A Drought in the Border Business

Will Parson/Guardian File

Just like the epic campuswide Sun God Festival of yesteryear, the weekend exodus of UCSD students over the U.S.-Mexico border is stuff of the past. Party busses crammed with scantily clad underagers — leaving all academic anxieties, inhibitions and dignity behind — would shuttle them 30 minutes south of campus every Friday and Saturday night.

Before the U.S. began requiring passports to come back over the border in 2008, and drug-war deaths started to rise around the same time, undergraduate students and members of the U.S. Navy were lured south by the musky myth of Tijuana: dance floors sardined with sweaty, bare-bodied coeds; an endless flow of cheap liquor and greasy street food; illicit substances and wet T-shirt contests; smoke machines, sticky bar counters, tequila shots, stripper poles, tequila shots, foam parties, tequila shots and the rare foray away from Avenida Revolucion to Zona Norte — TJ’s red-light district.

Shuttling students to and fro was infamous club promoter Ray Ramirez — better known as “Hollywood Ray.” His fleet of limobuses departed almost every weekend from college campuses in the San Diego area, delivering busloads of under-21ers to TJ’s main strip of clubs and Rosarito — a popular spring-break destination one half-hour below the border. According to Hollywood, his busses would shuttle upward of 3,000 students to Mexico on any given weekend.

“In Mexico, you can almost do whatever you want, and you’re safe,” Hollywood said. “You can black out, you can dance up on the table, you can do body shots, you can make mistakes — so that by the time you turn 21 and you’re going to bars in America, you already have all this experience, and you’re street-smart. You’re good to go. You’re not throwing up and passing out — you should’ve already done that shit in Mexico.”

Until recently, Hollywood’s limobus business was able to trumpet convenience and safety as a selling point. His busses went straight to Safari Nightclub (which Hollywood partially owns) in Tijuana or Papas and Beer in Rosarito, where his customers were granted free entry and unlimited alcohol. To maintain a reliable reputation, he said he personally made sure that each student who left San Diego on one of his busses returned safe and sound.

However, according to Hollywood, the new passport law — passed in January 2008, and requiring all those entering the U.S. to show their passports at the border — along with a spike in drug-related violence forced him to halt his weekly trips to Mexico after 2008’s spring-break season.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country’s drug cartels in December 2006 and deployed about 50,000 troops, violence in the country has risen dramatically. The University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute estimated that about 22,700 deaths have occurred in Mexico since January 2007.

The U.S. Department of State’s most recent travel warning for Mexico — issued May 6, 2010 — declared that “the security situation poses serious risks for U.S. citizens.” In addition, a January 14, 2010 Warden Message issued by the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana recommended a list of “actions to take if caught in the middle of a gunfight/gunfire,” implying that travelers might run into one such situation.

However, according to Hollywood’s, reports of gruesome drug-related border crimes have been exaggerated by the media, scaring American tourists away for no good reason.

“It’s not a war,” Hollywood said. “There’s no shooting or bombs. It’s all bullshit. I go to Mexico all the time and it’s safe. It’s no more dangerous than other major cities in America.”

Joseph Sabet, a graduate student in electrical engineering, said that Mexico’s recent swell of violence — along with the passing of his own 21st birthday — discouraged him from partying south of the border, like he did when he was an undergraduate.

“It’s dirty and sketch, but perfect if you’re under 21,” Sabet said. “I wouldn’t go now, though — it’s too dangerous. My sister’s roommate’s ex-boyfriend went with a group, and one of them got mugged by some gang and beat up by the cops within an hour.”

Revelle College senior David Lee, on the other hand, doesn’t buy the friend-of-a-friend horror stories. He said he still visits Tijuana or Rosarito at least once a quarter.

“You just have to be smart about it,” Lee said. “Go with a group and stay in the well-known tourist areas. Don’t bring any valuables and don’t do anything stupid. It’s just common sense.”

All hearsay aside, Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana Joseph Crook said in an e-mail that the consolate advises travelers to be educated when crossing the border. According to Crook, students should phone friends back home regularly, avoid unruly behavior and only use official “sitio” taxis.

The U.S. State Department’s website states that U.S. citizens aren’t usually targeted in Mexico’s drug-related crimes, and that a vast majority of the 100,000-odd U.S. students who head south every year for spring break return home safely.

According to a May 7, 2010 article in the Los Angeles Times, ever since the January arrest of Teodoro Garcia Simental — a major drug trafficker and crime boss — the violence tainting Tijuana has waned significantly.

However, an official travel warning is still in place — especially along the U.S.-Mexico border, home to key drug-trafficking sites like the notorious Cuidad Juarez, where three times as many people have been killed than anywhere else in the country.

Juarez, located across the Rio Grande river from El Paso, Texas, made national headlines two months ago when three individuals linked to the U.S. Consulate were gunned down by members of a drug gang. Incidents like these, coupled with last year’s H1N1 flu outbreak, have weakened many students’ will to party below the border. The sparse dance floors and empty seats of the once-boisterous Avenida Revolucion is a testament to the college population’s new hesitation.

“I have bartenders and waiters who can hardly feed their families,” Hollywood said. “It keeps me up at night.”

Hollywood said he is one among many hoping to revive Tijuana’s tourism industry, which has suffered in all areas — from his own busses and nightclub to the roving tequila men with damp towels, whistles and bottles of room-temperature Jose Cuervo, poised and eager to force a shot down your throat for a buck or two. Even the street vendors working the border traffic have taken a hit.

Since he halted his weekly TJ party-bus business, Hollywood has started a similar party-bus operation in Hawaii, and continues to promote clubs and events throughout San Diego. He even provided the limobuses for Phi Gamma Delta’s FIJI Islander event on April 1, 2010 and Mission Beach’s Floatopia on May 8, 2010.

And Hollywood hasn’t put a complete hold on his SD-TJ shuttle service. The operation has merely become seasonal, now starting around spring break and even beginning to boom through the summer months. However, instead of American college students — who are largely wary of travel to Mexico — Hollywood said the majority of his clients are Irish college students visiting San Diego for the summer.

“I love them and they love me,” Hollywood said. “These guys are just down to do whatever. They’re just so fun and worry-free, and all about having a good time. And damn — if I drank as much as them, I would die. We have to get extra alcohol if we have open bar, because they just want to keep going. They will go until like 10 a.m. They will go to the next day — it’s out of control.”

As summer approaches, Hollywood is gearing up for the arrival of the Irish. He’s planning weekly limobus trips to Tijuana on Wednesdays, and Rosarito on Sundays. He has a team of college reps in Ireland promoting his events, and said he expects this year’s batch of students to top that of the last few years.

In the end, though, Hollywood said his biggest priority is motivating San Diego college students to start visiting Mexico again.

“I’m gonna straighten this whole mess out, and don’t be surprised if I do,” he said. “I’m going to make it easier for everyone to go back to Mexico soon — people are going to get sick of all this shit.”

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