The Allure of Surfing in Baja California is Immense. Can Recent Violence End That Dream?

110

Dozens of surfers gathered at Ocean Beach on Saturday for an event in memory of Callum Robinson, one of the three surfers murdered in Mexico.

For most of the last half-century, Baja California has attracted surfers from all over the world, offering enticing waves for those willing to travel and camp in remote and arid areas.

For many Southern California surfers, such excursions are legendary, a cherished ritual that children read and hear stories about until they are old enough for their own adventures south of the border.

“It’s a surfer’s rite of passage,” said Marty Albert, an Ocean Beach resident. “It’s about the openness of Baja, where you feel like you won’t be bothered. It’s about the waves: break after break after break, some of them 400 yards long. It’s about being a cowboy, not showering, and living in your van like the surfers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We want those same experiences we’ve read about all our lives.”

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

“It turns my stomach,” said Albert. “They were just there trying to make the same trip that all of us have made.”

Now, some surfers and other Baja California adventurers are questioning what the future holds for such trips. Some said the recent murders completely changed their future plans, others said they changed their routines years ago due to escalating risks, and others said they will not change their habits at all.

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

The murders also highlighted 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 in the first three months of 2024, according to the Citizen Security Secretariat. Mexican officials estimate that between 85 and 90 percent of the state’s homicides are related to drug violence and organized crime.

However, violence against tourists is rare. This is important for an industry that the Baja California Tourism Secretariat estimated generated around $7.1 billion in economic revenue for the state in 2023.

“The people of Baja California are honest and hardworking,” said Governor Marina del Pilar Ávila on Thursday. She stated that the murders of the surfers did not represent the people of her state, although she acknowledged that her state faces significant security challenges. “We will continue working to build a state of peace, well-being, and tranquility for all Baja Californians and for those who visit our state.”

“They just need to be safe”

Serge Dedina, former mayor of Imperial Beach and 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 be clear, Baja California is one of the best and most beautiful surfing destinations in the world. Period,” said Dedina. “The government of Baja California really needs to focus on improving security and showing that it is concerned about safety. Not just for visiting tourists, but also, obviously, for local residents.”

Dedina acknowledged that the recent murders might make travelers think twice, but said he was encouraged by the quick response shown by authorities in this case. “Hopefully, people will have the peace of mind to be able to travel safely in Baja California,” he said. “They just need to be as safe as they would be traveling to any other place.”

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

“Even before this, I had friends and family who were a bit baffled by my trips to Baja California, but most of that is due to things that happen at the border,” said Gregg. “The vast majority of that has nothing to do with travelers and vacationers… I’ve never had any kind of problem. The cartels are not interested in this type of activity; it’s not their business. This type of thing is still very rare.”

Brent Jesse, 61, originally from San Clemente, said he has been making surfing trips to Ensenada since he was 12 years old. He now lives near Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Baja California Sur, but also owns property near Ensenada.

“I’ve been traveling here for a long time and have owned properties here for over 15 years,” said Jesse. “We feel very safe, but we are very careful. We are careful where we go and how we act. We don’t wear fancy jewelry. We are respectful.”

Jesse said he is very familiar with the area where the trio was killed. “That’s an area where you could go surfing for years, but not camp there,” he said. Still, he said that type of violence was uncommon 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 populated region from Playas de Tijuana to Ensenada is generally considered safer, while the more remote coast south of Ensenada is considered riskier.

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

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

But on a 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 camper who woke up during the robbery saw one of the thieves carrying what he believed was a weapon. The thieves took everything that was not inside tents or vehicles, which Albert recalled were about seven surfboards, 10 wetsuits, a bicycle, and other items.

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

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

Patch spends most weekends at his beach house near Rosarito. He said the recent murders will not change his routine, although he has rarely camped or surfed in the more remote places south of Ensenada since he bought his vacation home in 2000.

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

Patch said the recent murders “won’t affect at all” those who surf in busy places near Rosarito, but he fears tourism will be affected.

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

In recent days, similar conversations and calculations have taken place online. On the Facebook page Talk Baja, a discussion forum for English-speaking expatriates and travelers to Baja California, a man from Northern California posted that he had been planning a solo surfing 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 he was still making his planned trip, but would “avoid any remote places to camp in the wild” and instead opt for safer places at paid campgrounds. Later, the man from Northern California stated that he was also going ahead with his planned trip.

Wake-up Call

Even among the locals of Baja California, there was a sense of disbelief at the news of the murders.

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

Passalacqua said 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 seeks that solitude.”

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

“This heartbreaking event, for which there are no words to describe, was not carried out due to 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 useful to create some kind of registry for tourists visiting remote areas, so the police know where they are.

José María Ramos, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, said he does not foresee a drop in tourism. Instead, he believes 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 quick and solid response” from the authorities in this case was notable, said Tyler Mattiace, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who covers Mexico.

During the search, authorities even located a fourth body, unrelated to the investigation, whose identity is still unknown. Mexican authorities said on Wednesday that they are investigating whether the body belongs to someone related 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 do not receive.”

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

Source: San Diego Trubune