LOS ALGODONES, Baja Calif. — The murder of a young mother in this city in April led to what merchants and residents here say are ill-founded fears of a crime wave that are being fed by social media.
And that, in turn, has them worried the town's image among visitors as a peaceful, tourist-friendly community could be hurt.
Josefina Torres, an employee of a dental office in Los Algodones, turned up missing April 17 and was found two days later floating dead in a canal south of the city. Since then, social media has been abuzz with complaints about security that merchants and officials fear could be crippling to a community whose economy is based on winter visitors and others from the Yuma area who patronize the shops, restaurants and medical and dental offices.
Comments about the supposed insecurity plus rumors of kidnappings have even been showing up on the official Facebook page the town uses to promote itself and community events, says Juan Carlos Arvizu, an Algodones optometrist who administers the page.
“The climate of safety is good,” he said. “I think the case (of Torres) has been magnified too much. The (murder) of the young woman was an isolated case, one that could have happened anywhere. Even in the United States, which supposedly has the best police in the world, more serious cases occur.”
The murder — and the initial lack of headway in solving the killing — prompted Algodones residents to take to the street in a series of public protests demanding greater protection.
Even Arvizu concedes their complaints were valid.
“That triggered the issue of lack of support by the government for security in Los Algodones. Now we see more patrol cars and we see a police officer making more rounds. We are waiting for (an additional) response. We're not going to let this drop until this improves.”
Numbering about 15,000 residents, Algodones is not a city of its own, but falls under the jurisdiction of the municipal government of Mexicali, Baja Calif., which allocates funds for police and other public services in Algodones.
Meanwhile, the town is contending with rumors that students of an Algodones school have disappeared, and that a employee of an Algodones bar was kidnapped.
Enrique Navarro, who as municipal delegate is appointed by Mexicali to administer city services in Algodones, says the rumors of both the student disappearances and the kidnapping are all unfounded.
“I personally looked into that, and none of that is true,” said Navarro. Like Arvizu, he fears the murder of Torres is bringing Algodones undeserved notoriety.
“The death of the girl hurt everyone,” said Navarro. “Everyone knows everyone here. But unfortunately, people without scruples are taking advantage of the event to create panic.
“We have to protect Los Algodones because this is a place that lives off American and Canadian tourism. We have to take care of its image. It's not right for them to put (social media) to bad use, and they don't realize the harm they are doing to the community.”
Rosario Lopez, a street vendor who sells seafood in Algodones, said the murder and the resulting protests served to bring attention to need for more police. Still, Lopez, a 35-year resident of the town, said Torres' murder was unusual.
“It had been years since anything like that had happened,” she said.
Torres used to pass by Lopez's business regularly on her way to Salon Ejidal, where she took part in Zumba sessions with other women. According to the investigation into her murder, that's where Torres was headed at the time she was apparently abducted.
“I knew her,” Lopez said of Torres. “She was a good girl, very mellow. It got to us in the heart because she was the mother of a small child. They say it was a crime of passion.”
Navarro said several possible suspects have been detained by police investigators. He concedes that police lack resources in Algodones, a fact he said was evidenced in the aftermath of the murder and by the protests.
At present, Algodones has seven police officers and five patrol cars, he said, but “they've already sent us more resources. Now we have the benefit of more presence by state police and even federal. Since last year, we have been asking for patrols by the army and now we have them.”
Mexico uses its army to fight drug trafficking and to ensure public safety, but Navarro said the presence of soldiers and more police in Algodones could actually be counterproductive, depending on how it's perceived by tourists.
“We are accustomed to seeing the army in the streets, but Americans aren't. They get scared and they ask what's happening.”
In recent weeks, the town began enforcing a 10 p.m. curfew on minors. And a group of residents meet with officials on a recurring basis about any concerns about safety.
Jesus Pajarito, an Algodones merchant and 27-year resident of the town, said some people feed fears about crime “as if it were a game. But they need to think about what could happen. They are going to scare off tourism, and then how are we going to survive?”
Matters weren't helped last weekend by the recent discovery of three bodies of apparent murder victims in the Mexicali Valley, not far from Algodones.
Notwithstanding violent crime elsewhere, Navarro and other residents assert that Algodones is a safe community.
“I think that if the government puts more attention on security, as it has begun to do, and if we do our part, we can prevent crime,” said Alvaro Lozano, who sells fruit and juices from a stand in the city plaza. “I'm not saying we don't have thefts and other crimes, but we don't have the violence that is seen in other parts.”
Arvizu added that tourists “can come here with confidence and feel peaceful. We are here to serve them. There are problems everywhere, but they aren't as serious here as they've been made out to be.”