Blocks from Mex­i­can re­sorts, a surge in homi­cides

The Buffalo News - - WORLD NEWS - By Kirk Sem­ple

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 Touris­mBoard.Theav­er­age­costo­fa­ho­tel 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.

As liv­ing stan­dards go in these com­mu­ni­ties, Maria Salazar isn’t do­ing so badly. She lives with her four chil­dren and her boyfriend in a one-room, ce­ment-block house in the Real Unidad neigh­bor­hood in Cabo San Lu­cas.

She is a com­mu­nity leader and ped­dles home­made fla­vored ices and candy to help make ends meet; her boyfriend brings in $14 a day as a free­lance con­struc­tion worker.

They don’t have plumb­ing of any sort, though af­ter years of pi­rat­ing elec­tric­ity, they were fi­nally con­nected to 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.”

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,gun­men­stormed­abeach­n­ear­aresort 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. The pre­car­i­ous­ness of lives in Los Cabos’ poor sec­tions was starkly il­lus­trated this month when Trop­i­cal Storm Lidia lashed the area, flood­ing neigh­bor­hoods, de­stroy­ing scores of poorly built homes and killing at least six peo­ple.

The killings seemed to stop for a bit af­ter the storm, but the peace was mo­men­tary.

Days later, a 22-year-old man was shot and killed in San Jose del Cabo, steps from an ele­men­tary school. The drumbeat of mur­der con­tin­ued.

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