Fear and Loathing in Tijuana

    Hollywood Ray’s club, Coko Bongo, is a popular hotspot for underage San Diego college students, it features exotic dancers, friendly bartenders and a convenient border transportation service.

    Most students know about the “Hollywood Ray” buses that turn up in the faculty parking lot, ready to whisk the under-21 crowd down to Mexico for a night of drinking and debauchery — but few know the man behind the border-hopping business.

    Following Hollywood Ray to his new club, Coko Bongo, was an exercise in endurance and insanity. The man weaves hectically from a bus pickup spot to a friend’s house to a gas run, constantly taking calls before he even starts to head down to Tijuana for the night, where he will stay until the party winds down at 4 a.m.

    Hollywood Ray kicks at a rowdy audience while a drunken partier exposes herself.

    Coko Bongo opened Sept. 28, the same night as the annual naughty schoolgirl bash, an event that brought 2,000 partygoers and 150,000 unique visitors to Ray’s Web site the next day.

    It’s easy to see why the college crowd has found its new hotspot. Coko Bongo doesn’t fit the typical dirty and rundown model of Tijuana clubs. The club is immaculate; workers armed with brooms are constantly patrolling the club and cleaning up after messy drunks. The VIP room is filled with trendy model types drinking champagne. Everything is brand new and more like Pacific Beach than Safari, a Tijauna club Ray had a stake in until a few days ago — a move he said was based on a change in agenda.

    “We had totally different ideas on the club; I wanted to invest in it, make it nicer and even though my partners said they wanted to fix it up too, it never happened,” Ray said.

    Despite the break, he said there is no bad blood between himself and his old partners. But even with the good relations, he can’t help gloating when Safari looks dead on a Friday night.

    “All the cabs go to Coko Bongo now, no one goes [to Safari] anymore,” Ray said.

    A born promoter, he wants more events and concerts to attract the crowd. On Oct. 5, Girls Gone Wild was at the club filming and handing out free shirts to a screaming crowd. A hot-girl contest with $100 and a bottle of tequila on the line turned R-rated when a largely male crowd started chanting “show your tits” to a stage of dancing girls, they complied; Ray knows how to keep his customers entertained.

    He has been in the party scene since before he could get into clubs. Born in San Jose, Calif., the promoter got his start at age 14, handing out flyers for parties thrown by his older surfer friends. Soon he began throwing house parties, promoting bands and busing people to clubs. The rest is Avenida Revolución history.

    According to Ray, he recieved his infamous moniker from the band Alien Ant Farm when he was doing promotional work for them. The band told him he had a style straight out of Hollywood, and the name and persona stuck with him since then.

    Although he drives downtown and to Pacific Beach, the majority of his business is in driving undergraduates to Tijuana. Anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 college students head across the border in Ray’s buses every weekend. He estimated that up to 90 percent of his customers are under 21. Until recently, San Diego State made up the majority of his business, but he said recently UCSD has caught up.

    Though everyone has heard horror stories of good times gone wrong down in Mexico, Ray scoffed at claims of the Mexican police’s mistreatment of American students and insisted he hasn’t heard of anything terrible happening.

    Ray is friendly with Tijuana’s law enforcement. He often calls a cop’s cell phone to see if he is on duty to provide an escort; even the federales came out to his VIP section. Running a new club in Tijuana is a high-profile endeavor that attracts attention from local government officials, and he is careful to stay in their good graces.

    Besides the party buses and his new club Coko Bongo, Ray operates an air conditioning and heating business during the week. His packed schedule and expert multitasking is evident as he takes pictures of people dancing and answers nonstop calls between conversations. Even with the frantic pace and late nights, Ray is nothing if not calm and collected — a businessman in his natural habitat.

    For anyone who has been to clubs on Avenida Revolución, the strip in Tijuana where most American students end up, the scene inside Coko Bongo is familiar. The relentless tequila man, pushy bathroom attendant and wasted sorority girls are ever present. The alcohol inevitably gets a few eager clubgoers too drunk to catch the bus home, but Ray tries makes sure everyone gets a ride home.

    “I’ll go out of my way and take people home myself,” he said.

    Even with his extreme popularity among San Diego college students, some still criticize how he makes his living.

    “I think the violence and drug abuse in Tijuana comes from the disregard for the humanity and life in general in Tijuana,” Earl Warren College junior Yesenia Padilla said. “I think bussing college students anywhere for the express purpose of debauchery is deplorable, you wouldn’t want that in your backyard.”

    But according to Ray, his position can’t be pigeonholed as simply an American businessman abusing the unequal border. His father is from a small town in Mexico, where he has spent time throughout his life. He also speaks Spanish well enough to pass as a native and sees his business as helping, not hurting, the system.

    “I bring money into the country,” Ray said. “Of course I want things to improve.”

    Waiting in line at the border, Ray spoke angrily about the divide, suggesting the border is illegal and only in place to isolate the increasingly business-savvy Mexicans.

    His night ends after the last bus leaves the border. Drunk phone calls come in incessantly from riders unable to find the overpass that will take them home. He takes all the calls, not trusting anyone else to make sure the kids make it back safety.

    Despite getting home at sunrise when people go out for their morning runs, Ray has no regrets.

    “I love what I do,” he said.

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