Last week many of us were hypnotized by the roping lines of Barr de la Cruz, in southern Mexico, where the WSL hosted their most recent CT event. Given the volatility of the cartel situation, the trip across the USA border to Baja is a slightly different deal. In the current issue of Tracks regular surfer/photographer duo Greg long and Al Mackinnon reflect on the fear, frustrations, and euphoria associated with travel in Baja. Read the excerpt below
Story by Al Mackinnon
… Baja is to Californian surfers what Hossegor / Algarve is to Europeans: a sort of surfing Mecca with everything from groomed longboard points to heavy beach breaks, to big waves, all accompanied with civilised winter water temps, plenty of sun, good food and more than a little adventure…
Circa 2008 (first trip impressions heading south with Greg)
The soldier barked whilst gesturing for us to get out of the van. Our path was blocked by a couple of Humvees and a squad of marines. Two manning heavy, belt-fed machine guns and the others brandishing M4s. We followed instructions. Their faces were covered (likely to hide their identities from any cartel members they might encounter), but I noted one soldier’s eyes darting all over the place, whilst the leader spoke in staccato sentences. They were on edge, no doubt vulnerable to a cartel ambush in this neighborhood. As the van was searched, Greg explained we were surfers, which appeared to prompt one of the marines to ask, in a deceptively relaxed / jokey manner, whether we had any marijuana on us? Cliches die hard, clearly. We shook our heads and they continued the search, not really interested in whether we were travelling south with drugs anyway. Guns were more their concern.
Satisfied that we’re harmless, the marines wave us on. In the early 2000s many a monied Southern Californian surfer has bought property in northern Baja. Weekend ‘bolt holes’ where they can luxuriate, oscillating between waves much better and emptier than those north of the border, and sipping margaritas by their private pools overlooking the coast. As we drive on it becomes clear the glory days are over: numerous palatial villas lie empty and abandoned building sites abound; giant, half-finished hotels and apartment blocks, floors open to the winds, towering concrete waffles: ominous monoliths to the violence that has hit the local economy and ultimately local lives so hard.
Before that first trip with Greg, when speaking about Baja, various Californians had advised me against travelling south. The cartels’ turf war and authorities’ war on drugs had led to almost unimaginable barbarism. Around this time in 2008 the Guardian published an article entitled ‘Tijuana streets flow with the blood of rival drug cartels’ featuring the following paragraphs –
‘Dr Hiram Muñoz, chief forensic medical expert assigned to the homicide department in Tijuana, told The Observer how ‘each different mutilation leaves a clear message. They have become a kind of folk tradition. If the tongue is cut out, it means they talked too much. A man who sneaked on someone else has his finger cut off and maybe put in his mouth. If you are castrated, you may have slept with the woman of another man. Decapitation is another thing: it is simply a statement of power, a warning to all. The difference is that in normal times the dead were “disappeared” or dumped in the desert. Now, they are displayed for all to see.’
Last month 13 bodies with their tongues cut out were found across the road from the Valentín Gómez Farías secondary school. The principal, Miguel Angel González Tovar, said: ‘It was terrifying, the children were terrified, the staff were terrified. And now we had to suspend some classes after this last warning. They gave me CCTV, but that does not work. They gave me an alarm button, but that is broken. We try to teach here, but we cannot be isolated from what is going on outside.’
That said, surfers will overlook all manner of potential threats from sharks to civil unrest in search of good waves. Typically, Greg’s not overly concerned, he’s seasoned and knows how to steer clear of trouble, he tells me to ‘stay alert, but ultimately, for the most part, the cartels aren’t interested in surfers. Fast forward a decade or so and the mood is a little milder, the hotels and apartments complete and surfers are back at the northern breaks in droves, but Tijuana’s lofty border fences, razor wire, the blinding lights covering no man’s land and the grinding city poverty that contrasts so with the shimmering skyscrapers and considerable wealth on show in San Diego is no less confronting…