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LAND PIRATES OF TULUM

HOW A HIPSTER CARIBBEAN PLAYGROUND BECAME A TOXIC DEN OF MURDER, CORRUPTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RUIN
+ THIS SIDE OF PARADISE: Known for its beautiful beaches, Tulum has become increasingly popular, and its property prices have soared.

“THEY CAME with machine guns. My granddaughters on the beach started screaming. They took away our phones so we couldn’t call for help. Then they took our land.”

It was a warm Sunday morning in September, and I was speaking with Maria Isabel Caro in Tulum, Mexico. A small town on the Caribbean coast, Tulum has become a popular tourist destination where “eco-chic” travelers can practice yoga, enjoy gourmet vegan meals and shop at bespoke fashion boutiques while staying at any of the dozens of luxury hotels lining the town’s pristine tropical beach.

When Caro arrived here 30 years ago, however, there wasn’t a hotel in sight: It was just a stretch of vacant land about 40 miles from the nearest city. She built a house on a small beachfront property and lived there with her family until three years ago. Then, on the afternoon of July 19, 2013, policemen stormed into her home. “My daughterin-law was pregnant, and they just shoved her aside,” says Caro. “They told us to get out, that they were taking our house.”

The police declared her house had been built illegally and the state was repossessing it. Caro’s home was one of 14 properties the authorities took control of that day, including several hotels from which tourists were thrown out on the street, luggage in hand. Since then, there have been three more forced evictions, with the latest occurring this past June when hundreds of armed men raided 17 more. “It’s all about money,” says Caro. “Getting rich by throwing people off their land.”

Over the past five years, as Tulum has become increasingly popular and property prices have soared, environmentalists and residents like Caro have been battling business moguls and powerful politicians who are colluding to develop the land as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the city’s infrastructure is floundering, with raw sewage spilling into one of the largest underground river systems in the world. The damage may soon get much worse—a massive new real estate project with a murky past could see Tulum’s population explode tenfold in less than a decade. As Olmo Torres-Talamante, a local biologist, tells Newsweek, “This is the dark side of paradise.”

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