Violence surges near tourism hot spots in Mexico
The killings reflect government neglect of the underclass, say community leaders
LOS CABOS, MEXICO >> In recruiting foot soldiers, the drug gang did not have to look hard to find 18-year-old Edwin Alberto Lopez Rojas. He, in fact, had been looking for them.
He admired the traffickers’ lifestyle and power. And the money he stood to make promised admission to the ranks of the international elite who cavorted in the luxury resorts mere blocks — yet a universe away — from the poor neighborhoods where he grew up in Los Cabos, a tourism mecca at the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula. On July 28, he told relatives, the Jalisco New Generation criminal organization gave him a car, cash and some drugs to push. Eight days later he was dead, shot by an unidentified assailant on the street.
His death is among hundreds that have bloodied this once-peaceful area — homicides are up more than threefold this year compared with last, a surge that has stunned residents, bedeviled officials and alarmed leaders in the booming tourism industry.
A similar wave of violence has also jolted the state of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean coast, which is home to tourism hot spots like Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
The sharp rise in killings prompted the U.S. State Department last month to heighten its travel warnings for Quintana Roo and the state of Baja California Sur, home to Los Cabos.
The bloodshed here has not targeted tourists and has mostly occurred out of their view, in the poorer quarters of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, the main towns in the municipality of Los Cabos. Much of it stems from a battle among criminal groups for control of trafficking routes in the Baja California Peninsula and for dominance of local criminal enterprises, particularly the drug trade servicing tourists.
But the violence, community leaders and social workers say, is also a symptom of the grave problems that afflict the region’s underclass, reflecting long-standing government neglect. While the authorities have for decades thrown their weight behind the development of the tourism sector, many of the needs of the poor and working class have languished, they say.
Los Cabos, they say, risks following the same path as Acapulco, the Pacific Coast city that was once a major vacation destination but has been devastated by drug violence.
“If they continue covering up the problems, things aren’t going to get better,” said Silvia Lupian Duran, president of the Citizens’ Council for Security and Criminal Justice in Baja California Sur, a community group. “It’s a breeding ground for worse things.”
There is much at stake. Last year, Los Cabos had more than 2.1 million visitors, 75 percent of them international travelers and the majority of those from the United States, said Rodrigo Esponda, managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. The average cost of a hotel room is around $300 per night.
For most of its modern history, the region was sleepy and isolated, accessible only by boat or private plane. But with the completion of the Transpeninsular Highway in the 1970s and the expansion of the local airport, development exploded — and with it came a rise in migration as Mexicans poured in to work in construction and as chambermaids, bellhops, cooks, waiters, bartenders and landscapers.
In 1990, the municipality’s population was about 44,000. By 2015, it had climbed to about 288,000, with many people working in jobs that directly or indirectly supported tourism. “There was no sane planning for where all the working people were going to live,” said Ramon Ojeda Mestre, president of the Center for Integral Studies of Innovation and Territory, a consultancy in Cabo San Lucas. Most of those working-class migrants have settled in gritty neighborhoods carved out of desert scrubland that stretches north from the narrow coastal strip where the hotels, golf courses, nightclubs and marinas are concentrated. “There’s a first world, and there’s a fifth world,” Homero Gonzalez, a political organizer, said during a recent visit to the Caribe neighborhood, a settlement in Cabo San Lucas. Roving packs of dogs wandered among piles of rubble, drifts of trash and the husks of stripped cars within a few miles of the manicured grounds of the resorts where many residents work. In the first seven months of this year, the government opened 232 homicide investigations in Baja California Sur, most of them in Los Cabos, and some involving multiple victims. During the same period last year, there were 65 homicide investigations. In a nation that has seen homicides surge to record levels this year, Baja California Sur now has the fifth highest rate among Mexico’s 32 states. Leaders of the tourism industry and public officials have tried to forestall damage to the area’s appeal to visitors, particularly after the State Department advisory, pointing out that tourists have not been the target of the homicides.
But from time to time the violence has interrupted vacation idylls. In August, gunmen stormed a beach near a resort where rooms can go for thousands of dollars a night, killing three people in what authorities said was score-settling between rival criminal groups.
The federal government has deployed hundreds of marines and federal police officers to the municipality to confront the violence, and the national tourism secretary, Enrique de la Madrid, has announced a plan to create a special police force to help patrol tourism destinations, including Los Cabos, though the plan remains on the drawing board.
But in an interview with El Universal newspaper, de la Madrid also said the nation needed to do a better job redistributing tourism profits throughout society. “The enemy of Mexico is poverty and inequality,” he said.