I'll Never Go to Baja Again
It was 4 a.m. Friday morning, August 31. Duke, Walt and Roger, three buddies from North San Diego County, were headed down to Mexico keen on surfing the predicted south swell. Their destination: San Carlos, Baja California for a Labor Day holiday weekend filled with surfing, kite surfing and relaxation. This was trip they had done many times before. Duke and Roger especially, having grownup in the Solana Beach/Del Mar area
“The masked man stood there, with the gun pointed at my chest, both hands on the grip. I was now looking up, maybe five feet below his feet.”
Combined, the three men have been traveling into Baja for over 60 years. Duke and Roger speak fluent Spanish–Roger with a slight gringo accent; Duke with the native tongue. They were looking forward to surfing the uncrowded south swell. A pending protest at the border on Friday was sure to slow down the normal throngs of south bound surfers.
They drove in two trucks. A Honda Ridgeline loaded down with three surfboards, four kite boards, six kites, a dirt bike and all the camping gear and food to keep them happy and fed through Tuesday-as they didn’t want to get stuck in the returning border traffic on Labor Day Monday. Roger and Duke were in the Honda. Behind them followed their buddy Walt in a Toyota Tundra loaded down with five surfboards another three kites, two kite boards and more camping gear. Oh, and they had some beer, margarita mix and Hornitos Tequila.
They crossed the border at 4:30 a.m. and preceded toward the toll road, driving along the well-worn road that hugs the border and then climbs the steep hill toward the Tijuana beaches, the bullring and coastal destinations further south. It is the road that everyone who has ever traveled into Northern Baja has been on. And the guys were fired up and optimistic as they followed the road south and descended less than half a mile from the USA/Mexico border. Then the blue lights hit their rear view mirror. Cops.
They were being pulled over. “This stuff comes with the territory,” explained Roger. “Duke and I didn’t feel the least bit apprehensive; pay the cop for whatever bullshit reason he comes up with and move on. Good surf awaited.” The three surfers knew the drill; this area is notorious for the $40 Mexican cop shakedown. Duke, who was driving the Honda Ridgline and leading the two-truck caravan handed all his cash to Roger–except for $40 to pay-off the cop.
“Open the door, ” the cop said to Roger as he rolled down the passenger window. A handgun pointed at Roger’s eyes. “Open the f-ing door,” the cop said a second time as he slammed the gun against Roger’s right temple, reached in and pulled the door open.
As this unfolded, Walt, in the truck behind them and doing his duty as back driver in the caravan, pulled over behind Duke’s Honda Ridgeline and watched in the still, dusky light. ‘It immediately looked strange to me,” explained Walt. “The cops came out of their truck with their guns drawn. My first thought is that they were looking for drugs. I thought this wasn’t going to be a situation where we get out of it with a bribe.”
Within a minute there were two other cops/thugs all over Walt, demanding that he get out of the truck, before simply reaching in and unlocking the door.
In the meantime Roger, the passenger in the front vehicle, was being dragged out of the truck by his shirt at gunpoint. The Mexican carjacker was wearing a cut-off black wetsuit ski mask. “I offered the guy my wallet, ” explained Roger. “At this point I knew this was serious and I offered him everything we had, the car our money, everything.”
While this transpired Duke the driver of the Ridgleine also had a gun to his head and was being lead out of the car.
With a black semi-automatic gun to his head, Roger was led to the roadside guardrail by the masked man and into a dark, open lot with a formidable cliff 30 yards away.
Again Roger tried to reason with carjacker. “Take my money,” he said and handed him the $200 Duke had given him earlier. The car jacker directed Roger further into the darkness. Roger was getting closer to the cliff and deeper into the darkness. Again he tried to fend off the attacker with money. “I reached into my second pocket and threw a wad of cash at him,” explained Roger. “The $240 I had for the trip. It fell to the ground and the attacker looked
down, grabbed a wad full and left the stray twenty dollar bills. He looked down at the remaining bills–$60 or $80 dollars-then looked at me, jerked me forward again. He wasn’t interested.”
Again Roger pleaded with the man to leave him alone. The attacker’s dark brown eyes stared at Roger and then twitched. “I think he was high– on coke or something,” explained the Roger. “His eyes were twitching. The man then continued to lead me further away from the others, into the darkness.”
All sorts of thoughts raced through Roger’s head. “I wondered if I should run. Would he shoot me? I was living in the moment. Instinct drove me, for better or for the worse.”
At the edge of the 100-foot cliff the man stopped Roger and stared him down. Below was darkness–a 100-foot cliff, trash and debris. Roger stood facing the street, his back against the pending overhang.
Meanwhile Walt, in the truck behind Duke and Roger, was dealing with his own nightmare. “One of the Mexicans jumped in next to me pushed his cocked gun into my face pushing my head onto the dashboard,” explained Walt. The cops or carjackers or Federales –nobody is really sure what they were or are–demanded that Walt get out. “The thug on the passenger side grabbed my shirt and put me over the road-side guardrail,” explained Walt. The Mexican forced Walt’s head over the guardrail and cocked the gun against the back of his head. Walt was waiting to die. Walt glanced up and out of the corner of his eye saw Roger down on his knees over by the cliff with a gun pointing on him.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I’m not going to let this guy shoot me here,’” explained Walt. “It wasn’t a heroic action by any means. I just wanted to move out, so I pushed myself up off the guardrail and started walking toward the big ravine that divides the USA from Mexico. That’s really when I thought, this is it, my life was over.” Walt figured the Mexican thug was going to shoot him in the back. After five feet or so, and without hearing from the man holding a gun to his back, Walt started jogging in a zigzag motion toward the cliff, hoping that if the attacker did start firing his gun, perhaps he would miss him. His plan was to jump off the cliff; at least he had half a chance that way.
The Nissan Frontier cuts directly in front of the taxi, slams on its brakes and skids to a stop in front of the Americans in the taxi, blocking it from going forward. “We all started screaming “Go! Go! Go!,” explained Roger. “It was a scene right of the movie ‘Traffic.’”
The masked attacker that held Roger at gunpoint ordered him
to get on his hands and knees and crawl down the cliff. It wasn’t a straight drop, but more of a steep incline. Roger groveled down until he found a ledge. He stood and looked up at the mask.
“It was dark, but I could see. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness. It would be light in about an hour,’ explained Roger. “The masked man stood there, with the gun pointed at my chest, both hands on the grip. I was now looking up, maybe five feet below his feet.”
The mask looked to his left as if awaiting a signal from the other thugs. He again stared down Roger and again turned to his left. This time he took his right hand off the handle and pulled the barrel forward and then back, cocking the gun. He inserted a bullet. The gun was now pointed down directly at Roger’s chest. The man in the mask turned and shot the gun, just above horizon towards the street. He said something, which Roger couldn’t make out and jogged slowly towards the vehicles.
Roger looked over to his left and saw Walt hunched over some twenty yards away. The two saw each other, said nothing. After waiting 30 seconds, maybe a minute, Roger and Walt ascended the cliff. “This cliff is a big cliff, and it’s right on the border and as it got light we could see America on one side and we’re in Mexico,” explained Roger. “We were just sort of freaking out. It was surreal. They could have easily killed us and no one would have known. The two walked up to their friend Duke and the three said nothing. They were in shock. But at least it was over.
Or so they thought.
There was van across the street, an older model van. Beat up. Rickety. Broken down. The kind of vehicle you often see in Mexico. There next to the van was its owner, an old Mexican man. The three surfers yelled out to the old man in Spanish and he acknowledged that he saw the entire ambush. “He said he was scared for us, but that he could do nothing because of his age,” explained Roger. “We ran over to him and the man opened up the sliding door of his van and Duke and I immediately jumped in, but Walt was adamant about not getting in this guys’ van. “The last thing I wanted to do was get in some strangers old van,” explained Walt. “It didn’t feel right.”
Walt eventually acquiesced and reluctantly hopped in the van. The old man closed the van door and the three surfers looked at each other anxiously like, ‘was this a good idea?’ Their sole focus was to get to the border, and this vehicle was going to get them there.
At this point Roger notices that there is a young man in his 20′s sitting in the passenger seat. “The fact that a younger guy was in the passenger seat which sort of freaked us a bit,” explained Walt. “After getting carjacked at gunpoint by Federales we didn’t really trust anyone.”
The old man turned over the engine in his van and it immediately started up. “I thought it was supposed to be broken,” explained Roger. “So I start thinking was this guy involved. It was very weird.”
The old man, the three surfers and the van start rolling down the hill, with the USA on their left and the sun rising brightly. At the bottom of the hill where the street next to the border fence flattens out, and less than a half mile from the carjacking, a Tijuana Police officer had pulled over a truck. A flat bed truck. The kind of flatbed truck that you tow other trucks with.
The three surfers tell the old man to stop his van. “We got out of the van to tell the cop about our carjacking incident,” explained Walt. The cop then did something rather unusual. He picked up his cell phone and made a call. He didn’t use his official police communications radio installed on his police truck. “I didn’t think much about it at the time, but thinking back on it, it seems strange,” explained Roger.
The three American surfers asked the officer to take them immediately to the border to file a report of the incident. “The cop tells us to get in the back of his police truck and we thought we were going to the border,” explains Roger.
But to the surfers dismay the policeman turns onto Avenida Revolucion into the seediest part of Tijuana and pulls over. The surfers demand that he take them straight to the border. The cop refuses. He suggests they get some cash (Duke still had a hidden credit card) from the ATM machine and hire a taxi to take them to the border. By this time the surfers are nervous, restless, and paranoid. They ask the TJ police officer to please file report on the incident but he refuses telling them that the incident happened outside of his jurisdiction.
Fed up with the lack of regard for their situation, the surfers climb out of the cop’s truck and start walking toward the ATM machine so they can get cash for a taxi to the border. They spot another TJ police officer walking the street beat. It’s 5:30am on Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana and all sorts of sketchy people are around. Whores. Street people. Thugs. Drunks. The cop is on patrol to keep some sense of order. She is genuinely kind and concerned for the three Americans, and she directs Duke to the ATM kiosk.
Duke walks into the ATM machine kiosk and immediately two guys follow him into the ATM machine. “I was very nervous about it,” said Walt. “The woman cop ran over to Duke and basically guarded him from these two guys.”
With cab fare in hand and their focus still on the getting to the USA the surfers, with the help of the cop, hail a taxi. The women cop tells the cab driver to bring the Americans to the border and to not stop for anyone. “That part was little odd,” explained Walt. “It was like she knew something was going to happen.”
Walt, Duke and Roger got in the taxi and headed towards the USA, maybe three miles away from the border. “The cab took us on a one way street toward the border. Not unusual, I don’t think,” explained Walt. “Then I hear a loud truck barreling down the street behind us. It’s going like 60, maybe 70 MPH.”
The Nissan Frontier cuts directly in front of the taxi, slams on its brakes and skids to a stop in front of the Americans in the taxi, blocking it from going forward. “We all started screaming “Go! Go! Go!,” explained Roger. “It was scene right of the movie ‘Traffic.’”
Then another vehicle, a VW Tourig, loaded up with four Mexicans, screeches up behind the taxi and boxes it in from behind. The cab couldn’t move. All three surfers are screaming at the cab driver to move out.
Serendipitously, the driver positioned the cab in a manner so that she could escape from the two pursuing vehicles and the taxi bolted full speed to the border.
Carjacked and kidnapped and contracted for death, at this point the three American Surfers were completely spun. The would-be kidnappers pursued, but there were other cars around by this time as the commute across to the USA was filling up traffic.
They paid the taxi driver and bolted a hundred yards or so to the pedestrian crossing. They attempted to tell another Mexican police officer but again, no help. They crossed the border. They called 911. They called their wives. They were safe at last.
In hindsight Duke, Walt and Roger believe the masked carjacker was a police officer. According to the three, that may explain why he wore a mask and the other carjackers did not.
Another interesting note: According to the surfers, the carjackers all spoke fine English, with barely a trace of an Hispanic accent. The carjacking was very professional, and went down with a strategic polish one might see in the military. “These guys were pros, ” explains Walt. “Their guns were drawn and they were on us fast. Even if we had a gun, there is no way we could have acted.”
Mexico has always been a scary place. According to one report, more journalists have died in Mexico than in Iraq. It’s the Wild West. It is not safe. “I’ll never drive into Mexico again. I’ve been surfing in northern Baja for over 20 years and I’ll never go back,” explained Roger. “There is nobody that cares about you. Nobody. You are all alone and the bad guys are the good guys and the good guys…well there aren’t any.”