Baja, Land of Drug Wars, Tries to Draw Tourists

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Sandy Huffaker / Getty

A vendor waits for customers at an artisan market in Rosarito, Mexico. The tourist industry in some Northern Mexican resort towns is feeling the effects of the ongoing drug war.

Luring the usual millions of U.S. tourists back to Mexico's sun-kissed Baja Peninsula has been a tall order this spring, considering the daily splash of border murders, gun smuggling and Tijuana's near military lock-down due to the worst drug turf wars in recent northern Baja memory.

But the city of 1.5 million, a sprawl of strip malls and cinder-block and tin-roofed buildings just south of San Diego, is fighting back. Last month, the city's tourism office launched a new 120th anniversary tourism campaign: "120 Things To Do in Tijuana." (See pictures of fighting crime in Mexico City.)

Given the circumstances (Tijuana's 843 murders last year doubled 2007's), it takes moxie to launch such a campaign. Number one on the list: "Take a picture with the famous Tijuana zebra donkey." Number 75: Get out of town by "Flying direct to Narita, Japan, from Tijuana Airport."

Delusional thinking or marketing optimism? Today, Baja is a strange brew of death and promotion.

But as bullets and blood are played out on Tijuana's dusty streets, President Obama discusses cross-border gun smuggling issues with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon and U.S. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano unveils new security measures along the San Diego-Tijuana border, it's just business as usual for many, like Eric Camerino,

"Honestly, the drug problem hasn't been an issue for us in San Diego," says Camerino, who sells bicycles at Zumwalt's Bicycle Center in San Diego. "The drug cartels have always been in Tijuana, the shoot-outs have always been there, it's just that the military is catching on." (See pictures of depressing destinations.)

Last week, Camerino tuned-up bikes for the 30th Annual Rosarito Beach-to-Ensenada Fun Ride set for April 18. The event, a notorious madhouse of semi-serious riding and beer drinking along the toll road between the two spring break towns south of the border, was more subdued this year. Normally, 6,000 arrive for the event, but this year crowds were only half that size. Other events, like a professional surfing competition, have been delayed or cancelled altogether due to the violence.

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