Brutal, opaque, illegal: the dark side of the Tres Santos 'mindfulness' eco-tourism resort

Mindful living is beautiful in thought and even better in reality. Picture a small-town sanctuary where you can find yourself, live in the moment, and relish the simple things in life. Photo: via Viviane Mahieux.
Mindful living is beautiful in thought and even better in reality. Picture a small-town sanctuary where you can find yourself, live in the moment, and relish the simple things in life. Photo: via Viviane Mahieux.
A small fishing community in Mexico's Baja California is playing involuntary host to a gigantic tourism and real estate development, writes Viviane Mahieux. And while the branding of the Tres Santos resort is all about mindfulness, ecology and sustainability, the reality is one of big money, high level politics, and the unaccountable deployment of state violence against those who dare oppose it.
What's gone on in this town for the past two years is a fucking crime. This town is not owned by crooked politicians, sleazy developers or Cabo silver merchants. This is your town. So everybody wake up! Take it over!

On the afternoon of February 2nd 2016, a lucky few received an email inviting them to paradise.

It was an ad sent to prospective clients by Tres Santos, a development that plans to build almost 5,000 residences in the vicinity of Todos Santos, a picturesque town on the southern tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, just an hour north of Los Cabos.

The project, that brands itself as sustainable, ecological, and community oriented, has already begun building a luxury boutique hotel on the beach, as well as single-family residences and an organic farm on the outskirts of town.

"Your Baja sanctuary is waiting", beckons Tres Santos' email, "find yourself, live in the moment, and relish the simple things in life". The outline of a fit man doing yoga on a deck, with a view of the sunset over the Pacific Ocean, seals this promise of a life lived in perfect harmony with nature.

A dream built on violence and intimidation

When Tres Santos sent this seductive message, some two hundred police in black riot gear were sweating in the blistering afternoon sun.

They had been standing guard for hours across the narrow dusty road that leads to Punta Lobos, the only protected point along the coast where local fishermen can directly access the sea with their skiffs, and the exact place where Tres Santos is building their beach complex.

The riot police had arrived at 5am to remove a makeshift camp that fishermen had set up on October 29, 2015, when they began to publicly oppose Tres Santos' construction. The fishermen denounced that the enormous sea wall built on the sand to protect the development was eroding the beach, damaging their motors, and making it difficult to maneuver their skiffs.

They claimed that the project destroyed mangroves, invaded the maritime federal zone (where it is illegal to build) and demanded the assurance that they could continue using an area where they had worked for generations.

From the start, Tres Santos, a project of Mira Companies, which is a subsidiary of the Colorado-based company Black Creek Group, denied any wrongdoing. They claimed that natural phenomena such as climate change and an unusual ground swell during the summer months were to blame for the erosion of the beach.

Faced with the company's lack of transparency, the fishermen voted to begin the protest. As the weeks went by, their camp developed a familial atmosphere. Women cooked, children played, fishermen rested on cots under a plastic canopy.

Who sent the police in anyway?

By 9am on 12th February, 2016, the camp had already been destroyed by the police, according to some witnesses with the help of a baseball bat. An ambulance had taken a fisherman with a broken arm to the hospital, another who had fainted received medical attention.

The company workers returned to the construction site, courtesy of police trucks that drove them back to work. The riot police stood in formation across the road, blocking access to the beach to anyone not affiliated with Tres Santos. Meanwhile, fishermen, along with their families and supporters from the town, conglomerated rowdily in front of this heavily armed human wall.

What's gone on in this town for the past two years is a fucking crime. This town is not owned by crooked politicians, sleazy developers or Cabo silver merchants. This is your town. So everybody wake up! Take it over!

Beach chairs and parasols appeared, water and food were shared. Taunts erupted: "The poor beating the poor", "You're the pueblo too", "Go hunt sicarios, not the people!" Neither side seemed willing to back down.

The standoff was finally resolved when an emergency federal injunction protecting the fishermen from this excessive and clearly irregular operation was obtained in the district court of the state capital, located some 50 miles north of Todos Santos. A little after 3pm, the state and municipal police stepped aside.

The crowd cheered and advanced toward the beach, where an impromptu meeting took place. To this day, no state authority has admitted to sending the order that led to the police operation, nor to executing it. For the local government of Baja California Sur, it is as if the events of February 2nd had never occurred.

Baja's beautiful music turns ugly

In the three months that elapsed between the start of the protest and the destruction of the fishermen's encampment, various tentative agreements failed to materialize.

On November 11th 2015, a public meeting was held in the town plaza. More than two hundred people attended, but not a single representative from Tres Santos came, even when the firm had pledged to be present and to make public all the permits that supposedly ensured the legality of their project.

On 21st January 2016, an agreement between the firm and the leaders of the fishing cooperative was revealed, but it was immediately cancelled when it became apparent that it had been signed in secret, without the approval of the 68 other members. The cooperative voted to remove the leaders and declared the agreement invalid. Rumor has it that each of the four fishermen who signed received a scant $80 each.

On Saturday 23rd of January 2016, at least one hundred people marched into Todos Santos' small town plaza to express solidarity with the fishermen and protest the illegal agreement. The end of the peaceful protest coincided with a great concert that brought together people from throughout the state.

It was the final evening of the annual Todos Santos Music Festival, organized by REM's guitarist Peter Buck, a part-time town resident. The concert featured musicians such as Mike Mills (REM), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and La Santa Cecilia.

Towards the end of the evening, when the plaza was packed, Buck took the microphone. After apologizing for not speaking Spanish, he declared in English: "What's gone on in this town for the past two years is a fucking crime. This town is not owned by crooked politicians, sleazy developers or Cabo silver merchants. This is your town. Every one of you people has a say in this town. So everybody wake up! [...] This is your town, take it over!"

Peter Buck never mentioned Tres Santos, but the retaliation was swift. On January 27th, four days after the concert, he left the country in a hurry after being threatened with deportation for violating article 33 of Mexico's constitution, which prohibits the involvement of foreigners in national politics.

The same week, five people who supported the fishermen's cause, including their legal representative and two American citizens, were formally accused by the company of invasion and dispossession of property.

But in corporate real estate land, the music is as lovely as ever

"Baja Magic Meets Awesome Music." Such was the title of the promotional email sent out by Tres Santos on the afternoon of February 2nd, 2016. "Though guitars and microphones have since been put away, the 2016 Todos Santos Music Festival remains the talk of the town."

It was inevitable that Tres Santos take advantage of a recent event featuring rock stars jamming in the picturesque environment they were so keen on marketing. Yet people were no longer talking about the shows but rather about the events that followed them, including the harassment of Peter Buck and the possible cancellation of an annual festival that raised money for local scholarships.

The arbitrary use of force had only too quickly overshadowed the exuberance of a rock festival.

The team behind Tres Santos is certainly resourceful. Simultaneously launching a police operation with an ad praising the chic bohemian vibe of a Mexican pueblo must take some complex planning, and the apparent ease with which the brand has seduced mainstream Anglophone media is disconcerting.

In early January 2016, as it does every year, the New York Times published its list of 52 top travel destinations for 2016. If Mexico City took first place, Todos Santos came in at a respectable #23.

But the short paragraph describing the location focuses exclusively the Tres Santos development, praising it as a new green community whose future Hotel San Cristóbal - the very same hotel whose construction draws such fierce opposition from local fishermen - would soon invite travelers to experience this new "mindful living community".

The 'new-school, decidedly anti-resort' resort

The February 2016 issue of Condé Nast Traveler, a glossy magazine specializing in luxury travel, includes an article on southern Baja California. While it shies away from covering the large-scale resorts that characterize Cabo-style tourism, it nonetheless praises Tres Santos, its "glorious" beach at Punta Lobos, and its aim to create a type of development that is "new-school, decidedly anti-resort".

Among the beautiful photographs that illustrate the piece, one particular image stands out: the colorful pangas (skiffs) of the Punta Lobos fishermen, nested on golden sand on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

At the back of the photo, we see a group of men pushing their boat out to sea. In this desert paradise, where people maintain their traditions as if foreign onlookers were inexistent, any social or ecological problem seems impossible.

Yet the picture must have been taken over the summer of 2015, before the sea wall built by the company eroded the beach and restricted the space fishermen had to maneuver their boats. It would be impossible to take an image such as this one today. Nonetheless, it serves to promote the very project that renders it obsolete.

In all eight pages of the lavishly produced article there is no hint of the conflict that mass tourism has brought to Tres Santos.

The myth of the bohemian traveler

Ever since John Steinbeck published his Log from the Sea of Cortez in 1951, the figure of the lone naturalist traveler has defined Baja California for the Anglophone world. Solitary and adventurous, the mythical Baja traveler is the anti-tourist who shuns the pragmatic life of American capitalism.

But this ideal of the independent, off the beaten track explorer is only too easy to commercialize, and it has profoundly marked the ways that Todos Santos has been marketed as a travel destination.

Todos Santos is now the paradise of outdoor painters, of ethnic Frida look-alikes, of tanned surfers and lean yogis. It offers a touch of the alternative-in contrast to the all too packaged Cabo vacation-but with all the comforts required by the wifi generation.

The Tres Santos mega-development draws from the standardization of bohemia that already defines the town for foreign travelers, magnifying its scale and systematizing its implementation. After all, the demand for the so-called natural life seems bottomless.

The United States alone spends more than $10 billion a year on yoga and its products, and in 2015 the estimated sale of organic food products nationwide surpassed $40 billion.

Another ancient Mexican tradition: authoritarian repression

If Tres Santos astutely taps into the foreign imagination of the ideal Baja life, it also remains faithful to a very different Mexican tradition: that of authoritarian repression.

It is hardly coincidental that the company's ability to transform elements of discord into an opportunity for publicity echoes the modus operandi of Mexico's PRI ruling party, which has the uncanny skill of absorbing and transforming its opposition.

The magazine Proceso, one of the country's most respected venues for political analysis, recently documented the links between Black Creek Group, the Colorado-based company of which Mira companies is a subsidiary, and Jerónimo Gerard Rivero, the brother in law of disgraced former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

During Enrique Peña Nieto's presidency, the companies owned by Jerónimo Gerard Rivero, along with those owned by his brother Hipólito Gerard Rivero, have received numerous multi-million dollar contracts for private, state and federal projects.

Perhaps Tres Santos' coziness with such influential political players can explain why a company that operates with so many legal irregularities has received such unconditional support from local authorities.

The fight for water in an arid land

The most flagrant discrepancies between Tres Santos' ecological pose and the actual development have to do with water use. When the project was first presented publicly in 2013, the company pledged to not take a drop of the town's water, confidently claiming that it could draw exclusively from a desalination plant that planned to build.

But in March 2015, the company requested and received permits to use municipal water for its first 66 homes. In November 2015, it was revealed that existing Tres Santos buildings were connected to the municipal grid, even though they lacked both a water contract and a measuring system to monitor usage.

Documents from Colorado State University-whose new satellite campus in Todos Santos focuses on sustainable development and agriculture, even though it was built on land donated by Tres Santos and has been accused by its own students of greenwashing the development-revealed that the campus always planned to rely on municipal water.

It does not seem to matter that a 2012 study commissioned by the company confirmed that the Todos Santos aquifer was in deficit and that it was predicted to dry up in 2022 if the town population remained at its actual level of 5,000 inhabitants. The study does not take into account the exponential growth that would result from the construction of the 4,472 homes that Tres Santos is authorized to build, especially when secondary population growth is considered.

In Mexico's driest state, and in a town where neighborhoods go for several consecutive days without receiving water, Tres Santos' lack of transparency has not passed unnoticed. The two immense water reservoirs it has built, each larger than the town's own, have only heightened the consternation of local residents.

Talking, and building - at breakneck speed

After the violent dismantling of the fishermen's encampment on 2nd February, negotiations between both parties began anew. As a gesture of good faith, Tres Santos promised to halt work for one week. On 8th February, construction began once more. On the 19th, negotiations were suspended again without an agreement being reached.

Although the company accepted many of the fishermen's requirements, it refused to withdraw the legal accusations it had made against the five people who supported the fishermen's cause, including their legal advisor. To this day, construction continues at breakneck speed, and the fishing cooperative's legal situation remains uncertain.

Despite Tres Santos' self-branding as ecological and sustainable, it is emblematic of the big projects that spearhead Mexico's state-sanctioned promotion of tourism. The recent destruction of the Tajamar mangroves in Cancún, that were razed to build yet one more development, confirms to what extent this model of growth prioritizes immediate monetary returns over the longevity of natural resources.

But the destruction of Tajamar became an international scandal, showing how an informed and organized community can intervene successfully to halt the proliferation of such unsustainable projects. Todos Santos needs to avoid the unfortunate paradoxes that plague an area such as Cancún, where hotels need to constantly bring in sand to counteract the erosion of beaches, artificially keeping alive the illusion of natural beauty they have come to depend on.

The local and international dismay caused by the recent actions of Tres Santos, eco-tourism's latest scam, offers another opportunity to redirect Mexico's tourism industry away from massive developments.



Viviane Mahieux is Associate Professor of Spanish, Spanish and Portuguese, School of Humanities, University of California, Irvine.

An earlier Spanish version of this article appeared in the Mexican cultural magazine Nexos.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Colorado State campus mega-development steals Mexican beach - you call that 'mindful'?' by Viviane Mahieux.

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