Baja's Visitor Assistance Hotline

~ ~

The state of Baja California comes up with some unusual ways to help its tourists. Toward the end of the twentieth century, it posted bilingual attorneys in the tourist areas to resolve visitors' problems free of charge. In this century it has made use of advances in telephony to give its visitors access to government officials around the clock.

SecTurE, the State Secretariat of Tourism, maintains a line within the three-digit Special Services network of the Mexican telephone system. By dialing 078 from anywhere in the state of Baja California, help in English is available day or night. Any phone will do - a public phone, a private phone, even a cell phone from another country (so long as the subscriber has automatic roaming).

Additionally, whenever the operators of the emergency system receive a call in English, they'll transfer it to 078. This works equally for those who call the U.S. emergency number (911) while in Baja California or the European emergency number (112) or the Mexican emergency number (066). All phones in Mexico allow free access to 066.

The hotline offers reasonable assistance to visitors who need help with such things as directions, language, or cultural differences.

Getting directions in English is simple. Even though the streets in Baja California are not as confusing as, say, their European counterparts, a visitor unaccustomed to them can feel lost simply by being off by a block or two. The folks at 078 can get you on the right path in no time.

The language barrier isn't much of a problem when you have a translator at the other end of your cell phone. Wherever there are tourists, the world over, there will be opportunities to take advantage of them. An unscrupulous taxi driver might pick up a fare without agreeing on the price and then demand an inflated amount at the destination. The way such a cabbie wins in this scenario is to lapse into Spanish ... but not when a SecTurE official is on the other end of the phone to keep the cabbie honest.

Because visitors often feel intimidated by unfamiliar aspects of a host culture, the municipal and metropolitan police forces in Baja California have been asked to be lenient with foreigners in cases where cultural expectations differ. For example, the Tecate police have been trying to eradicate the "California" or "rolling" stop among the local motorists. Tijuana currently prohibits after-market window tinting. Either of these efforts is likely to catch strangers by surprise, so police have been asked not to be too strict with cars bearing U.S. plates. But, police being police, they sometimes forget to make that exception.

A woman from Downey, Cailifornia, contacted us recently. She had been stopped in Tijuana and given the choice of removing her window-tinting on the spot or having her SUV impounded: not only did she want her SUV returned to her, she wanted to punish the policemen who did this to her. We sent her to the Sindicatura and to the Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos, but they both told her they could do nothing because the policemen had only followed standard procedure in enforcing a municipal regulation.

She would have had better results by seeking help before the law was applied to her car. "If she had called us during the traffic stop," said Arturo Martínez of SecTurE, "we would have been able to talk to the policeman for her. The police tend to be much more accommodating when they know we're involved."

SecTurE's people say that the most common call they receive is from motorists with mechanical troubles. "We don't actually perform automotive repairs," said one member of the Secretariat. "Our job is to facilitate. If the motorist is on a federal highway, we call the Ángeles Verdes for them. If they're here in town, one of our people goes to them on a motorcycle to assess the problem and to help the motorist contact a reliable mechanic."

During normal business hours, calls to 078 ring in the SecTurE office nearest to the caller, allowing for quick response across all levels of responsibility. In off-hours, the calls are answered by a bilingual call center specially trained to handle the most common requests. "The call center has orders to wake one of us up when there's a life-threatening problem" says Martínez. "But they'll call the consulate instead for a tourist who's been arrested for public drunkenness, just as we would do ourselves."