With fun waves, warm water and beautiful beaches, Los Cabos has long been a popular destination for surfers. But lately it’s become a dangerous zone for locals, with one of the highest murder rates in Mexico. Photo: Kronemeyer
With fun waves, warm water and beautiful beaches, Los Cabos has long been a popular destination for surfers. But lately it’s become a dangerous zone for locals, with one of the highest murder rates in Mexico. Photo: Kronemeyer

A Storm of Violence

Surfing through natural disasters and escalating drug wars in Southern Baja

Two days after Tropical Storm Lidia hit Southern Baja this past summer, my girlfriend and I drove into San Jose del Cabo from Los Cabos International Airport. This was the only way into the city at that point, as Lidia had washed out the coastal roads to the north and south. Everywhere in the city still showed its hangover from the storm, which had killed at least six people, destroyed hotels and homes and cut off much of the area's power and water supply. Many of the roads in town were still so flooded or covered by sand that you couldn't tell which were paved and which were dirt. At the beachfront apartment complex where we stayed, palm fronds and sand covered the bottoms of the pools.

This was the worst storm at that point in the year, but Lidia was arguably not the most destructive force at the time in Southern Baja, where Mexico's drug wars had fully arrived. Although the area was previously a sanctuary from other states plagued by the drug wars, by mid-summer Baja California Sur had the fifth highest murder rate of Mexico's 32 states, even as homicides in the country as a whole hit record levels. Tourists remained shielded from these killings by design, but even at the doorsteps of the secure beachfront resorts frequented by surfers, this reality had become difficult to ignore completely. It revealed itself in unexpected glimpses rather than with the broad force of a natural disaster like Lidia.

Warren Metcalfe leans into one of the many quality breaks that dot the coastline of Baja California Sur. Photo: Kronemeyer

That first afternoon, I walked along the beach from the apartment to Zippers, the first in a little cluster of surf spots to the southwest. To my right were hotels and apartment complexes crammed together along the sand essentially leaving not a single piece of undeveloped beachfront property. The population in Los Cabos--the municipality encompassing San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas-- was about 44,000 in 1990. By 2015 it had risen to about 288,000. And yet the pace of development has somehow continued, as officials estimate an additional 4,000 hotel rooms will be added in the next two years, and 20 more hotels have been planned.

In an area where the average cost of a hotel room is now $300 per night, workers who moved from Mainland Mexico to support this industry settled more affordably in the desert colonias behind the beachfront resorts. These communities, where many homes are unpermitted, are among the most prone to destruction in the area during hurricane season, and the last to receive support, with many structures built from salvaged materials, pirating connections to the power grid and lacking access to water and sewage systems.

Normally the beaches of Cabo are swarming with margarita-toting tourists. But after Tropical Storm Lidia hit, the shoreline was mostly vacant and littered with debris. Photo: Kronemeyer

But even the luxury resorts had clearly taken a beating from the storm. On the walk toward Zippers many of them seemed eerily abandoned. Windows were boarded up, and the areas surrounding a couple resorts were blocked off by caution tape. The pool decks were bare of any umbrellas or lounges and the beachfront bars and restaurants were closed. The water out front, normally a warm blue-green color, had turned sewage brown. I took out a set of earplugs from my boardshorts and popped them in.

On entering the water I could see that the surface was coated in a layer of sawdust mixed with pieces of broken plastic. A white painted door, large branches, pieces of cactus, and PVC pipe floated by, adding navigational hazards to the lineup. The storm had, in a matter of days, fundamentally transformed the beach and the wave. Before Lidia, the wave produced a soft, walled point break along rock-lined sand. The arrival of the storm reshaped this setup, pushing loads of sand onto the beach and covering or displacing the majority of the rocks. The river mouth in front of the wave, which very rarely opens to the sea, had widened across the beach and now spilled out into the ocean at high tide. All of these changes had the effect of creating a sandbar that reeled off consistent waves close to shore. The three surfers already in the water that afternoon--all Mexican locals--marveled at how the rocks along the beach had disappeared, transforming their mushy right point break into a more clearly-defined sandbar. Water quality notwithstanding, they said it was a more perfect wave than had been there for years.

Somewhere along the East Cape. Photo: Ellis

Besides Lidia's recent Zippers makeover, the other topic of conversation in the water was the continued violence in town. Another killing had occurred the night before, outside La Comer, the supermarket closest to the beach where a man had been shot in an execution-style hit. This was the latest imposition of the cartel-fueled violence in Los Cabos. Of the 232 homicide investigations opened by the middle of last summer, those that garnered the most attention were not those in the colonias occupied by Mexican citizens, but those that had spilled into the tourist zones and resort areas. One month earlier at Palmilla resort, a mile up the beach from Zippers, three men had been killed in a grisly shootout with automatic weapons. News reports, even in the Mexican media, focused mostly on these three killings and not the other six that had occurred elsewhere in the state that same weekend.

Following the Palmilla shooting, the managing director of the Los Cabos Tourism Board, Rodrigo Esponda, assured the Los Angeles Times that "unlike the recent terrorists in Europe, Mexico's gangsters rarely purposefully target general society." And yet just two months earlier, the Mexican newspaper Reforma had reported that a mass grave of 18 men and women had been discovered on the road between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo Pulmo National Park on the East Cape--a reminder that these killings are not always so neatly targeted. A number of reports on the Palmilla beach shooting that made their way into the English-speaking media also omitted the fact that, in addition to the three people killed, two bystanders had also been shot and rushed to the hospital.

About a year ago, the bodies of 18 men and women were discovered along one of the many dirt roads in Baja-a sign of the mounting cartel-fueled violence in the area. Photo: Kronemeyer

Earlier in the year, there had been other instances of the violence spilling into Southern Baja's tourist zones. In March of 2017, a police chase in San Jose del Cabo ended in a shootout in the hotel lobby of the Hyatt Ziva, a beachfront resort less than a mile from Zippers where rooms often go for upwards of $400 per night. Then, last June, police in Cabo found a cooler containing two severed heads, and another cooler with severed body parts. Again government officials offered assurance to the media that these killings only targeted participants in the drug trade, no matter how close to tourists they got. Still, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for the area the month of the Palmilla shooting.

In Mexico a clear effort was underway to ensure that money from the country's $20-billion-a year tourist industry kept flowing to Cabo despite the state-wide murder rate reaching a level roughly eight times higher than Los Angeles. Last June, an operation by Mexico's navy in Los Cabos led to the arrest of Abraham Cervantes Esquera, nicknamed "El Babay," a leader of the Tijuana New Generation Cartel, one of the organizations believed to be responsible for the increased violence in Southern Baja. But as with the arrest of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel--who was known to vacation in Cabo before he was detained in January of 2016--the arrest of Cervantes Esquera had little effect on reducing crime. These arrests appear to have only instigated a bloody struggle for control among cartels.

Local surfer Stosh Lindsey, enjoying the kind of playful surf that has drawn countless tourists to the region over the years. Photo: Kronemeyer

Businesses in Los Cabos desperate to shield their investments from the violence chipped in $1.3 million to add nearly two hundred officers to the area's police force. Mexico's tourism secretary also announced a proposal to add a special police force dedicated to patrolling the tourist zones.

Maintaining a sense of primacy for tourists also seemed to carry over to lineups. That first afternoon at Zippers a couple more Americans paddled out and immediately took priority over the three Mexicans already waiting for the next set of waves to roll in. Even when one of the locals caught a wave, one of the Americans didn't hesitate to cut him off. Later in the trip I heard multiple expats boast that they had been surfing in Cabo before Mexicans from the area had started--"the good old days"--while other expats complained when surf spots filled with locals trying to catch a few waves before heading off to work for the day.

This disregard for the Mexican citizenry at times took the form of outright callousness for those most affected by the drug wars near Cabo. In a locally-circulated expat newspaper, The Gringo Gazette, a front-page editorial speculated on the damage the drug wars would have on American business interests, going as far as blaming locals entirely for introducing violence into the area. "If a handful of Pedros kill off a handful of Joses in a certain city, they choose to call this city dangerous," the editorial stated, criticizing the recent U.S. travel warning. "Meanwhile, we here in Cabo, maybe somewhat selfishly, only pay attention to the stats if those deaths involve a Peter and a Joe. Otherwise, we consider it business as usual, with Mexican druggies killing off each other, and of no concern to us."

From this perspective, Cabo looks like the embodiment of paradise. But drug violence statistics paint a much different picture of the area. Photo: Carey

This oversimplification among some expats ignores the fact that just as Cabo's resort industry relied on American demand, so did the drug cartels. This was why a battle for the drug trafficking routes in Baja that supply the United States, and control over the drug trade serving tourists in Los Cabos, had caused so much violence in Southern Baja. But the violence reaching the inland desert communities of people who'd spent their lives in service jobs for the coastal gringo population seemed to matter less than keeping the tourist machine running.

Many of the working-class families who moved to Cabo to join the tourist economy and escape the drug wars in Mainland Mexico are now seeing their children recruited as foot soldiers for cartels supplying the American demand for illegal drugs. Reports by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times in the weeks following the shooting at Palmilla beach offered glimpses of those most affected by the violence. One 20 year old, Jose Mauricio Savala Espinoza, had been among 16 killed in three days last August, the L.A. Times reported. He was shot on a Sunday afternoon near a Baptist church in San Jose del Cabo, three miles inland from the beachfront resorts. His parents had left Sinaloa 23 years earlier to raise their four children in Los Cabos.

Lineups like this one, located not far from Zippers, are often filled with talk of the violence that's spilled into the area. Photo: Kronemeyer

Another local killed that month, Edwin Alberto López Rojas, told his family that he'd joined the Jalisco New Generation Cartel when he was offered a car, money and drugs to sell, according to the New York Times. Eight days later, the 18 year old was murdered in the streets of San Jose del Cabo. Again, both papers reminded their readers that tourists were not the targets or victims of the killings. In the New York Times piece, it was reported that in the wake of Tropical Storm Lidia, "the killings seemed to stop" for a matter of days before "the drumbeat of murder continued."

Unfortunately, claims of even that brief respite proved to be untrue: the reporter had overlooked the murder outside the supermarket in San Jose del Cabo the night after the storm. To visiting surfers, these killings had been flattened to a point of casual conversation between waves at Zippers. The locals had reason to be concerned for their communities, but visitors and expats continued to believe that the violence wouldn't affect them. This past year marks less of a change in Cabo's social, political and economic situation than it does a reminder of how grim things have been for years. Citizens are treated as an underclass in the service of tourists as Cabo relies upon the influx of those vacationers to support the economy. Without tourism, the area risks falling even deeper into cartel control, like former vacation spots such as Acapulco, which became Mexico's murder capital in 2017.

As a surfer traveling to Cabo, it's easy to feel implicated in supporting this failed system, but the consequences of abandoning the area altogether seem far more damaging. At a time of such unrest, continuing to support coastal tourism represents one of the few sources of stability.

The La Comer supermarket was the closest to our apartment, and the night after the murder there we went to pick up some groceries. Many shelves were still clear of essentials, like large jugs of water and eggs, which hadn't been restocked since Lidia hit. Families with young kids milled about the store with a calm that belied the destruction of the storm and the recent string of killings.

For visiting surfers, it's often easy to forget the problems plaguing the area when a fun swell is in the water. For the locals, however, it isn't that simple. Photo: Kronemeyer

Throughout the city the heightened police presence was stark. At all times of day, convoys patrolled heavily with officers in full battle gear and masks, carrying automatic weapons. One afternoon, all the open-air restaurants in Los Cabos closed. A nearby restaurant said it was because more killings were expected and they'd closed to help police maintain safety. Yet the official reason had been more innocuous: a mandate from the local government to ensure restaurants maintained health standards following the storm.

In every way the Cabo resort bubble runs counter to the idea that people should be warned of potential danger, making it harder for the violence in the surrounding area to register. The two pools at our apartment complex had been cleaned of the palm fronds and sand left by the storm within a couple days of it passing. In the afternoons, we'd pick limes from the trees surrounding the pool to put in our beers and toss pieces of melon and hibiscus flowers to the iguanas basking on the pool deck. An expat couple from Huntington Beach would show up some afternoons and we made small talk about how the surf had been that morning, for the most part avoiding the subject of the killings.

According to locals and expats, this was the fewest number of gringos they'd seen in Los Cabos in recent years. Each morning clean waves peeled off the sandbar at Zippers for a thin crew of regulars. By midday there was often no one else surfing, and as the water returned from sewage brown to its warm blue-green, it became tempting to ignore the cost at which those empty waves had come.

This article originally appeared in SURFER Magazine, Issue 59, Volume 2, subscribe here.

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