Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—or AMLO, as he is known—flies coach when he goes to Washington, D.C. He fashions himself as a man of the people. AMLO also likes to tout billion-dollar infrastructure projects in poverty-stricken southern Mexico. He claims they will create 150,000 jobs and so much “winning” that local indigenous peoples will opt to work near home rather than immigrate to the United States.
One of these projects is an ancient prize: a link between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico that spans the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. King Carlos V of Spain was the first quixotic ruler to tilt at that windmill, eyeing the 140-mile strip as a spot for a canal back in the early 1500s. Just about every Mexican president in history has had a plan to do it, and all have failed. Local tribal opposition has been so fierce that the area is known as “The Cemetery of Projects.”
Today, the cost to modernize the rail lines and ports to allow transport of containers between the seas is estimated at $1 billion, and AMLO has already started expanding the port at Coatzacoalcos on the Gulf Coast and claims to have upgraded 10 percent of the ancient rail line going south. But it’s the Pacific side of the project that, if you’re a surfer, should give worry. AMLO’s plan dead-ends at one of the best pointbreaks in the world.
Punta Conejo is Malibu over sand, only twice as long, and it barrels when the bank is groomed just right. Drive across the dunes when a long-period 180-degree south swell is being kissed by light offshore winds and you’ll feel like Robert August and Mike Hynson getting their first look at Cape St. Francis in 1964. Go at noon and it might even be empty. The wave is that good, and AMLO wants to kill it. His plans for the harbor expansion include building a jetty that extends all the way from the port at Salina Cruz to the tip of the point at Conejo.
If the jetty is built, that will mean the end of something special: happy hour at Conejo. Around seven o’clock in the evening, when the brutal heat has cooled to a more tolerable degree of scorch, a row of 4x4s park at the water’s edge. The warm smell of Mexi-schwag colitas rises up through the air. You’ll ride a wave for a minute and a half, pass a sea turtle in the shorebreak, trot up the beach to find a beer in the bottom of a cooler, and sip it as you walk back up the point for another go-around. The lights from the tankers and the harbor twinkle in the distance as you paddle back out and try to sneak a good one from underneath the crowd behind the rock before it gets dark.
You can’t put a price on the Conejo experience, but those who appreciate it would value it more than the billions of pesos the port expansion will cost. Salina Cruz locals believe that the port should be built a few miles east in La Ventosa, where it wouldn’t do as much damage to the waves, the ecology, and their livelihoods.
But AMLO wants what AMLO wants, and a few local surf guides and environmental groups aren’t going to stop him. A global pandemic, though, and the resulting economic downturn and drop in tax revenue could change the story. The multinational corporations AMLO’s gathered to actually build his shiny new rails and ports won’t do the work if they’re not getting paid by the government. Throw a rock anywhere in Mexico and you’ll hit a few deferred, half-built dream projects slowly shriveling like raisins in the sun. I don’t think surfers can save Punta Conejo, but maybe 500 years of misbegotten history and present malaise will.
[Feature image by Jimmy Wilson.]