Within the nine secluded bays of the tiny fishing village of Santa Cruz Huatulco, buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish once sought safe harbor. Four centuries later, it seems to the 214 families who live there that the pirates have come again.
"Now they are called 'Club Med' and 'Sheraton' and 'Fonatur,' " comments local fisherman Joel Garcia. (Fonatur stands for the Mexican National Tourism Fund.)
Tourism is Mexico's third biggest breadwinner, behind oil and border-based assembly plants.
Ever since the late President Miguel Aleman developed Acapulco in the late '40s, it has become de rigueur for each administration to shape its own personal addition to Mexico's tourist infrastructure. Adolfo Lopez Mateos and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz gave the nation Puerto Vallarta, Luis Echeverria inspired Cancu'n, and Jose Lopez Portillo sponsored Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.
Huatulco, up until now an anonymous dot on the lush Oaxaca coast, has been designated as Mexico's newest tourist magnet by the outgoing government of President Miguel de la Madrid. By the turn of the century, planners expect Huatulco to have 9,000 hotel rooms generating $700 million a year and accounting for 22 percent of Mexico's tourist receipts.
Also projected are 36,000 new jobs and 100,000 permanent residents for this insular fishing village, a growth rate to rival those of Acapulco and Cancu'n. "In 25 years," predicts Mexico's Harvard-trained Secretary of Tourism Antonio Enriquez Savignac, "Huatulco will be as big as Acapulco."
Savignac's computations startle Huatulco's small present-day population, most of whom survive by fishing and tilling the soil. Not only will the impending change sweep away their way of life, it is dashing their hopes of owning much of the land they have long occupied.
After a new 120-mile coastal highway linked Huatulco with Acapulco in 1984, the government granted them deed to 150,000 local acres, then the next day expropriated 60,000 of those acres bordering the Pacific Ocean to build the resort.
Huatulcans say government payment to them for the land has been small and slow in coming, and that some land bought by the government for only a few pesos a square meter is now being sold to private developers for up to 25,000 pesos a square meter.
Huatulcans who refused to sell, or were angered by the bargain basement price they received for the land they settled, are now appealing to the nation's Supreme Court, on the grounds that Mexico's constitution bars expropriating coastal agricultural fields for the development of tourist enterprises.
Thus far, perhaps 40 percent of Huatulco's fishing families have been forced to abandon their beachfront homes for a gritty stretch of uncompleted block hovels a mile inland known as La Crucecita. While Club Med, Sheraton and Presidente hotels break ground the next bay down, and a fourth hotel is already in operation, Huatulco itself is planned to be a commercial center with banks, boutiques, condominiums and currency exchange houses.
Fonatur has hatched one ploy after another to push the natives out, according to Joel Garcia and other fishermen opposed to the evictions. The town school was recently demolished and a new one constructed at La Crucecita. The town church was relocated there and a priest now says mass every Sunday at the new location. Fonatur has installed a satellite dish in La Crucecita to make it more inviting, locals say.
When all else fails, complains Alfredo Lavaringa, who still clings to the beachfront home and restaurant he built 30 years ago, soldiers have accompanied officials on their visits and the holdouts anticipate burnouts and bulldozings if they do not leave.
Fonatur's glowing publicity blurbs about the planned resort have buried news of opposition among local residents. But Huatulco's centuries of peace are coming to an end in unseemly outbursts of violence. With 3,000 construction workers in town, most of them refugees from southern Mexican oil boom towns gone bust, assaults and even homicides, once rare, are growing more frequent. The workers themselves complain they are forced to labor seven days a week and cannot quit because one week's salary is always held back. Food prices are high and living conditions in tin barracks so grim that many camp out on the beach or under scrubby bushes on nearby hillsides.
Huatulco's native workers foresee that the livelihood they gather from the sea will be greatly reduced by the tourist trade. "We fear that Fonatur will soon deny us the right to fish here," frets Garcia, who also predicts contamination of the bays by raw sewage draining from the great hotels, such as happened up the coast in Acapulco.
Anticipating the end of fishing as a local resource, Fonatur has promised to train Huatulcans so they can participate in the tourist economy. But local response to this offer remains cool.
"It isn't fair that we, the owners of this land, should have to become the maids and waiters for the tourists in order to survive," snaps fisherman Renulfo Zarate, whose right calf is deeply dented from an encounter with a shark 10 years ago. "I've suffered a lot for my work but they will have to take my life before they run me away from the sea."