Neglect blamed as violence lurks near Mexico tourism spots
Drugs, poverty unseen by visitors
The New York Times
LOS CABOS, Mexico — In recruiting foot soldiers, the drug gang did not have to look hard to find 18-year-old Edwin Alberto López Rojas. He had beenlooking 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 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 jolted the state of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean coast, which is home to tourism hot spots like Cancún, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
The sharp rise in killings prompted the United States 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 has not targeted tourists and has mostly occurred out of their view, in the poorer quarters of San José 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 community leaders and social workers say the violence is also a symptom of the grave problems that afflict the region’s underclass, reflecting longstanding 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 havelanguished, 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 violence.
“If they continue covering up the problems, things aren’t going to get better,” said Silvia Lupián Durán, the 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 internationaltravelers and the majority of those from the United States, said Rodrigo Esponda, the managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board. The average cost of a hotel roomis 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, bartendersand 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 planningfor where all the working people were going to live,” said Ramón Ojeda Mestre, the president of the Center for Integral Studies of Innovation and Territory, a consultancy inCabo San Lucas.
Most of those workingclass migrants have settled in gritty neighborhoods carved outof desert scrubland.
In many of these neighborhoods, the best homes are simple one- or two-room cinder-block structures with corrugated metal roofs. The worst, often in illegal settlements called “invasions,” are assembled from scrap building materials and tarps, tree branches, sticks and even cardboard. By the municipality’s estimates, about 25,000 people live in such settlements.
Overcrowding is common, and public services are spotty or nonexistent. Most of the neighborhoods have no sewer systems, and many homes are not hooked up to the municipal water supply. Even those that are connected often find their pipes empty: Demand has far outpaced supply, forcing the rationing of municipal water delivery and compelling residents to buy water at inflatedprices.
“There’s a first world, and there’s a fifth world,” said Homero González, a political organizer, 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 afew miles of the resorts.
Maria Salazar lives with her four children and her boyfriend in a one-room, cementblock house in the Real Unidadneighborhood in Cabo San Lucas. She is a community leader and peddles flavored ices and candy to help make ends meet; her boyfriend brings in $14 a day as a construction worker. They don’t have plumbing, though after years of pirating electricity, they were finally connectedto the regional grid.
“I heard a lot about ‘the change,’ ‘the change,’” she scoffed, referring to the last round of regional elections in 2015. “And now we’re seeing the change: all these massacres.”