Beyond its luxury resorts and world-class surf, a war is being waged in Baja California (2024)

Behind Baja California peninsula'spicturesque coastline, a war is being waged on its back streets.

Violence between warring cartels over the city's lucrative drug trade has been playing out for years in the border region, and a recent escalation has seen the in-fighting spill over the border into the US.

The disappearance of three young men on a surfing and camping holiday earlier this week has thrown a global spotlight on crime in the Mexican region, and what is happening away from the tourist strip.

A history of violence

Mexico has been locked in a power struggle between about a dozen major cartels and its government since it began its "war on drugs" in 2006.

Due to its position on the US border, Baja California is home to many smuggling routes used by drug cartels to get to the US.

With groups warring over access to the routes, Mexican drug cartels have been an unchanged presence in the region for years and have a strong hold over locals due to their liberal use of violence and intimidation.

Despite the statistics, Visit Mexico said tourism in the Baja California region had rebounded from the pandemic with about 30 million visitors recorded last year.

Tourists continue to be enticed by Baja California's world-class surf, luxury hotels and scenic drives, with adventure tourism making up a large part of the market along the north-west coast.

The region markets itself as a "surfers paradise" with unique breaks and easy access to beaches and camping spots along the stretch of coastline.

However,seriouswarnings about the area began to sound in late 2022.

A paper by research initiative Justice in Mexico author Randall Ramos offered an insight into the state of play.

"Baja California has been subject to severe organised crime-related violence for decades, with wide-ranging implications," he said.

"In 2021, Baja California had the second highest number of homicides in Mexico, accounting for nearly one out of 10 homicides nationwide.

"Furthermore, Baja California ended 2021 with the second highest total number of reported homicides among all Mexican states."

Beyond its luxury resorts and world-class surf, a war is being waged in Baja California (1)

Baja California is also among theworst states in Mexico when it comes to violent crime and according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, 68.5 per cent of adults living in Baja California perceived their state to be unsafe in 2023.

Security experts also warned drug-fuelled violence was beginning to spill over the border into nearby state San Diego and El Paso, with police and other law officials under threat from cartel leaders making their way north.

International travel agencies began to mark the region as unsafe to travel to, and mid-last year, the mayor of Tijuana even moving to an army base after receiving threats from criminals.

The politicisation of Mexico's missing people

The search for the three missing men comes as humanitarian organisations advocate for better transparency around Mexico's missing person figures.

While tourist disappearances were often given international media attention, activists said the true number of missing people would include many locals in the Baja California area.

The number has been hotly debated between human rights organisations and the Mexican government, with activists claiming the number is likely to be much, much higher than reported.

The official number of missing people in Baja California offered by the state's Attorney General's Office following a federal review in 2023 is about 2,300 people.

However the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances has previously raised concerns the official number does not ring true, as some families did not report disappearances for fear of reprisal or distrust of authorities.

Advocate María Luisa Aguilar told the Associated Press there was a real concern the government's methodology did not capture the full scope of the issue.

"The current government … is now concerned that the numbers are too high," she said.

"The main concern is not whether these records are under or over the real number … [this review] is being done more from a political perspective rather than to actually look at the main problem: having a crisis of this size."

Beyond its luxury resorts and world-class surf, a war is being waged in Baja California (2)

A march organised in honour of Mexico's missing people was organised in February 2022, which brought together both victims of violence and the loved ones of missing children.

They placed photos of loved ones on walls, with details of their individual disappearances written next to family photos.

March organiser Maria Herrera is also the mother of four missing children, and told a local news outlet the number of people missing in Mexico was a national concern.

"We're here [to say] violence is destroying us. It’s destroying this country," she said.

According to the Baja California Attorney General's Office, they were recently able to locate 16 people who had been reported missing.

It did not disclose the time frame or circ*mstances of their disappearances.

"All the people found are reported to be in good health condition," a statement said.

"Some have already been reunited with their relatives, while others remain in the custody of government institutions."

Loading Facebook content

The three men remain missing, and retired FBI agent and public safety advocate Phil Andrew said it was too early to determine what may have happened to them.

"The FBI, in coordination with Mexican authorities, will be analysing the digital information, their camping site and seeking witness details," he said.

"There are not indicators of a hostage or ransom situation here."

Posted, updated

Beyond its luxury resorts and world-class surf, a war is being waged in Baja California (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Fredrick Kertzmann

Last Updated:

Views: 5277

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (66 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Fredrick Kertzmann

Birthday: 2000-04-29

Address: Apt. 203 613 Huels Gateway, Ralphtown, LA 40204

Phone: +2135150832870

Job: Regional Design Producer

Hobby: Nordic skating, Lacemaking, Mountain biking, Rowing, Gardening, Water sports, role-playing games

Introduction: My name is Fredrick Kertzmann, I am a gleaming, encouraging, inexpensive, thankful, tender, quaint, precious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.