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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service
Op-Ed

Mourn for Baja

May 14, 2024

A part of what made me was the fishing and camping trips into the wildland along Mexico’s coast. But I can’t go back.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

There are places in the mind that are small oases in the caravan of life. One of them for me was the fishing trips into the wildland along Mexico’s coast.

With a clutch of fishing rods strapped to the roof rack, we traveled for three days along the old Highway 1 in Baja California, before it was paved, to get to a cutoff with no signs. It was hard to spot at night.

About a half hour onto the cutoff track and a group of massive egg-shaped rocks rose up in the headlights and dust, with a natural gravel floor and a garden of graceful spreading ocotillo plants guarded by majestic saguaro cacti. There, a spot that was also used by locals traveling on horseback, we made a fire from brush and dead and dry cactus ribs on the desert floor, and cooked a meal of canned beans and ground beef accompanied by rolls of fresh bread bought along the way, and wine.

In the morning, after another half-day of navigating through washouts and over narrow water cuts in the road that could break an axle, we dropped from a tall plateau into a coastal valley that took us to the beach at Santa Catarina. At one end of the beach were a few huts used by fishermen during lobster season but abandoned most of the time.

At the other end was a small lagoon, windswept sand and hillocks of brush. We set up camp next to a mound of brush big enough to break the onshore wind in the afternoon, and I would jump into the pure, clean ocean, washing off the dust of the trip.

We returned to Baja once or twice a year, sometimes after Christmas, sometimes at Easter.  

Over time, we got to know the ways: the trick the gasoline attendant sometimes played with the meter, so we jumped out to make it sure it was at zero before the pump started; and paying a merchant to watch the Land Rover when we stopped at a market. And which roadside taco stands to stop at — those run by women.

So I have an abiding impression of the warmth and sweetness of the Mexican people, and a wariness for the wolves among them.

As time went by, I reported news stories out of Mexico City for a while and then watched from back here in the U.S. as the old political order of Mexico broke down. The socialist revolutionary party that held sway in Mexico for 70 years, PRI, had worked quietly with the cartels. But that detente ended in 2000 when PRI gave way to the conservative PAN party led by a Coca-Cola executive who kowtowed to the U.S. in its drug wars.

After that, Mexican society changed, as guns from the U.S. flowed south and cartels sent cocaine north, while also selling passage to young men looking for work. Now a second flow of people have come north, looking to cross with a dispensation.

In those dark currents of humanity and commerce, violence bloomed.

So I know the beach is still there, the open desert is still there, the birds, snakes and fish are still there. And I have kept the idea in my mind of going back, packing a couple fishing rods and a sleeping bag, matches and wine, and driving south.

But it was under the shadow of the knowledge that other things have changed in Baja that I read recently about three surfers killed as they were camping at a place where I fished when I was a not much bigger than the fish I caught, off a rocky shelf near the town of Santo Tomás.

I thought of all the times our family — father, mother, sisters, nieces and nephews — camped in Baja over the years, with not a human soul for miles around.

The land is the same, I know this. But the society is different, twisted by the border and violence.

With news reporters descending on Baja, a local female surfer, Francisca Acosta, well summed up the altered reality of her region. “There’s a huge problem with impunity. The disappearances and violent crimes are getting ever closer to home.” The U.S. State Department now advises travelers to “reconsider” travel to Baja while also telling them “do not” travel to six other states in Mexico.

In the aftermath of the killings, a man who runs a widely read website called TalkBaja posted a letter that broke down the failed state of Mexican courts where judges have the power to grant immunity to petitioners, and the current reality that minor thugs often contract with drug cartels and employ a simple and brutal strategy of eliminating witnesses if they are caught thieving.

In words I read with sorrow and the aching knowledge of their accuracy, he wrote, “The dangers of camping in remote areas are outweighing the benefits anymore.”

I thought about how isolated we were on those many trips south of the border, and how, but for God’s grace, and some luck, things might have gone.

And with that, an oasis in the mind was swallowed up by the sands of change.

Categories / International, Op-Ed, Travel

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