies found by a group of Mexican mothers in search of missing loved ones near Rocky Point, Mexico, in November 2019.; Photo courtesy Sonora Attorney General Department

Ultimately, tourism in Rocky Point recovered in spectacular fashion. In 2012, 1.6 million people visited the city, including nearly 750,000 Arizonans. Those numbers jumped to all-time highs of 2.3 million and 1.1 million, respectively, by 2017 – a sustained upward trend that suggests even larger numbers when the 2018 statistics are released this spring.

“We’ll know better when we see bookings into January, when winter season is in high gear and many Americans traditionally come to spend the entire winter,” Gonzalez says.

Despite that sanguine outlook, there are doubts. Reading the tea leaves, it appears likely the tourism numbers will flatten in 2020, following a recent Level 3 travel advisory from the U.S. Department of State via its consulate in the Sonoran state capital of Hermosillo. The advisory applies to all of Sonora, including Rocky Point. Level 3 suggests, simply, “Reconsider Travel.” (Level 4, the highest warning, advises “Do Not Travel.”) However, Rocky Point habitués can take comfort in the wording of the advisory, which makes clear that north-central Sonora and Puerto Peñasco experience far lower crime levels than cities close to the state of Sinaloa, some nine hours south.

Historically speaking, Rocky Point has indeed served as a serene haven of safety in Sonora – at least for Americans. The last known murder of an American within town limits occurred in 1991, and was atypical in the extreme – the result of a murderous love triangle involving the victim’s husband and his secret transsexual lover. There have been more recent, albeit nonfatal incidents. In 2018, a 19-year-old Phoenix girl suffered a leg wound on a busy Rocky Point street when she was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between two drug dealers; and in 2013, government forces and drug cartel thugs shot it out in the dead of the night in the Sandy Beach area of Rocky Point, highly populated by American expatriates who took cover in their homes. Government troops killed five cartel members, but no civilians were injured.

Reliable crime statistics in Mexico are notoriously hard to pin down, with victims of cartel-on-cartel violence sometimes shoveled into mass graves, but those available to the public do paint an increasingly grim picture of present-day Sonora – a landmass about the size of California, with a population roughly equivalent to Utah (3.1 million). Through June of 2019, almost 600 people were murdered in the state – nearly a 70 percent jump from the same six-month span the previous year. Prorated over all of 2019, that would give Sonora an effective murder rate of 38.7 per 100,000 people – higher than any U.S. state, but comparable to violence-plagued American cities like St. Louis (60.9), Baltimore (30.1), New Orleans (37.1) and Detroit (38.9).

With that kind of context in mind, defenders of Rocky Point say that it’s impractical and illogical to paint all of Mexico – or, for that matter, all of Sonora – with one brush. Sonora is a vast place. Stigmatizing Rocky Point for cartel violence 300 miles away in Hermosillo makes no more sense, for instance, than skipping a family vacation to Orlando because of a shootout in Miami.

https://www.phoenixmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/PHM0120MX03.jpg

Further, one could make the argument that Rocky Point is actually safer for Americans than, say, the city of Goodyear in metro Phoenix, which has about the same population (80,000) but had 9 murders between 2013 and 2018.

“No doubt, there’s trepidation over these shootings,” says Fred Payne, acting general manager of the Peñasco Del Sol Hotel and Conference Center. “We’ve had cancellations directly related to it, but we are still getting a lot of Arizona bookings. I’ve been down here three years and I can attest that Rocky Point is serene, with no particular issues of violence. It’s a welcoming place and tourists feel justifiably safe here and enjoy all of it. People who have lived here all their lives assure me that the LeBaron murders had to have been a case of mistaken identity.”

Perhaps so. However, Kris Strauss, a longtime Chandler resident and marketing executive, has concerns about “mistaken identity.” Strauss has been enjoying Rocky Point vacations for years, ever since moving here from Hawaii to attend Arizona State University. “If it was mistaken identity, tourists traveling in SUVs could have just as easily been victims – and I drive an SUV. Rocky Point is beautiful and I’ve always enjoyed it, but I have a wife and two teenage daughters, and I’m not going to take them there again until the violence [subsides]. We can go to San Diego if we want to stay on the beach, even though it costs more.”

Travelers like Strauss can take heart that the mistaken-identity scenario – along with less exotic concerns, like corrupt local cops and highway shakedowns – are by most accounts nonexistent on Route 8, the 63-mile main artery that connects the ports of entry of Lukeville and Sonoita, Mexico, to Rocky Point. It’s historically well-trafficked and well-patrolled – and even safer since travel officials designated it a “safety corridor” last winter, Gonzalez says. A joint operation between the Sonora and Arizona departments of transportation, the corridor is “heavily patrolled, 24/7, by a host of safety officials, from well-armed government police in armored vehicles to a variety of first responders, all personally trained by U.S. experts and all certified bilingual.”

Road signs are also now bilingual and a “511” cellular number works on Arizona phones to give traffic, weather and safety information in English and Spanish.

Since the inception of the project, through October 2019, Arizona DOT and Sonora DOT figures show that 742,628 vehicles had crossed through Lukeville, and Gonzalez says there have been “no reports of any violent incidents, shootings or robberies. Not one.”

Also possibly heartening to Rocky Point travelers: Two days after the LeBaron murders, Sonoran officials attended the Arizona-Mexico Commission’s 60th Anniversary Summit meeting in Hermosillo, whose purpose is to strengthen cultural and economic ties between Arizona and Mexico. Among the attendees was Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who met extensively with Sonora Governor Claudia Pavlovich Arellano and with Mexican security forces about the incident and ways to make things safer.

Straight to the “Point”

After a sustained, multiyear period of decline, murder rates in Sonora began climbing again in the mid-2010s. As this map using 2017 data demonstrates, most of the violence was concentrated in the state’s southern half, with additional flare-ups west of Rocky Point in the border city of San Luis Río Colorado.

Excavators unearth bodies found by a group of Mexican mothers in search of missing loved ones near Rocky Point, Mexico, in November 2019.; Photo courtesy Sonora Attorney General Department
Excavators unearth bodies found by a group of Mexican mothers in search of missing loved ones near Rocky Point, Mexico, in November 2019.; Photo courtesy Sonora Attorney General Department

Without a doubt, the stakes are particularly high for Rocky Point at this juncture in its history, as it coincides with the city’s debut into the cruise business. Following a 10-year, $119 million deep-water port conversion project, Cruise & Maritime Voyages, out of Essex, England, plans to launch the maiden voyage this month of a multiday cruise of the so-called Mexican Riviera, with stops in Mazatlán, Puerto Vallarta and La Paz, among other cities, in the Gulf of California. Rocky Point will be the point of departure in the cruise company’s 550-passenger luxury liner, Astoria.

“We have concerns, of course, but our season and bookings are going pretty well,” says John Dennis, vice president of sales for the company’s American office. “We’ve had a few cancellations, but by and large, bookings are strong. The state of Sonora, we know, has put additional security on the roads, [the safety corridor] and tourism hasn’t been significantly impacted down there.”

Arguably, the biggest threat to Rocky Point’s future as a cruise destination is not safety concerns, but contractor issues. The long-awaited deep sea port is overdue and not yet completed, with tourism officials hoping that the scheduled cruises will generate enough tax revenue to finish it. In the meantime, smaller “tender” boats will shuttle passengers to and from, and provision, the Astoria.

Meanwhile, tourism officials like Gonzalez ask travelers to remain philosophical. “In spite of publicity,” Gonzalez says, “there are far, far more good people in Mexico than bad people. Evil exists in every country of the world, and we are working to make sure those who vacation here are safe.”

Phoenix-area residents who have traditionally vacationed in Rocky Point seem to be equally divided about whether they will keep going down or wait and watch.

John Osgood is all in. A retired New York City detective who moved to Phoenix two years ago with his wife, Marcia, Osgood is not worried about going to Rocky Point. He and Marcia recently bought a condo there that they plan to rent out and periodically use as their own vacation retreat.

“Having grown up and worked as a New York City detective,” Osgood says, “I’ve seen the worst of violence, and I know it’s everywhere. I don’t see any of this recent stuff directed at tourists, so I’m not a bit worried. Violence is everywhere. I’ve enjoyed myself thoroughly many times in New Orleans, but it was once the murder capital of the United States. You go into the French Quarter and people warn you not to drift far off Bourbon Street. You have to be careful where you go – whether it’s New York, Phoenix, Detroit, Miami, Rocky Point, you name it. We absolutely love Rocky Point and I won’t hesitate to go.”

Wendee Cohee, a Phoenix native and bartender in South Scottsdale, also shrugs off the negative publicity about Mexico, and tries not to conflate general violence there with the fishing town she loves so much. “I go there twice a year and stay in B&Bs. Sure, I’m nervous about what happened and the lawlessness in some areas, but you’ve got that everywhere. You walk into the wrong parts of Phoenix at night and you can be in big trouble.

“What just happened to those families is horrible, but it’s not going to prevent me from going. I go out when I’m down there and enjoy myself, and I’m always [with] friends or my boyfriend, and I’m not worried when I do. Mexico is beautiful, and I’m not going to stop going there.”

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