Is traveling to Rocky Point safe?

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By John Hernandez

I have been traveling regularly to Puerto Penasco, (Rocky Point) Sonora Mexico for the past 25 years. My wife and I make it a point to go to Mexico five or six times a year. 

In all those years, my family and I have never had a problem. Over the last few years we have seen security tighten on both sides of the border and have adjusted to it.

The American side of the border has become more militarized. Before 2008, the Americans had little interest in stopping you going down to Mexico. On the Mexican side, you are generally waived through.

On occasion, they will randomly have you pull over and search your trunk. It will take no more than five minutes. Returning to the United States, you will pass through the border and then be stopped at two more checkpoints along the highway by American agents armed with automatic weapons.

They will ask you if you are American citizens. The last eight times I visited Rocky Point, while returning to the United States I have been pulled over for a search of my vehicle on the American side of the border crossing in Lukeville.

During the 2008 elections, the border and immigration became big issues especially with the Republican Party. Who can forget Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and John McCain and the “build the dang fence” election campaign advertisement?

Later Babeu would say that the drug cartels controlled parts of Pinal County (Vekol Valley) and Governor Brewer was saying that beheaded bodies were being found in the Arizona desert.

Along with Senate bill 1070 and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration raids, the rhetoric combined to hurt tourism on both sides of the border but really affected the businesses in Rocky Point.

Rocky Point is economically dependent on tourism. Over the last four years, there was a concerted effort to warn Americans about going to Mexico. Every time there was a violent incident in Mexico, the media and politicians played up the drug cartel involvement.

The U.S. Government would issue travel warnings for Mexico including Rocky Point. Arizona would warn its college students not to travel to Rocky Point. They also played the fear card by claiming that immigrants entering the country illegally were smuggling drugs, had criminal records, or ties to a cartel.

As a regular visitor to Rocky Point and other points in Mexico, I have not felt uncomfortable staying in Mexico nor could I understand the fear others expressed about traveling south of the border.

I decided to research the issue by interviewing tourists, Mexicans and business owners in Rocky Point as well as find out about crime in Rocky Point as compared to places in Arizona.

Rocky Point has a population of 57,000. A comparable city in Pinal County would be Casa Grande. In 2009, there were five homicides in Casa Grande and one in 2010 compared to 15 homicides in Rocky Point in 2010 and again in 2011.

Yes, there are drug cartels in Rocky Point and there has been drug violence including gun battles between rival gangs and between police and cartel members. There are drug cartels and drug dealing gangs in every major city in the United States as well.

If you look at all the other crimes such as burglary, theft, auto theft, sexual assault, etc., Rocky Point’s crime rate is less than or equal to Casa Grande.

There are a large number of Americans living in Rocky Point and there are many businesses owned or partially owned by Americans. Governor Jan Brewer is said to own property there and visit on occasion.

In Feb. of 2012, there was a video tape of the Arizona Sonora Commission meeting in Rocky Point showing Governor Brewer telling a group of Mexican businessmen and Mexican government officials that she was an ambassador for Sonora and it was safe to visit Rocky Point.

She urged people to travel to Mexico and invest money in Mexico. It never made the news in Arizona. A number of the business owners I spoke to said that the media has made too much of the violence in Mexico especially Rocky Point.

There is no question that there is an extreme amount of violence in Mexico. Personally, I would not travel to Juarez or Tijuana but would have no trouble visiting resort areas of Mexico like Cancun or Cabo.

Two women in their 70s said that they both drive down to Mexico from Phoenix by themselves and are not afraid. They have been doing it for years and never had any trouble.

They are not afraid of living in Rocky Point. Some people say they worry more about driving on the freeways through Phoenix or Tucson on the way to Mexico than they do about the drug cartels in Rocky Point.

No American has been killed in Rocky Point as a result of the drug war.

On my last trip to Rocky Point this past week, I noticed that there were more tourists in town. The trailer park where I stayed had trailers with license plates from Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah, Texas and even Canada.

One couple from Utah said they were staying for a month. They have had no problems in all the years they have been coming down to Puerto Penasco.

On our first night in town, my wife and I decided to go out for an early dinner. We chose to go to Al Capone’s for some fish and chips.

As we approached the restaurant, I noticed next door was an armored military vehicle. On top, a man in a black uniform was manning the gun turret with the machine gun pointed across the street.

The vehicle had Policia Federale written on it. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved that there was a police presence nearby or worried that this area would need an armored vehicle guarding it.

We asked our waiter about it and he laughed and said that there was supposed to be some big political figure in town. He said that the vehicle had been there for one week so far.

There is more of a military and federal police presence in Rocky Point due to the drug war. The people of Rocky Point have adjusted to it.

I guess it is a matter of your personal perspective on Mexico and the drug war whether or not you feel comfortable traveling to Rocky Point. What I don’t understand is that 19 people can be shot with six dying in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson or 12 killed in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and no travel warnings are issued for those areas.

We still go to the movies or shop at Safeway. To put it into more of a local perspective, more Americans have been murdered in the last seven months in the town of San Manuel (population 3,000) than in Rocky Point in the last seven years. Personally, I believe Rocky Point is a safe place to visit and to live.

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