July, 2010

Mayor Hugo Torres: A Committed Vision for Rosarito Beach and Baja.
July 31, 2010 By Ron Rapos.

In the 1980s's Hugo Torres led the tough 12-year campaign to make Rosario its own city, independent from Tijuana. When voters made that a reality in 1995, he was appointed the city's first mayor.

When Torres' term ended in 1998, he thought his time in office was over. The long-time owner of the landmark Rosarito Beach Hotel and father of five figured he'd devote more time to business interests and family.  There would also be time for surfing in front of the hotel now and then (part of keeping in shape for long work days), plus some leisurely meals of sushi in San Diego, part of a controlled and healthy --- but still tasty --- diet.

Political office wasn't part of the plan for the native of Mexico City who had lived in Rosarito since he was 7 years old and received part of his education at San Diego State University. But as time passed, Torres heard stories of some city police officers working with organized crime, extorting money from motorists, and of other things that did ndicated that Rosarito was not becoming the model city he had envisioned.

In 2007, at age 70, he made the tough decision to run for another three-year term as mayor. He believed he could make the city he'd helped create a much better one. City residents agreed and elected him with an overwhelming 60% of the vote in a campaign in which he made police reform and increased public safety the main issues.

It has not been an easy challenge, especially in tough economic times and with the federal government leading a dramatic and unprecedented crackdown on drug gangs and organized crime. He knows things are still not perfect and refers to fighting crime as "a lifelong effort."

But in the third year of his term, after two-years of seven-day work weeks and with some good assistance from state and federal agencies, the results are exceptional:

"Before we had a police department with many problems," Torres said. "Now we have a good one that is working hard for the city. With the help of the military and state police officials, Rosarito has never been safer."

"This can be a model for all of Mexico," Torres said of the effort, which Baja Governor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan has called one of Baja's success stories.

The effort has been noticed north of the border as well, including in San Diego, a city that helped train Baja's new Metropolitan Tourist Police. "I can't say enough about Mayor Torres and his efforts to reduce crime in Rosarito," said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.  "By creating the Tourist Police Force, and through other measures, he's made it very clear to tourists from San Diego and the rest of the United States that he is working very hard to make Rosarito as safe as possible for visitors. I applaud him."

The Mayor Reaches Out:

Rosarito, with perhaps 130,000 residents, is Baja's fastest growing city. Because it is an attractive retirement destination and tourist attraction, as many of as 14,000 of those who live here are expatriates, most from the United States. Speaking to expatriate groups, meeting with them, and finding ways to assist them has been one of Torres' priorities. He wants Rosarito to be a city for everyone.

That's something that Anne Hines, a Canadian native, 11-year Rosarito resident and president of the United Society of Baja California from 2007 to 2008, has noticed. "The Mayor is never too busy to deal with individual complaints from members of the expatriate community," Hines said. "Mayor Torres is all about helping the people of Rosarito, expatriate and national residents alike."

Torres is also a strong believer in regional cooperation on political and business issues. "We're united by friends, family, geography, environment and economy," he says.

In May of this year, Rosarito hosted the Fifth Binational Mayors' Summit, in which political and business leaders from both sides of the border participated. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce was a major sponsor.

"Mayor Hugo Torres has been an exceptional ambassador in San Diego, not only for Playas de Rosarito but for all of Baja California," said James Clark, director general of the Mexico Business Center of the San Diego Chamber. "San Diego could not have a better partner for the business community than Hugo Torres," Clark said.

Torres' outreach includes many trips to the U.S. to promote the virtues of Rosarito and inform people of the city's safety. One of his regrets is that the scattered drug violence in Mexico has obscured that message and hurt business and tourism.

"Understandably, much of the media coverage in the U.S. has focused on the crackdown on drug gangs; it's a vital international issue," Torres said. "But this has helped create a misleading impression about security here."

That will change, he believes. In the meantime, he'll continue bringing his message to the U.S. while working to make Rosarito even safer. And somewhere, in the midst of all that, there might even be time for just a little surfing - although likely no more than once a month these days.