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Border Crime and Ecological Exodus

Predators dance around a wounded "El Hippo," but the vehicle manages to limp to safety in Rosarito.

As I cross into Mexico, predators threaten "El Hippo," but the vehicle manages to limp to safety in Rosarito.

Location: at the bluffs near kilometer 58, next to the toll road Mex-1, looking at the gray ocean and fellow campers.

Conditions: Clearing skies, 11 a.m., our first morning waking up in Baja!

Discussion: Within hours of arriving in Mexico, we were able to verify a myth, which I had dismissed as exaggeration: border crime. Friends had said, "Don't drive at night, bandidos in fake police cars will pull you over and take your car, leaving you stranded at 3 a.m." That didn't sound like a good way to start a trip. Since I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where narco-traffic wars are old news, I assumed it was media hype. Nevertheless, to avoid Murphy's Law of what can go wrong, will go wrong, we drove toward Tijuana at a reasonable hour, 2 p.m.

Just 20 minutes south of the border, on a somewhat deserted stretch of toll road Mex-1, we became suspicious of two cars that were swerving in front of us, then pulling off the road and then getting back on and following us.

Somewhere in that sequence of events, we realized we had a flat tire. Thump, thump, thump. El Hippo slowed down like a wounded animal, and the hyenas (a Jeep and white van) stalked us, slowing down even more. Thump, thump, thump. El Hippo had enough air to hobble along toward the town of Rosarito. In the rearview mirror, I watched the predators pull off behind us and then get back on the freeway. We were out of danger, out of the "open grasslands." Who knows how the hyenas managed to puncture the tire of a moving vehicle, but I don't think it was a coincidence.

The security issue is important — and not just for gringos. Upon hearing about my trip, some people said, "You're asking people about water and climate. I bet they are much more worried about their daily safety!"

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri

This may certainly be true. But what is at the root of urban poverty, the type that begets violence? Overpopulation due to rural migration, aka country people seeking opportunities in the big city, is often cited as a reason. To the dismay of city people — who assume this urban migration is because cities are, well, better — there may be another reason: It is an ecological exodus.

Erosion and poor crop production have caused much of Mexico's urban migration, according to Joel Simon's book, Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge. For example, the Mixtecos, indigenous people of Oaxaca, have left their land because "la tierra ya no da" — the earth no longer gives. In Simon's book, a 70-year-old Mixtec farmer recalls: "The corn grew green and strong, and the rains watered the pastures. We had many animals — goats and cows. Then a plague wiped out the avocado trees and the skies dried up. The rain that does fall washes away the earth until there is nothing but rock. Today, we are poorer than ever. What choice do we have but to leave?"

Also on, research suggests being aware of one's environmental footprint could cause an ecological backlash.

As water is redirected toward thirsty cities, such as Ensenada in Baja California, farms have even less water and lose the ability to support themselves. Increasingly, young people head to cities like Tijuana only to find no employment — and many resort to crime. Although the situation is not so simplistic, the degradation of farmland and water scarcity affects everyone, not just farmers.

As I pulled into Rosarito with a flat tire and watched the hyenas in the Jeep and white van head back to the freeway, I couldn't help wonder, did ecological degradation somehow lead to their criminal desperation?