News coverage of Mexico in the US usually revolves around two topics: drugs and violence. For people who have never visited Mexico, I imagine it sounds like a terrifying place, with corruption and human rights abuses ever encroaching on innocent people.
I have been visiting Mexico since I first drove across the border with my dog Blanca at Nuevo Laredo in 2002. I knew this was supposedly a dangerous crossing, but quickly discovered that any time the truck was searched (standard procedure on Mexican roads), the patrollers feared Blanca and quickly sent me on my way. This is not because she was growling: one look at Blanca’s intense blue (and slightly crossed) eyes and these gun-clad men mumbled a nervous “Diabla…” and moved us along. Blanca and I took the smooth toll road to El Potrero Chico to rock climb some very fun (and occasionally very chossy) multi-pitch limestone. More than the climbing, I remember our host, who was amused then enamored with Blanca and her frisbee-catching skills. We played every night in the shade of the gray cliffs on the grass of his little campground. He only had a few guests, and as we lingered for weeks, he started to invite us into his life. First he invited us downtown to his house and shop, giving us a tour of his beautiful home and enclosed courtyard. He insisting we have a cold Coca-Cola (in a glass bottle) from his little tienda next door, gratis. I remember how the rippled glass sweated in my palm as we dipped into the shadows around his home, drinking in the smell of fuchsia flowers blooming around the walkways.
The campground was on the edge of town, but our host started bringing a beer to relax and play with Blanca in the evening. Then he brought family. Then his whole family showed up with an entire meal to feed us. I had never eaten nopales before, the spineless prickly pear cactus pads, but they were diced and served with dried shrimp, onions, and a few bits of tomato in a refreshing salad. We sat with the family, laughing and talking despite my limited Spanish. Everyone was curious, happy, and open at the long table in the open air camp kitchen that evening.
This is all to say that there are a million amazing people and stories to be found in Mexico. It is also to confess that I generally ignored the crime and violence of Mexico, aside from maintaining a personal vigilance and awareness, mimicking the caution I observed from my Mexican friends.
A simple conversation changed this when I returned to Mexico this summer. My friend and colleague from the Energy and Resources Group, Jess Goddard, visited La Paz and mentioned a conversation she had with a shuttle driver. As she and her driver talked about the impact of Hurricane Odile, the Category 3 hurricane that slammed Cabo and La Paz last September, the man stated matter-of-factly that that was the turning point for drug-related violence in La Paz. Violence increased after the storm because it provided the chaos for organized crime activity.
Until July 31st, 2014, La Paz lived up to its name: The Peace. Despite being the second fastest growing city in Mexico, with a population of over 250,000, La Paz and its charming malecón feel like a seaside pueblo. There is no railing to separate those on the wide, tile promenade from the glittering sea just a few feet from their stroll. Fishermen, families, rollerbladers, dog walkers, skateboarders and sunbathers share this tranquil strip of coast. It is the most relaxed city I have visited in Mexico, and every evening the town floods its boardwalk to walk together.
But on the last day of July last year, this peace was unexpectedly disrupted. On the side of the road leaving La Paz, an incinerated car was found with three charred bodies inside. This gruesome sight, typical of the violence of organized crime, had just not even been a part of life in La Paz. The reporters on the scene stood in disbelief—this just didn’t happen in La Paz. Since that day, 120 homicides have been reported in La Paz. The previous year, there were zero.
These numbers were not easy to come by, but I found them the classic Mexican way—through a generous person. But when I started looking for information about organized crime, I dove into the websites that describe the sad and gory details of the fighting. After staring into the dark eyes of a slain 20-year-old boy who could only star back silent from a photo, I felt like I owed it to Mexico to learn more about the link between climate and crime.
A quick review of organized crime in Mexico. In the 1980s and 1990s, America’s lust for cocaine brought this illicit cash crop from Colombia to the U.S. through the Caribbean. When U.S. law enforcement constrained these routes, Pablo Escobar’s empire turned to traffickers in Mexico, who had already established routes north for marijuana and heroin. Drug runners were often paid in product and became not only transporters, but distributors. The U.S. market continued to devour the product, and soon two dominant cartels emerged, the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. However, these cartels have become increasingly decentralized through internal fractures, (the prudence of keeping the body alive if the head is removed,) as well as the U.S.’ appetite for methamphetamines, which put different people and places in power. A character cooking meth in the beginning of Don Winslow’s new novel, The Cartel, reminds us that the U.S. demand is too great, and the Mexican people too poor, to not continue feeding young lives into the machine.
Now a quick recap of Hurricane Odile. On September 14th, 2014, Hurricane Odile veered suddenly from its projected course and stomped ashore in Baja California — the strongest hurricane to hit the Baja peninsula since 1967. That night, 125 mile-per-hour winds slammed they city. With a population weary from a season of false calls for hurricane preparation, Odile caught La Paz standing outside in its flip flops, unprepared. The city lost power for over a week. This included all the city and personal home pumps for water, so people used buckets to pull water out of their cisterns—if they had one.
In the end, La Paz emerged relatively intact, but nearby Cabo San Lucas, the famed tourist destination at the tip of the peninsula, was destroyed. In Cabo, the streets received almost double their yearly precipitation. Over 60,000 people allegedly lost their homes. But, something even more ominous started to happen in Cabo in the chaos following the hurricane: looting. Thousands began by stealing necessities like food and water, but soon they whisked electronics off the shelves.
“The people of La Paz feared that the looters were coming to get them. They started buying guns,” my friend Jassiel explained. A state police checkpoint was set up on the road from Cabo to La Paz, and cars with more than two men were turned away for fear that they were looters.
So there was obviously an increase in crime after Odile. But how could I know if there was a measurable change in cartel violence? I knew the newspapers wrote about it, but unlike the U.S., much of the local reporting is still only in print, not online, and what is online is challenging to search. A researcher and writer from my Fulbright cohort suggested that I find a trustworthy journalist. Days later, I met with a cheerful and friendly young man in a café on the malecón, a local reporter I met through an honored friend. When this reporter had stood on the side of the road at the burned car last July, he was scared. But he learned quickly that he could keep himself out of danger by keeping track of statistics instead of names.
“After the hurricane, other cartels saw it. They saw the weakness. And they came in,” he told me.
There were thirty-five murders in the two months after the hurricane, in comparison with fifteen in the two preceding months. There may have been others that went unreported in the electrical blackout that followed the hurricane. A doubling murder rate is a significant change.
But did the hurricane have a hand in the murders? From a scientific perspective, there isn’t enough evidence to say. I would need more examples over time. Yet everyone from taxi drivers to emergency room doctors in La Paz state with confidence that the hurricane provided the disruption, and the storm enabled the ensuing carnage. This is the power of local knowledge and observation—these people call the City of Peace their home, and they care enough to pay attention.
In the past ten years, researchers have tried to understand how climate and violence intersect. They sought evidence that climate change causes conflict. In 2013, Solomon Hsiang, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, looked at fifty-four different studies on the topic and found that “Climatic anomalies of all temporal durations, from the anomalous hour to the anomalous millennium, have been implicated in some form of conflict.” In other words, climate change can be scientifically shown to have a hand in conflicts from five minutes of personal violence to five years of civil war.
But the focus of climate studies for Hsiang’s review was temperature and precipitation, not storms or sea level rise. No one has looked at these impacts relative to the coast or to drug trafficking. Once again, indications of the connection of climate and crime can only be found in the newspaper, not in the scientific literature. Stories precede the science.
Frustrated by the apparent lack of research, I tracked down Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, to find out if this preeminent scholar on Mexican conflict had heard anything about climate change and violence in Mexico.
“The problem is, organized crime is a complex phenomenon as is,” he told me, “without the addition of climate change. It has deep historical roots, as well as more proximate causes. It is interlinked with weak local and state level institutions in Mexico. It’s very difficult to say that climate and organized crime are linked when it’s such an embedded issue.”
But he did note the case of climate-induced drought and organized crime in Sonora and Sinaloa. “The drought experienced in the last ten years in the northern states of Mexico has exacerbated the [organized crime] problem. When there is no longer enough water to farm, you end up with a breakdown of family structure, migration to urban areas, and migration to the US. Young men who used to have a place in farming no longer have that opportunity and are moving into organized crime.”
The Hsiang study echoes Wood’s sentiment. Their finding that climate influences conflict from individuals to nations “suggests that coping or adaptation mechanisms are limited,” the paper concludes.
So how can La Paz, and the rest of Mexico, cope? Instead of looking at the outcome—cartel violence—I dug deeper into the roots of the violence. These roots are exposed with minimal research. One of the most powerful global solutions to poverty and conflict is education. Yet Mexico ranks 124th (out of 144 countries) in the world in primary school education. In Mexico, there is a group called the ninis, ni estudian ni trabajan, those who neither study nor work, who are left to their own devices.
It’s the poor students who suffer in Mexico’s system. For example, there was a three month teacher strike this winter in La Paz because teachers weren’t paid for three months of their work. Can you imagine not being paid by your government employer for three months? They were forced to strike. Middle-class parents put their kids in private school, but those who couldn’t afford it were left with kids without school for three unexpected months. In a country with an average wage of five dollars per day, where 53 million people (half of the country’s population) lives in poverty, I’m learning why only 37% of adults have completed high school. And it’s easier to imagine that these kids left to the streets for months at a time, without money or guidance, find both within organized crime.
Now before we get all mired in hopelessness, let’s go have a fresh juice at Maria California. This is one of my favorite restaurants in La Paz. Once we both have a watermelon juice, start looking around. You’ll notice that it’s only young people working here, college-age kids, and their expedience and politeness matches their smiles and industrious hustle. Turns out the owner of this restaurant employs college students, from all economic backgrounds, so they can pursue and finish their academic studies.
“Origen no es destino,” Brenda says proudly with a smile. Where you come from is not your destiny. Brenda is the owner of this rustic restaurant wrapped in Bougainvillea. Her lips match the magenta flowers, and her positive energy hugs the restaurant in the same way.
Brenda grew up poor in Mexico City. “I was always asking ‘Why?’” she laughs. “’Why are they rich and we’re poor? Why do they have money and we don’t?’” Brenda moved to the U.S. and owned a successful sandwich shop in San Diego until the 2008 economic downturn closed that business. She ended up in La Paz and saw an opportunity to build a new restaurant here based on the values of excellent service for customers, the community, and for Mexico’s heritage. But she didn’t forget her roots. Many of her young employees come from poor communities. She calls two servers, Jesus and Daniel, over to the table. Jesus smiles shyly and tells me that he studies, works, and has two kids. Daniel grins and chatters so quickly I have to ask him to slow down. He wants to study in Cuba to become a medical doctor. I ask him how Maria California helps him.
He pauses for only a moment. “They’re like my second family, I don’t know where I would be without them,” he says, grinning and glowing.
“We are more when we’re together,” Brenda says as they walk away, both after politely excusing themselves.
Brenda and her restaurant, a private business with a social mission, is unusual in La Paz. But where this is one, there is room for others. This woman with roots in poverty has brought success to her restaurant by bringing success to her young employees. While government institutions flail, Brenda provides a glimmer of support for educating the young people who might otherwise not know where to turn.
There are other ways to support Mexico’s youth in La Paz, such as nongovernmental programs that also connect kids with their natural world. Organizations like Niparajá, Ecology Project International, and Como Vamos La Paz all have community outreach grounded in years of experience in the region. In this way, they fight crime at the source—they give kids and parents options and a voice.
The damages from Hurricane Odile continue their indirect impact on La Paz. This winter, La Paz faced an 80% decrease in tourism, according to one local newspaper. Many local businesses suspected that tourists stayed away because of the increased violence; others suspected that the hurricane and the following cool weather in the winter—both a result of a powerful El Niño—kept them away. Both of these reasons are tied to our warming climate and its more powerful, disruptive storms such as Odile. This is the insidious impact of climate change—it works in concert with weakened systems.
It’s easy to wallow in this sad tale, or rather this tale of two woes intersecting. Instead, I keep my eyes open for the ways in which people help each other amid these changes. For now, the violence has abated in La Paz, but the memory remains. Humidity and summer heat hang heavy over La Paz as the hurricane season looms.
But you can beat the heat, support Mexico’s youth, and maybe even fight institutionalized crime by getting a fresh watermelon juice at a restaurant in La Paz. Don’t be afraid of Mexico. Mexico needs all of us to support its bright young people, especially as the climate changes. Change is not inherently bad, and there are talented, idealistic, and loyal people here who might be able to take the disruptive change and use it create positive opportunities in La Paz and Mexico. “Origen no es destino,” can manifest in many forms, and Mexico has yet to decide which path it will choose.
I wrote a similar version of this story for the Institute of Current World Affairs, based on the great comments I received. You can find it here.