Ne­glect blamed as vi­o­lence lurks near Mex­ico tourism spots

Drugs, poverty un­seen by visi­tors

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - International - By Kirk Sem­ple

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.”

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