Baja unpleasantness taints U.S. relations with Mexico; Jailed citizens, new fees spark American outrage


SAN DIEGO -- A spate of bad news involving U.S. citizens visiting Baja California in recent months has roiled passions along the international border and has some Baja officials worried about possible harm to the all-important tourism industry.

It was bad enough, say tourism officials, that Mexico's federal government abruptly unveiled a fee of 150 pesos -- about $16 -- for visitors who stay more than three days or venture south of Ensenada. (Within Baja California, the fee was changed so it now applies only to visits longer than three days, regardless of the destination.)

Then two automobile crashes involving Southern Californians prompted furious criticism that Mexican authorities kept family members from transporting the injured Americans to San Diego trauma centers until they paid high bail amounts.

The string of calamities has ensnarled even the U.S. Marines. A Marine sergeant who inadvertently crossed into Mexico while on duty was jailed in Tijuana for two weeks on gun charges stemming from two disassembled weapons found in his truck. He was finally released Nov. 12 after members of San Diego's congressional delegation appealed to President Clinton and Mexican Attorney General Jorge Madrazo.

In Ensenada, meanwhile, some U.S. citizens are fighting in court to hold onto homes they have leased for years on disputed land.

And, as if anyone needed more reason not to visit, there have been misunderstandings over a new Mexican requirement that drivers begin paying a deposit Dec. 1 when taking a U.S. car into the interior of Mexico. Baja California is exempt from this fee.

Even Baja's staunchest promoters concede the incidents -- replete with questionable decisions, misunderstanding and finger-pointing -- have amounted to a public-relations nightmare.

"We are concerned," said Ives Lelevier, executive director of Tijuana's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I can assure you it's having a negative impact."

Scattered reports of hotel cancellations are but one sign of trouble. The pair of crashes and the incarceration of Marine Sgt. Brian Johnston became fodder for U.S. talk-radio hosts and prompted off-the-cuff proposals for a boycott of Mexico by the largest U.S. city on the Southwest border. Officials at the Mexican Consulate in San Diego found themselves barraged by hateful telephone calls.

The San Diego Board of Supervisors this week directed county officials to devise a 24-hour hot line and design a fund, using public or private money, that could help injured American drivers pay Mexican bail in cases where they have been detained and accused of having broken the law.

Although the recent events were unrelated, the close timing has drawn attention to issues, such as the availability of trauma care in Mexico, far removed from the usual focus of border politicians.

"These two [crash] incidents so close together have really put the spotlight on the whole issue of border relations," said San Diego Supervisor Ron Roberts.

In August, the family of a San Diego County man apparently at fault in a two-car collision on the toll road between Rosarito and Ensenada said his transfer to a U.S. hospital was delayed for a crucial 18 hours until $7,000 in bail and transport fees were paid. The motorist, Donald Kraft, who had not purchased Mexican insurance, suffered a broken neck and eventually died more than a week after his transfer to San Diego.

On Nov. 6, Keith Takabayashi, 31, of Newport Beach, Calif., died and two friends were injured in a single-vehicle crash near Rosarito. Each of the injured men was required to post $11,000 bond. One paid the bail before he was released to a U.S. hospital; the other was held 48 hours and then let go.

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