In the stark, rolling hills that join Tijuana to the coastal port town of Rosarito, a battle is raging. A 15-year-old boy reloads his weapon behind the rusted hulk of an abandoned pick up truck. He signals his nearby comrade with gloved fingers, raises his head for one last look and then sprints ten long meters to a section of corrugated water pipe. His heart races as he pumps round after round down range at a man twice his age wearing paramilitary battle webbing and camouflaged fatigues.
But, this isn't drug war violence. Thankfully, this is paintball.
A half-hour drive from San Diego, "Baja Paintball" advertises its facility as the largest in all of Latin America. Eight different fields offer combat action for kids and adults. A few of the fields are modeled after ironic scenes of foreign wars: the Colombia field has a downed helicopter and a guerrilla hideout; the Kuwait field features stacks of oil barrels, a drilling tower and a destroyed Red Cross van.
To some, it may seem like a strange way to blow off steam, especially in an area that has seen their fair share of violence. Baja California just recently started to emerge from a period in which narco-factions battled for control of an important drug smuggling corridor. For years, gun battles on public streets were not uncommon. Headless bodies were hung from bridges and overpasses.
But in 2011, the violence began to ease, and "Baja Paintball's" business began to pick up. On the booming weekends, crowds of kids, teens and adults take turns playing on teams that range from two to over a dozen players. With specially tuned compressed air guns primed to shoot marble-sized plastic balls filled with wet paint, teams face off on courses that offer varied terrain and obstacles to hide behind.
"It's a great way to de-stress," several players noted on a recent summer weekend. With few rules, the game of paintball offers grownups and children alike a safe way to experience the adrenaline thrill of playing war.
One of the videographers on this piece, combat photographer Eros Hoagland, knows that feeling well. As someone who has spent time in conflict zones like Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia, he's one of many who has been drawn to war games including Baja Paintball's battlefields. "For me at least, there is something therapeutic and familiar about it, something I almost miss, so that even on the day I shot this video, I couldn't help but play a few rounds," he said.
"As I crouched and rushed from barrier to barrier, I felt the same thrill and immediacy of the human hunt, but without the dire consequences and moments of fear," he continued. "And at the end of the day, there was no threat of PTSD or having to go back out in combat the next day, only new friends and a cold beer waiting for me… that is, after I was eliminated by a twelve-year-old with an ear-to-ear grin."