On the Gulf Coast of Mexico, the Sea Is Destroying Entire Communities

As the sea claims their homes, residents are forced to move inland and abandon the lives they’ve known for decades.

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CENTLA, MEXICO — In February 2022, the sea swallowed Viviana Velázquez Hernández’s house. She was born there, in El Bosque, a small coastal community in Mexico’s southern state of Tabasco, and has lived there all her life.

The same had already happened to her neighbors, Ana Bárbara Cardoza and Rita Pacheco, as well as to the residents of another 50 houses in the community.

Since October 2021, El Bosque has lost 90 meters (295 feet) of coastal land. Over 100 people have lost their homes. Most of those who were displaced have now moved 12.5 kilometers (7.8 miles) inland to join the more than 23,000 inhabitants of Frontera, the main city in the municipality of Centla. Only 10 families remain in El Bosque.

“I told my daughter, ‘Let’s wait because maybe the sea won’t come any farther and it will leave,’” says Pacheco, who has spent 34 of her 77 years in El Bosque. “No, no. The sea kept coming in until it destroyed everything.”

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Ana Bárbara Cardoza poses for a portrait outside the house of her friend, Viviana Velázquez Hernández, in El Bosque. Cardoza had to move after the sea engulfed her home in El Bosque.

“It never crossed my mind, coming to live here in Frontera. [I thought] I’d always live there, on the beach,” she continues. “I never thought my little house would go away.”

Velázquez Hernández, who also lives in Frontera, remembers how far away the beach used to be during her childhood. “I was my daughter’s age — she’s 10 years old — and my mom would tell us, ‘We’re going to the beach to collect wood,’ and I would cry because I didn’t want to go because it was far,” she recalls.

The situation in El Bosque is not unique — entire communities are disappearing in various areas along the Gulf of Mexico due to coastal erosion. According to a 2021 report produced by Consejo Nacional de Población on internal displacement in Mexico, 456 people migrated out of Veracruz and 149 out of Tabasco due to natural disasters that occurred in 2020.

That year, 100,888 Mexicans were displaced by natural disasters, according to the report, and 97.2% of those were displaced due to storms and floods.

Biologist José Reyes Díaz Gallegos, who works as a professor at Centro de Investigaciones Costeras, a research center at the University of Sciences and Arts of Chiapas, says the situation in the Gulf of Mexico is associated with an increase in the frequency and intensity of cold fronts, when a mass of cold air collides with a mass of hot air. It causes severe storms, strong winds and turbulent storm surges. In Mexico, such events are known as “nortes.”

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Since October 2021, El Bosque has lost 90 meters (295 feet) of coastland. The rising sea level has damaged over 50 homes.

“These winds come in, sometimes very, very violently, and when accompanied by storm surges, they are causing more severe damage than in the Pacific,” he says.

The biologist also notes that most of the beaches along the Gulf are sandy, making them more fragile. “With the changes that are occurring in the climate,” he says, “the winds are becoming more dynamic, and [they] are becoming more violent.”

Just this past November, a norte took out another row of houses in El Bosque.

Centla Civil Protection coordinator Héctor Estrada Magaña says that, in 2021, the Tabasco Civil Protection Ministry toured El Bosque and suggested its inhabitants be relocated. In a report published that year, the state authorities anticipated that the coastal erosion could intensify in the coming years.

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Viviana Velázquez Hernández poses for a portrait in her house in El Bosque, Tabasco, Mexico.

“When they did the tour, the residents said the sea began to encroach on the land at a more accelerated pace starting in 2021, with the arrival of a cold front,” Estrada says.

For the time being, most of El Bosque’s inhabitants live in Frontera. The changes to the families’ lives have been dizzying and full of uncertainty.

Cardoza rents a house there, which she shares with her 17-year-old son, her sister and her adolescent nephew. Her husband, who has been a fisherman all his life, had to migrate to Ciudad Juárez to work as a gardener.

“Here [in Frontera], we’re shut up because, if I go outside, the sun is beating down,” Cardoza says. “At my house in El Bosque, I had trees. There were palm trees, and [they] even had coconuts.”

Cristina Pacheco, daughter of Rita Pacheco, also lost her house. Today, mother and daughter live in a borrowed home in Frontera. “More than anything, the days are sad. I have nothing. And I spend the days here just staring,” Cristina Pacheco says.

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Rita Pacheco and her daughter, Cristina Pacheco, pose for a portrait while Ana Bárbara Cardoza shows old photographs on her cellphone. The three neighbors lost their houses in El Bosque and now live in Frontera, the main city in the municipality of Centla.

Life in Frontera is set to become a permanent reality for many families. This February, the Tabasco legislature sanctioned the allocation of a portion of state-owned land for the construction of 60 new homes for the displaced residents of El Bosque.

The Comisión Nacional de Vivienda, the federal government agency responsible for granting housing subsidies to the most vulnerable sectors of society, will be in charge of building the homes with government funding.

Guadalupe Cobos, whose family is one of the 10 still living in El Bosque, has become an activist and spokesperson for the community. She thinks adapting to another city far from the sea will be difficult for the community. “The sea is causing erosion, but it still has its fish, our source of work.”

Her house, for now, is still standing.

A futile fight

Over 500 kilometers (310 miles) north of El Bosque, in the state of Veracruz, this situation is repeating itself in the community of Las Barrancas, located within the municipality of Alvarado.

The 2020 census reported that there were 315 residents in Las Barrancas. However, inhabitants say the population goes down every year. In the past 15 years, the sea has taken 100 meters (328 feet) of coastal land and destroyed some 20 houses — displacing residents. Most of them live within walking distance of the shore by the road to El Bayo, a nearby town.

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Ricardo Ramón, left, 56, and Osvaldo Muñoz Ramón, right, 47, look out at the beach in Las Barrancas, Veracruz, Mexico, where some 20 houses have been destroyed by the sea in the last 15 years, while Amado Lagunas checks his mobile.

Alvarado is one of the three municipalities in Veracruz that have lost the most coastal land, according to the state’s Civil Protection Ministry.

“Before, [the beach] had more than 100 meters [328 feet]. We would walk and drive cars on it. We never had to travel inland,” says Pedro Román Ramón, a 65-year-old fisherman born in Las Barrancas. “Now, traveling inland is the only thing we can do because the beach is gone.”

His sister, María Román Ramón, a 78-year-old fisherwoman, backs him up. “We had huge beaches. We had places to set up little palapas for selling finger foods, to sell some ceviche, make a bit of a living. But between three or four years ago and now, the sea has eaten us up,” she says. “It’s eaten us up and now it’s taken us from our homes.”

The erosion has taken a heavy toll on the Román Ramón family’s fishing. The community’s traditional fishing method consists of hauling nets from the coast, which requires 15 to 20 meters (50 to 65 feet) of land.

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Old photographs of the Román Ramón family show how far out the beach used to go in Las Barrancas, Veracruz, Mexico. Over recent decades, the sea has been moving inland — toward the community’s houses.

“Those nets practically don’t work anymore because there is nowhere to haul them in,” says María Román Ramón. She says they now have to go out to sea by boat, which incurs expenses for gasoline.

Enrique Silva Solís, the Civil Protection Ministry communications liaison officer, says the issue cannot be mitigated because it involves geological processes. He adds that the government office is focused on working with the communities so they can identify risks and take steps to prepare for emergencies.

The best option residents have found for now is placing sandbags and enormous rocks in front of remaining structures to prevent the sea from hitting them directly. They are requesting that stone breakwaters be built to slow the water’s advance.

For now, each time a cold front arrives, Jessica Jazmín Román Ramón takes her children, aged 18, 12 and 5, and leaves for her mother’s house 15 minutes away. “It scares me. And then the sea rises and goes up to the courtyards of the houses,” she says.

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Jessica Jazmín Román Ramón poses for a portrait in her mother’s house in Las Barrancas, Veracruz, Mexico.

Her 21-year-old sister, Leticia Román Ramón, used to live with her mother and grandparents until the gulf did away with the majority of their house — first, her mother’s room, then the kitchen fell away. In the last norte, in 2023, the sea finally took her own bedroom.

Today, she lives with her mother in a home built on donated land in an ejido 1.4 kilometers (nearly a mile) away. This property sometimes serves as a refuge for the entire family.

But her grandparents still live in what remains of their house in Las Barrancas.

“They watch the waves so they can get out of there quickly,” Leticia Román Ramón says. She believes they will not leave “until the sea knocks their house down.”

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

A fisherman on the beach looks out to sea at sunrise in Las Barrancas, Veracruz.

Marissa Revilla is a Global Press Journal reporter based in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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