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News / Nation & World

The call of Baja California surf is the stuff of legend. Has violence ended that dream?

By Alex Riggins and Alexandra Mendoza, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: May 27, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
Rescue workers, forensics, and prosecutors work in a waterhole where human remains were found near La Bocana Beach, Santo Tomas delegation, in Ensenada, Mexico, on May 3, 2024.
Rescue workers, forensics, and prosecutors work in a waterhole where human remains were found near La Bocana Beach, Santo Tomas delegation, in Ensenada, Mexico, on May 3, 2024. †(Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) Photo Gallery

SAN DIEGO — For the better part of the past half-century, Baja California has beckoned to surfers from across the globe, offering peeling point breaks without crowded lineups to those willing to travel and camp in remote and barren areas.

For many Southern California surfers, such excursions are the stuff of legend, a cherished ritual that groms read and hear stories about until they’re old enough for their own south-of-the-border adventures.

“It’s a surfer’s rite of passage,” said Ocean Beach resident Marty Albert. “It’s about the openness of Baja, where you feel like you’re not going to be bothered. It’s about the waves — point after point after point break, some of them 400 yards. It’s about being a cowboy, not taking showers, living out of your truck like the surfers of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. We want those same experiences we read about our whole lives.”

That romantic vision was tainted in recent days by the shooting deaths of San Diegan Carter Rhoad, 30; his friend Callum Robinson, 33, an Australian living in San Diego; and Callum’s brother, Jake Robinson, 30, who was visiting from Australia.

The trio was on a surf trip late last month south of Ensenada when they went missing. Their bodies were discovered May 3 at the bottom of a well in Punta San José near Santo Tomás. Mexican officials said they were killed as the result of a botched robbery. A suspect who was arrested and charged with forced disappearance is expected to also face murder charges in the case.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” Albert said. “They were just down there trying to do the same journey all of us have done.”

Now, some surfers and other Baja California adventurers are second-guessing what the future might hold for such trips. Some said the recent killings completely changed their future plans, others said they changed their routines years ago in the face of escalating risks and others said they won’t change their habits at all.

“It’s definitely unfortunate and was a really awful situation,” said Cameron Gregg, a freediver and spearfisherman who has made about 30 trips to the region over the last decade. “But it’s not going to affect how I travel down there. There are always going to be bad people everywhere in the world … But there are some of the nicest people down there. People there are very welcoming, very giving.”

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The killings also brought into sharp focus the differences in experiences between visitors to the region and its residents. Baja California has one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico, with 2,417 homicides in the state last year and another 595 through the first three months of 2024, according to the Secretary of Citizen Security. Mexican officials estimate that 85% to 90% of the state’s homicides are related to drug violence and organized crime.

But violence against tourists is rare. That’s important for an industry that Baja California’s Secretary of Tourism estimated spurred about $7.1 billion in economic revenue for the state in 2023.

“We Baja Californians are honest, hard-working people,” Gov. Marina del Pilar Ávila said Thursday. She said the killings of the surfers did not represent the people of her state while acknowledging her state faces significant security challenges. “We will continue to work to build a state with peace, well-being, and tranquility for all Baja Californians and for those who visit our state.”

Serge Dedina, the former Imperial Beach mayor who is executive director of the environmental group Wildcoast, is a lifelong surfer who has been traveling to areas south of Ensenada for 40 years.

“Let’s make this clear, Baja California is one of the most beautiful and best surfing destinations in the world. Period,” Dedina said. “The Baja California government needs to really focus on improving security and demonstrating that it is concerned about security. Not only for visiting tourists, but also obviously for local residents.”

Dedina acknowledged that the recent slayings could make travelers think twice but said he was encouraged by the quick response authorities showed in this case. “Hopefully people will be reassured that they can travel safely in Baja California,” he said. “They just need to be safe like they would traveling anywhere else.”

Gregg, the spearfisherman, said he has always taken certain precautions and will continue to do so. He usually crosses the border in Mexicali to avoid Tijuana. He typically does not drive at night, though that has as much to do with avoiding livestock and wild animals as it does with steering clear of potentially dangerous people. And of the people he encounters, he is most wary of the police who might try to extort him.

“Even before this, I had friends and family who were a bit taken aback by my Baja trips, but most of that stems from stuff that happens at the border,” Gregg said. “The vast majority of that has nothing to do with travelers and vacationers … I’ve never had any sort of issues. The cartels are not interested in this sort of activity — it’s not their business. This sort of thing is still very rare.”

Brent Jesse, 61, is originally from San Clemente and said he’s been taking surf trips to Ensenada since he was 12 years old. He now lives near Cabo San Lucas, at the far southern tip of Baja California Sur, but also owns a property near Ensenada.

“I’ve been traveling down here for a long time and have owned property down here for 15-plus years,” Jesse said. “We feel very safe, but we’re super careful. We’re careful where we go and how we act. We don’t wear fancy jewelry out. We’re respectful.”

Jesse said he’s very familiar with the area where the trio was killed. “That’s an area that for years, you can go and surf there, but don’t camp there,” he said. Still, he said that kind of violence was rare and seemed to be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Surfers generally consider some coastal areas of Baja California to be safer than others. The more developed and populous region from Playas de Tijuana to Ensenada is generally viewed as safer, while the more remote coastline south of Ensenada is considered more of a risk.

That’s the case for Ocean Beach’s Albert, who still occasionally surfs in areas closer to Rosarito and also crosses the border regularly to attend home matches for Tijuana’s soccer club, the Xolos — he’s the leader of a group of non-Latino U.S. citizens known as the “GringoXolos.”

But he stopped venturing south of Ensenada for waves around 2006.

“We used to go down twice a month to camp and surf and have the time of our lives,” Albert said. “Everyone down there was so friendly.”

But on one trip to Ejido Eréndira, an area about 35 miles south of where the surfers were recently killed, Albert and his group of about 10 or 12 people had their belongings stolen overnight while camping. The only one of the campers who awoke during the heist saw one of the thieves carrying what he believed to be a weapon. The thieves took everything that wasn’t inside tents or vehicles, which Albert remembered being about seven surfboards, 10 wetsuits, a bicycle and other items.

“After that happened to us, none of those guys go down there anymore,” Albert said .

Dr. Warren Patch, a chiropractor who runs the Patch Family Spine Center in Ocean Beach, said he’s been surfing in Baja California since 1969. Patch said a lot has changed over the years, especially since the turn of the century, when a real estate boom altered the coastline and an increase in methamphetamine trafficking brought with it the scourges that accompany drug addiction.

Patch spends most weekends at his beach house near Rosarito. He said the recent slayings won’t change his routine, though he’s rarely camped or surfed the more remote spots south of Ensanada since he purchased his vacation home in 2000.

“The Mexican citizenry is very friendly and warm,” Patch said, but he predicted the recent slayings will affect how potential visitors will view Baja California. “The coverage is international … this stains their country.”

Patch said the recent killings “won’t put any damper” on those who surf crowded spots near Rosarito, but he fears that tourism will suffer.

“Those of us who are already seasoned travelers, we’ll be a little more wary,” Patch said. “But for the general population who has never crossed the border … those people are not going to go down there now.”

Similar conversations and calculations have been happening online in recent days. On the Facebook page Talk Baja, a discussion board for English-speaking expats and Baja travelers, a Northern California man posted that he’d been planning a solo surf trip for June and wondered if it was still safe for him to go.

Among the more than 200 responses he received was a Canadian surfer who said that he was still taking his planned trip, but would be “avoiding any remote wild camping spots” and opting instead for more secure spots at paid camp sites. The Northern California man later followed up that he was still moving forward with his planned trip, as well.

Even for Baja California locals, there was a sense of disbelief that came with news of the slayings.

“We are super shaken up in Baja California,” said Gino Passalacqua, vice president of the Baja Surf Club, composed of surfers from both sides of the border. “We are in shock that something so tragic and violent has happened, and at the same time we are concerned for our own safety.”

Passalacqua said that the area where the trio was killed is frequented by surfers who camp there. “Part of the appeal of surfing in Baja California is going to these remote places where there are few or no people, where there are beautiful natural settings, where the surfer is looking for that solitude.”

Baja California Attorney General María Elena Andrade insisted Thursday that the slayings were part of a violent robbery that got out of control.

“This heartbreaking event, which there are no words to describe, was not carried out because of their tourist surfing activities,” she said during the state government’s weekly press conference. “Unfortunately, it was a circumstantial act.”

As a proposal, Andrade said it might be helpful to create some sort of registry of tourists visiting remote areas, so that the police are aware of where they are.

José María Ramos, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, said he does not foresee a decline in tourism. Instead, he believes that surfers will increase security and avoid dangerous areas. However, he said this should be a “wake-up call” for state officials.

For a country with about 100,000 missing persons, the “unusually rapid and robust response” by the authorities in this case was notable, said Tyler Mattiace, researcher at Human Rights Watch, covering Mexico.

During the search authorities even located a fourth body, not related to the investigation, whose identity is still unknown. Mexican authorities said Wednesday they are investigating if the body belongs to someone connected to the lot where the surfers were found.

Mattiace said that given the level of media attention and international pressure, it had become a high-priority case for prosecutors. “So we often see a level of attention, and a level of action, that ordinary Mexicans simply don’t get.”

Mattiace doubted that this case would lead to changes. “This is one of tens of thousands of disappearances that have happened during this current administration,” he said. “It seems unlikely that an individual case, even though it had media repercussions in other countries, would lead to some kind of larger policy change, when the other tens of thousands disappearance cases that remain unsolved have not led to a larger policy change.”