MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
August was another violent month in Mexico. That says - this year, the death toll has reached the highest level in more than two decades. And the violence is widespread, hitting cities once untouched by Mexico's drug war. One of those places is the tourist hot spot Los Cabos. Five years ago, there was barely a murder a month there. Now there's one nearly every day. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the U.S. State Department has added Los Cabos to its most recent travel advisory.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The last weekend of August was a violent one in the southern tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula. Sixteen people were murdered, according to local press accounts, in just three days.
JUAN MARTINEZ LARA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Every day, I go to one or two funerals," says Father Juan Martinez Lara. "The local cemeteries are full," he adds.
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KAHN: The murders don't stop on Sunday. As the bell for mass rings at his Church of the Divine Providence, two women quietly approach Lara. Their uncle and a cousin were gunned down Saturday night - two of the 16 homicides of August's last weekend.
LARA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "We live in two different realities," he says. There's the one up here in the dusty neighborhoods, where water is only delivered once or twice a week, and another on the beaches, where the tourists never go without. Since the beginning of the year, more than 230 people have been murdered in the state. That's a 250 percent jump in homicides over last year. Last month, the U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory to warn tourists about Los Cabos.
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KAHN: Theresa Lyon of Phoenix, Ariz., came here on a cruise ship. She had seen the U.S. travel warning but says she's not worried.
THERESA LYON: I think that if you're stupid and dumb, you're in the wrong places at the wrong time - and bad things can happen to you. If you're smart and you're paying attention to your surroundings, generally, Mexico's just perfectly safe to go to.
KAHN: Officials say, unlike places in Europe and Asia, where tourists are being targeted, gangsters in Mexico just fight amongst themselves. Los Cabos is expected to hit a record 2 million visitors this year, the majority from the U.S. Twenty new hotels are currently under construction - all votes of confidence on how safe the tourist spot is, say officials. But Los Cabos Mayor Arturo de la Rosa Escalante says while it may not be tourists being murdered, the violence is hurting Los Cabos.
ARTURO DE LA ROSA ESCALANTE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "We used to be spectators. We just watched the violence in other parts of Mexico on TV," says de la Rosa. "We never thought it would come here. But it did shortly after the fall of the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, El Chapo Guzman, especially after his extradition to the U.S. last year," says de la Rosa. Without Guzman at the head, the cartel splintered into smaller gangs that battled each other and the rival New Jalisco Generation (ph) cartel.
DE LA ROSA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "90 percent of the people fighting here aren't from here," says de la Rosa. They come from nearby Sinaloa state. "They come to fight and die here," he adds.
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CUAUHTEMOC MORGAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Reporter Cuauhtemoc Morgan is racing to the scene of the 16th murder of August's last weekend. He's getting directions over a radio. Morgan runs a local website documenting crime and corruption in Los Cabos. Earlier this year, one of his reporters was killed leaving a supermarket. Morgan is now enrolled in a federal protection program for journalists.
By the time Morgan arrives to this poor hilltop neighborhood, yellow crime tape is up, and an ambulance is leaving. One man was shot dead, another was gravely injured. A boy swings on a metal gym set atop a dirt patch in the middle of a traffic circle. This is the second shooting here in as many weeks. A few neighbors gather out in front the low-slung homes set on dirt lots.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: This woman, who was too scared to give her name, says her son was also killed three weeks ago. She says he started selling drugs, lured by the easy money. She says no one is doing anything to stop the violence, and she warns a crisis worse than the one we're living now is coming. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Cabos, Mexico.
(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.