Acapulco, Mexico, Aug 7 – Luis Rey Hernandez feels safe and happy when he’s on his surfboard, riding waves off the shores of Acapulco.
But when he’s not inside the barrel of a wave, the 17-year-old surfer has to navigate the rough streets of the resort city on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Luis Rey, a rising star who became national champion in the under-18 category in June and is known as “The King,” has heard shootouts. He once saw a body lying on the street.
“The violence in Acapulco is very bad. The government, the president — they do nothing. We’re going down the wrong path because we hear gunshots, (we see) dead people,” Luis Rey said as he stood with his surfboard on the sandy Revolcadero beach after catching some waves.
“You’re always afraid to leave your house,” said the fit teenager, whose black hair has reddish locks from sun exposure.
“At sea, I’m not afraid. I feel happy there.”
Acapulco is famous for its cliff divers, who wow visitors with daring drops into the ocean.
But surfing has gained popularity among youths in neighborhoods worn down by poverty and merciless drug violence that have turned the city into Mexico’s murder capital.
– Surfing on car frames –
Javier Hernandez Castanon, the 58-year-old president of the Guerrero State Surfing Association, said “gringos” brought the sport to Acapulco in the 1960s, at a time when the city was popular among Hollywood stars.
“Since we didn’t have surfboards, we started surfing on car (tire) inner tubes, and then on wood trunks. The boards began to arrive in the 1970s,” said Hernandez, who is known as “La Charra” and is Luis Rey’s uncle.
The surf association had 50 registered members in Acapulco in the 1960s, growing to more than 200 in the 1990s and over 700 today.
But the veteran surfer said the crime wave “affects surfing because violence is unfortunately attracting every youth.”
“We need support to attract young people to surf, something different,” Hernandez said.
Three of his four children migrated to Chicago 12 years ago after they were threatened by a gang demanding a tax on their beach gear rental business.
Two cartels are fighting over local drug sales in the city. More than 1,300 people have been murdered since 2015, including three on the beach this year.
Jose Manuel Trujillo, a local star known as “Yuco,” said that without surfing, he may have been dragged into the gang underworld like some of his friends in his district of Tres Palos.
Three of his friends were killed in their teens.
“They are young people who lack education and poverty takes them down that path, the easiest one,” said Trujillo, 29. “Thanks to surfing, I stayed away from that path.”
Wearing a hat from his sponsor, energy drink maker Monster, and sporting a smile dotted with braces, Trujillo now tours the world, sells his own T-shirt brand on the beach or the internet, and even got a role in the Hollywood shark thriller “The Shallows” starring Blake Lively.
– Fleeing Acapulco –
“Yuco” and “The King,” who is his brother-in-law, participated at the Vans Surf Open Acapulco competition in mid-July, an international event that attracted some 100 surfers from around the world.
But event director Gustavo Duccini said some surfers stayed away after the US State Department issued a travel warning in April that barred US government employees from visiting the city.
“It’s exaggerated but it has repercussions,” said Duccini.
Luis Rey finished second in the junior category behind Oaxaca state’s Jhony Corzo at the competition. The Mexican Surfing Federation calls them “the two best youths in the country.”
Luis Rey wants to surf his way out of town.
“I’d like to live in another country that’s calmer, where one can go out for a walk,” said Luis Rey, who has surfed since age nine. “There are good waves in Hawaii. There’s almost no violence.”
While he’s sponsored by Vans, the skater shoe company, getting money to compete abroad is still a struggle for a teenager whose father earns a living by renting out a jetski and other gear at the beach.
Other budding and accomplished surfers from Acapulco face similar financial hurdles. A child’s surfboard can cost at least $240 at a local shop.
Despite the costs, the family of Gaciel Garcia, a sturdy 10-year-old boy, backs his dream of going pro.
His father, Leonel, helped him ride his first waves at age four, holding the board to launch his son.
Gaciel now spends four hours a day in the water after school and homework.
His father whistles from the beach to point out waves and moves his hand up and down to encourage his son to use a bouncing technique to gain speed.
Gaciel’s work paid off in June, when he won the under-12 competition in Baja California, where Luis Rey, his cousin, also triumphed.
Local surf shops partly sponsored the trip, but the family needs more help to take him to tournaments abroad.
“I told him I think this sport is for rich people,” said his mother, Vianey Gallardo, 39, while grilling chicken at her small restaurant called “Pollos Surf.”
Gallardo wants the family to move to a safer beach town, where Gaciel can continue the sport, “because things are a little ugly in Acapulco.”