Fear Is Killing Tourism in Rocky Point, Mexico, Though Tourists Are Relatively Safe There -- For Now

Two weeks before the start of spring break and despite good weather, the beaches and resorts in Rocky Point, Mexico, are deserted.

Reservations for the annual sojourn are reported to be minimal — resort staff and tourism officials expect another slow year. American tourists are sparse throughout town, from Cholla Bay on the west end to the posh Mayan Palace, eight miles east.

The town's boosters, condo owners, real estate officials, store owners, taco sellers, ATV renters, and residents are desperate for business, and they want people to believe the town of 50,000 is "safe." They want to talk about relative safety, how Sonora is the least violent state in Mexico and why major drug cartel activity seems to skip over the town.

No wonder, then, that Rocky Pointers don't want to chat about the August shooting of a tourist in the popular Malecon portion of the town's Old Port marina.

Asking around about it, New Times was told by several businesspeople that they weren't aware of the murder. Others misdirected reporters, saying it did occur, just not where New Times had been told it happened.

"Take good pictures, tell a good story," urges one man at a roadside food stand.

"You're digging shit up so nobody comes here," says another, miffed at the questions. "We need people to come!"

It's late afternoon on a Friday, toward the end of another beautiful day in Old Port. The temperature is a perfect 70. A slight breeze carries smells of sea, fresh fish, and dust at Malecon, the quaint hillside of seafood markets and shops still under renovation. Earthmovers crawl across the narrow streets of packed dirt between the open-air restaurants, as hawkers wave their freshly caught shrimp, begging for customers. But there are few of them.

Only a couple of small groups of Americans wander through the area, looking more like they're taking a tour of a construction site than enjoying a vacation.

Malecon is tranquil this evening — unlike on August 22, 2010, when Juan Antonio Rodriguez Nogales was killed in front of his wife and child.

The slaying is merely one of tens of thousands since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country's drug cartels four years ago. But it's noteworthy for a few reasons — the main one being its location.

The site of the murder wasn't some dark alley. It's on the main drag into Malecon, in a popular boat-launch yard next to an ice cream store. A typical tourist spot.

The brutal assassination was of the very type that has been keeping Americans away. But what potential Rocky Point visitors also may find interesting — may even find solace in — is the victim's identity: He was a Spaniard visiting from Juárez, not an American.

As news reports in Mexico and, later, the United States detailed, the 47-year-old man had been washing his boat in the marina with his wife, Sylvia, and their 14-year-old son. He was a businessman from Spain who'd lived in Juárez for the past 14 years and had been in Rocky Point on vacation for a few days.

About 8:30 p.m., his wife later told police, a Jeep Cherokee rolled up and four hombres armed with assault rifles got out, demanding that her husband go with them. He refused and started to run away; he was hit by seven bullets. Investigators found 15 shell casings in the dust of the boat yard. No one else was shot.

At the sandy boat yard that sprawls in the shadow of an unfinished multi-story building, one man says he saw the whole thing. A couple of other people said they knew general details about the incident and pointed out a spot in the dirt near a low, white wall where they said the body fell. New Times is withholding their names — because people who talk about cartel activity in Mexico often end up dead.

The witness says he took cover behind the big rear wheel of a tractor when the shooting erupted. Then he saw the killers' vehicle, which he says was a Ford Bronco, not a Cherokee, drive through the lot and leave through a back exit.

Authorities didn't arrive at the scene for a half-hour, he says. That claim couldn't be verified, but it's bolstered by the suspects' ease of escape, when only two main roads lead out of town.

The witness follows his story of the Malecon murder with the ironic pronouncement: "This town is fine. No problems here."

Clearly, though, there are problems — they just haven't affected Americans. Yet.

As the state's universities gear up to go on spring break next week, there's no way to determine whether Arizona's nearest beach town is safe, or will be safe, for visitors.

What can be said is that the town hasn't had the problems of, say, Acapulco, where shootouts and shallow graves with headless bodies have become the norm. And it's nowhere near Juárez, which last year broke its own record as a violence capital, recording more than 3,000 murders.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.