May 30, 2003

And the beat goes on….

Efforts to stop dangerous partying in border cities and this year’s reported statistics.

By Mariana Martinez

Downtown, Tijuana is about bright lights and loud music on every corner of the famous Revolution Street. On the sidewalk, waiters invite everyone taking a stroll down the street to come in and have a drink “on the house”, they entice you with “free for the ladies,” “2 x 1,” “margaritas.” Friday night plan seems perfect for the thousand American high school and college students along with the many marines or military staff stationed in the city of San Diego.

The Tijuana nightlife is a blur of colors and human shapes after a night of binge drinking. Photo by Mariana Martinez.

“Ten dollars all you can drink”, you couldn’t ask for more; the dark bars are full of noise and ladies, the beer is very cheap and the weird looking colorful drinks seem to keep flowing all night long, some of the -now drunk- girls get themselves in a thong or wet T shirt contest, where the winner gets a pin or lighter with the bar’s logo. Nobody thinks about the flip side: bar fights, rapes, assaults, burglary, loss of consciousness, and that’s just inside the packed full bars, aside from the risks of driving back home, totally intoxicated, breaking the law and endangering innocent people along the way.

This picture is reproduced over and over in major border cities every weekend or US holidays. México’s legal age for drinking or smoking is 18, while in the US the age is 21; so it comes as no surprise that many 18 year olds (sometimes younger with fake ID’s or bribes) cross every weekend to party in border cities. According to more than 1,400 US teens and adults cross, the border to San Diego every weekend very intoxicated to legally drive.

Tijuana has had this “party town” image from the very beginning. Proof of it is the long Revolution street with all the bars that are now expanding to neighboring streets; but that same image has triggered a great concern among parents and authorities, that seem to grasp the consequences of underage and binge drinking: It is the parents who lay awake at night waiting for their teen to come home or receive phone calls from the police or the hospital.

That is why in the late 90’s, a group of concerned Tijuana/San Diego residents decided to create the Border Policy Council and in 1997 created the San Diego-Tijuana Border project. This project seeks:

1. Create laws that make it harder for minors and adults to cross the border to binge drink and come back intoxicated to the US.

2. Seeks the banning of alcohol advertising and promotions targeting youth.

3. To provide law enforcement the authority to intervene with intoxicated pedestrians under 21, consistent identification check for minors attempting to enter México and the expansion of DUI roving patrols and check points in the border region

The San Diego-Tijuana initiative was evaluated last year by the U.S. government and deemed to be a model for replication. This past holiday weekend San Diego Police coordinated part of the local project in the form of Operation Safe Crossing, a multi-agency enforcement effort aimed at combating underage drinking and drunk drivers.

Memorial Day weekend, party for some, and a learning experience for others.

On Friday, May 23, officials from the neighboring border cities of El Paso (Texas) and Ciudad Juarez (Chihuahua) joined their counterparts in San Diego-Tijuana in order to exchange information in conjunction with the prevention project to reduce problems related to cross-border underage and binge drinking. The visitors include policymakers, law enforcement agents and other community leaders who met with police, county officials and policy advocates in San Diego and Tijuana before taking a tour of the border late Friday evening.

“Border communities have always understand that we face a unique set of circumstances that encourage alcohol and drug abuse,” said Executive Director James Baker of the Institute for Public Strategies (IPS), which facilitated Friday’s meeting. “Our goal is to collaborate on long-term changes known to improve economic conditions, health and safety for those living, working and playing on both sides of the border.”

“We work closely with our El Paso and Las Cruces partners to decrease alcohol-related threats to public health,” said Ciudad Juarez Councilwoman Ofelia Rosales de Mijares. “Reviewing the work here in San Diego and Tijuana will help us all advance our common goals and learn from each other.”

The meeting started Friday at 5 p.m. at the San Ysidro Border Crossing, as thousands of teenagers and young adults were getting ready for a long weekend, getting dressed and calling friends to cross to Tijuana….

Later that same night I strolled down the busy Revolution street and asked bar managers and waiters what they think about tougher laws for U.S. teens to cross the border. Some of them laughed and said: “They are just going to lie, or rent a hotel so they don’t have to cross the border on the same night, if they want to, they could find a way, prohibition would just make it sneakier and more interesting.”

Others talked about why kids come to Tijuana and loose control: “They come here because everyday life is so boring and full of rules, their parents or even the government doesn’t trust them to do the right thing, how are they going to grow up? Tougher laws just makes them fearful of consequences and not take honest decisions about their actions. What about personal responsibility for your actions? Gringos don’t know what that means…they have rules for everything.”

After saying that, they just turned around and kept inviting tourists into their bars, some of them with the capacity for over a thousand people. A girl who is waitress in one of those bars said, Memorial Day was huge even more crowded than last year, but she agreed less minors were coming. “It is better for us to deal with older crowds, if reglamentos (the Mexican Bar law enforcement agency) finds minors in the bars they give out very big fines; besides, they are more destructive. I hope we can get more responsible clients into Revolution Street…,” she added.

Meanwhile, the visitors had a chance to see the implemented checkpoints at the border and learn more about their function and effectiveness.

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts it was reported that 23 people were killed in this year’s Memorial Day weekend. In comparison to last year’s Memorial Day weekend:

 The number of arrests for DUI’s increased 65%. The highway patrol reported 1,454 arrests for DUI with just 874 arrests made last year.

 Just in San Diego, 266 people where detected by the Highway Patrol for DUI; last year only 122 people where stopped for the same reason.

 This year, 23 people where killed, six more than last year. Four of those deaths were in San Diego County.

The significant increase in arrests may be due to the increased police presence, but whatever is being done it is not enough!

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