What tourists need to know about the violence in Baja

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Violence has surged over the last year in Baja California Sur, the Mexican state that includes the popular resort town Los Cabos. Normally a relatively peaceful state, Baja California Sur has seen more than 230 homicides this year – four times as many as the same period last year, and seven times as many as all of 2012. The homicides are a major threat to Los Cabos’ reputation and also its role in the country’s $20 billion tourist industry.

Here’s what tourists need to know about violence in Baja.

Who is doing the killing?

According to just about everyone – government officials, Mexican security experts, and even local residents – criminal gangs are behind the killings. They attribute the homicides to two warring cartels fighting for control of the area. One of the organizations is the Sinaloa Cartel, which was headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and is now believed to be led by Guzman’s sons. The other is a relatively new group known as Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which has gained power and territory since Guzman’s arrest in 2016 and extradition to the United States earlier this year.

Where’s the violence?

The increase in homicides in Baja California Sur was first noticeable in 2014 in La Paz, the state’s capital and a two hour drive from Los Cabos. But by the end of 2016, the homicides had migrated to Los Cabos.

Data from Mexico’s National Public Security System (SNSP) compiled by the University of San Diego Justice in Mexico program.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Journalist Jorge Castañeda, who covers crime Los Cabos, says the surge in homicides there began in October 2016, and they have continued unabated since. And they have happened in a number of public places, including in a Wal-Mart parking lot and outside a grocery store where tourists shop. In March, a police chase ended in a gunfight inside the lobby of a fancy hotel.

It’s worth noting that Los Cabos is made up of two towns – Cabo San Lucas, which is the more clubby and touristy area, and the more residential, San Jose Del Cabo. It takes about 25 minutes by bus to get from one town to the other. To date, nearly all the assassinations have taken place on the San Jose Del Cabo side, including the five people assassinated at La Palmilla beach. It’s unclear why most of the homicides are taking place in San Jose Del Cabo, but Castañeda speculated that even the cartels could be cognizant of steering clear of major tourist strips.

Are tourists safe?

In August, the U.S. State Department issued a rare travel advisory warning American citizens to think twice about visiting Los Cabos and Cancun because of the surge in violence and homicides. The advisory said while the violence appears to be between criminal gangs, innocent bystanders have been injured in public and in broad daylight.

To date, no tourists have been hurt. But businesses and hotels in Los Cabos aren’t taking any chances. A group of them has begun paying the government a reported $130,000 a month to send extra police and military to guard tourist areas. In the aftermath of the shooting at La Palmilla beach, municipal police began making rounds to the beach.

Despite the State Department advisory and talk of the violence, many tourists said they feel safe. “It happens everywhere. It’s just a sad thing because you think how beautiful it is here. How tranquil it is here,” Debbie Nabors of Huntington Beach said. Nabors said the current level of violence would “never” stop her and her husband from returning to Los Cabos. In fact, tourism is up in Baja California compared to 2016, according to local officials. And new hotels continue to be constructed, with more than 1,000 more rooms projected to open in Los Cabos alone in 2018.

Tourist strip Cabo San Lucas. Photo: Emily Green (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

What role does poverty play?

Destinations like Los Cabos and Cancun were artificially created to attract tourists in the 1970s, according to Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst. In the decades since, massive inequality has arisen between the tourist zones and the rest of the city. Most of the city’s resources go towards the tourist areas, while many workers live in illegal encampments that lack basic services like running water. This is not a new dynamic, but it means that people may be more susceptible to joining criminal gangs because of a lack of other opportunities. “These conditions of poverty and marginalization are the perfect storm for triggering violence,” said Los Cabos sociologist Jesus Bojorquez Luque.

What we don’t know

There is a lot we don’t know about what is driving the violence, specifically in Los Cabos. David Shirk, a Mexico security analyst and professor at the University of San Diego, said more poppy fields – the plant used to produce heroin – have been found in Baja California Sur in recent years. He speculated that the cartels are fighting for control of poppy production.

Castañeda, the Los Cabos journalist, also speculated that the 2016 elections in Baja California Sur, which changed the power dynamic, could be a factor. Castaneda said that’s because it’s not uncommon for politicians to have some ties to cartels, and so change in power could mean a previously favored criminal organization is now disfavored.

Broadly speaking, these cartels are transnational organizations that don’t have a home base in the way a company like Apple or General Motors does. Their fight for the upper hand is playing out across the country, including in Cancun, the country’s other major tourist destination.