It’s approaching midnight as hundreds of anarchists gather at the edge of the surf at a beach in Acapulco, Mexico. Monica Vallarino urges the crowd to part in half. She’s holding dozens of Gulf sea turtle hatchlings in a plastic bowl. It’s time to release them to the sea.
It’s a crucial moment in their lives, she explains. She has protected them from poachers and prey, and shortened their trek by carrying them just 10 feet from the undulating waves lapping the shore.
The turtles must feel their way toward freedom so that they can return in 10 years to lay their own eggs on the same beach where they were born.
It’s loud. And chaotic. “No lights!” she begs. It’s far from ideal, having a large group amassed to witness this pivotal journey. But Vallarino needs funds that the anarchists are helping supply. She has tirelessly defended baby turtles for 25 years against others in the community who steal the eggs to eat or sell as aphrodisiacs.
The government won’t help. And donations are at a trickle. The anarchists have rented her property for a party during Anarchapulco, an annual event that draws thousands of free thinkers to Acapulco. They were able to buy tickets to the turtle party with crypto, a currency free from government intervention.
Just that morning, poachers had crept onto Vallarino’s beachfront property to snatch two entire nests—250 eggs—that an employee had collected for safekeeping. “He got careless,” Vallarino recounts. The thief also took the employee’s hat and sweater as he snoozed.
It could have been worse: Vallarino has had eggs stolen under threat of gun and machete. Sometimes the poachers make it to a nest before her. Sometimes the thieves take more than eggs. She has found sticks with long nails used to plunge deep into the skulls of a mother turtle. And she has found carcasses of the majestic creatures, butchered on the spot for meat.
The sky is dark, stars sparkle, and the moon is nearly full as the baby turtles scamper haphazardly toward the water. It’s a slow, meandering ritual that plays out over 10 minutes. Children of anarchists squat on the wet sand, urging the little ones along. Occasionally an anarchist scoops up a wayward hatchling to redirect it toward the ocean.
Vallarino says she likes the anarchists, because they care for animals. The anarchists profess adherence to the nonaggression principle, which asserts that aggression is inherently wrong.
Acapulco is kind of a lawless place. Once a thriving tourist mecca, it’s now considered one of the deadliest cities in the Western hemisphere because of its high murder rates. Corruption runs high and government institutions are weak in Mexico as a whole. Some would even call Mexico a narco-state, since organized crime has so deeply penetrated various levels of government. This port town on the Pacific Coast is, in many ways, a perfect yet imperfect place for anarchists to come together.
They want to escape the burdens of government oversight—taxation is theft, schools are government indoctrination camps, and recreational drug use is a victimless crime—but they must be careful to respect Mexico’s own multilayered, often unspoken rules.
One of the anarchists may have broken a rule (if so, it’s unclear which) and was murdered a few weeks before the turtle party. A 26-year-old dreadlocked American who went by the name John Galton—a reference to the individualist hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged —was gunned down at the gate of a home he’d rented in a rough neighborhood high above Acapulco on the first day of February.
Some say he was selling drugs, infringing on the turf of local dealers. Others suggest he incited violence by standing up to neighborhood thugs who rammed a vehicle into his home’s gate. His girlfriend initially accused another expat anarchist of orchestrating the killing. The common thread behind the theories: This crime was personal.
Whatever the reason, Galton’s murder has set the loose-knit community on edge and led some to question the allure and adequateness of Acapulco as a haven for rebels and dreamers.
Acapulco has long been a strategic crossroad for commerce and cultural exchange. For more than two centuries, Spanish galleons loaded with Mexican silver sailed from the port for the Philippines and returned laden with porcelain and spices. Hard currency came again in the 1800s, after Mexico won independence from Spain, with gold shipments from the California Gold Rush pausing in the bay en route to Panama.
Digital transactions remain rare in Mexico, where more than 80 percent of purchases are with cash and millions of Mexicans lack bank accounts. Employment for half the working population is considered informal, which means they don’t pay taxes. But the majority of Mexicans now have smart phones, which makes anonymous crypto transactions a tempting prospect.
Bitso, the main exchange for cryptocurrency in Mexico, says it has more than 550,000 users trading nine different cryptocurrencies. That’s 0.5 percent of the population at large. The currency will need to scale up to be practical.
Gustavo Sartorius first encountered the anarchists in 2015, at his vegan restaurant in the heart of Acapulco’s tourist district. International visitors had become scarce amid widely publicized street shootings and government travel warnings. These ones had tattoos.
Cool, he thought. His hometown needed a reboot.
Within a year he was transacting in crypto at the anarchists’ request. Santorius’ main concern when he began accepting digital currency was how to convert it into Mexican pesos. Now he is fluent in five different types of crypto.
Paper currency has no intrinsic value. It’s based on faith. Crypto currency is also based on faith. Yet its ability to cross borders without registering on the radars of government central banks or incurring transaction fees makes it attractive to people who want to live under the radar.
As Sartorius describes his experience with the anarchists, an English woman asks to pay for her juice with Dash, an alternative cryptocurrency that diverged from the bitcoin protocol. The vendor produces a bar code on his phone, the client takes a picture of the code, and the transaction is complete. The exchange is untraceable.
One in four Verde Vegan sales that day were made with crypto.
Sartorius has become a guide of sorts for the local anarchists, a translator of Mexican culture. But he reached his limit on the day of Galton’s murder, when he got a phone call asking for help getting the body to a funeral home. His response: Call the police.
He’s still trying to wrap his head around the anarchist philosophy. He hears them talk a lot about problems in the world, but offer few solutions. For the most part, to him, the anarchists seem very brave. Fearless, even.
Sartorius feels like Acapulco is in recovery. Big hotel chains are investing. More cruise ships are docking. He’d like to see the anarchists interact more with the city—recent Anarchapulco conferences have been held at a hermetic resort close to the airport—but he worries that another tragedy will occur if one strays too close to danger.
Todd Schramke has been following anarchists in Acapulco for nearly three years for a documentary called Stateless . The narrative suddenly turned dark with the murder of Galton, a protagonist in the film. One thing that made Galton vulnerable, Schramke feels, is that he was barely scraping by, having fled drug charges in the US.
The party on the beach continues well after the turtles have been released. Revelers munch on salad and crunchy potato-filled tacos. A few lounge on hammocks strung between tree trunks. Marijuana smoke wafts through the air.
Music plays from a DJ table under a thatched roof. A rapper grabs the mic and drags a sheepish Jeff Berwick onto a patch of sand that serves as a makeshift stage. Berwick can be heard saying "bitcoin" and "freedom" before retreating back to anonymity in the crowd. (He can claim some hip hop cred, having starred in his own Bitcoin-themed rap video .)
Berwick, 48, is a Canadian-born serial entrepreneur. He made his first million dollars while still in his twenties via an internet startup that touted penny stocks. In 2009 he started a newsletter called The Dollar Vigilante , which warns of an impending collapse of the greenback and offers tips for survival. Top recommendations: Hold gold, silver, and cryptocurrency. Also desirable: Acquire real estate overseas and a second passport, and avoid taxes.
He is the reason this batch of anarchists began converging on Acapulco. Berwick called the first Anarchapulco in 2015, attracting 150 people. Attendance has doubled every year since, with dozens lingering for weeks before and after, and some opting to call Acapulco home year round.
Berwick says this semipermanent "community" formed organically rather than intentionally. He has lived in Acapulco for nearly a decade, anchored by family. Organizing conferences near home was both convenient and philosophically consistent: Anarchists who get together in places like the US are venturing into the heart of the surveillance economy.
It's human nature to seek out guidance from rabbis, coaches, and gurus. But Berwick doesn’t want to be seen as a leader or spokesperson for anarchists. “Anarchist leader” is an oxymoron.
Berwick's wife, Kena, is an Acapulco native with deep ties in a city of 800,000 people that locals say feels like a small town. Her parents ran a seafood shack on the beach; her grandfathers were fishermen. She can make a problem go away with a phone call.
Berwick felt an inexplicable pull toward Acapulco even before he met Kena. He first laid eyes on the port, encased by dramatic cliffs, in 2005 while sailing in a catamaran. From the open water, he remembers the city looking like a "bowl of diamonds." He was mesmerized.
After his catamaran sank off the coast of El Salvador that same year, he continued to travel, visiting more than 100 countries with prolonged stays in Hong Kong and Bangkok. He fled to Acapulco after a girlfriend in Thailand threatened to kill him. He soon met Kena, inked the Spanish word Libertad —freedom—on his left bicep, and settled down in Mexico.
“You’ve got so much good and so much bad, so it’s like this vortex. There’s something about this place,” he says.
Kena describes herself as "scandalous" and her fellow Acapulquenses as "fierce." She laments the rise of violence in her hometown, saying residents have come to accept it as normal. Few Mexican parents allow their children to frolic carefree on the beaches downtown well past dark, as Kena did as a child, or to visit the city's storied nightclubs. “You never heard a bullet fired—never,” she says, recalling the Acapulco of her childhood over tequilas. “It was very safe.”
That perception of safety evaporated 13 years ago, when a 40-minute shootout between rival drug gangs played out at the edge of a tourist area. Grenades were tossed. AK-47s fired. Bodies burned in the streets. Governments began to issue warnings against travel to the glittering town by the bay that once attracted crooners like Frank Sinatra and scores of American honeymooners.
There have since been daytime shootings on beaches from which at least one assailant fled on a Jet Ski. Hotels reported high vacancy rates, and many fell into disrepair. Extortion soared. Shops and businesses closed, unable to pay protection fees to criminal groups. Legitimate jobs catering to tourists became more scarce. In 2016 the US barred government employees from traveling to Acapulco at all.
Erick de Santiago, head of an initiative called Habla Bien de Acá—which means Speak Well of This Place (Acapulco)—sees the anarchists as a welcome addition to the beach town. They bring fresh ideas and a fresh vibe.
De Santiago founded Habla Bien de Acá in 2010 to counteract the negative images of Acapulco in the press. Those images were scaring off tourists, the economic lifeblood of the city. Even Mexican vacationers curbed travel and laid low when they did venture to Acapulco.
The image problem threatened to create a death spiral for businesses like Playita Santa Lucia, a beach club and restaurant that De Santiago co-owns on the city’s main avenue. Lower sales mean fewer jobs and more crime.
De Santiago sees Anarchapulco as another way to attract people to Acapulco. He doesn’t view the anarchists as violent or rowdy or lawless—or as hurting the city’s image. “They want their own laws, their own power,” he says. “I don’t think they are against humanity.”
The newcomers stray from the beaten tourist path of inebriation, sun, and sex that many vacationers seek in Acapulco. They pitch tents to camp on the beach. They explore markets brimming with papayas and mangoes. They visit a tile-crusted mural by Diego Rivera. And they uncover environmental warriors like sea turtle protectress Monica Vallarino.
Perpetual traveler and bitcoin evangelist Joby Weeks was so taken with Acapulco during his annual talks at the conference that he bought a 13-bedroom mansion overlooking the water three years ago, paying the equivalent of $4 million in bitcoin. Soon after, bitcoin went through the roof, making the amount of cryptocurrency he paid worth $40 million and then $80 million. Then his bitcoin stash got hacked . He smacks his head recalling how he felt: “Oh! I should have saved my bitcoin!”
He plans to turn the house into a time-share of sorts, giving members access for one week a month. Anarchists will be anarchists whether they are in Acapulco or anywhere else, he figures, while crediting Anarchapulco for drawing him to the city in the first place. Anarchy is “a state of mind, it’s a state of living,” Weeks says. “The whole asking for forgiveness instead of permission mindset.”
The anarchists in Acapulco want change, yet they can’t always agree on the terms. Some follow a vegan diet because they eschew violence; others eat only meat for strength. Some are hippies who volunteer their time; others are capitalists. An entrenched belief in free speech leads to impassioned discussions—as well as bickering and infighting.
Lisa and Nathan Freeman uprooted their young family from an Atlanta suburb to plant stakes in Acapulco nearly four years ago. They were looking to free themselves from state rule—their children do not attend school—and Acapulco seemed as good a destination as any.
Nathan helped organize the Anarchapulco conference, taking time from work and family. Lisa did her best to nurture and welcome newcomers. Nathan’s mother joined them in Mexico to be closer to her grandkids. They had a third child—Ira Belle (Say her name fast. Get it?)—who is nearing 2 and lacks a birth certificate.
“The intention was to get out of the US,” says Nathan as Ira Belle rolls a ball across a table.
The Freemans are now ready to change their geographic coordinates again. They traveled south to scope out another Mexican beach town, Puerto Escondido, but came away feeling like the internet was too spotty there. Nathan works as a software developer, getting paid in crypto. And the kids watch a lot of YouTube. Reliable internet is a must.
Several of their close friends have already departed for other shores. Plus, Lisa says Galton’s murder has left a “bad taste” in their mouths. She calls it Dramapulco.
One thing the anarchists can agree on: Crypto is freedom.
The mind can be the toughest cage to break. Destructive thoughts must be cast aside and fears dismissed to truly feel free. Otherwise we are all prisoners to our deepest fears, and dwelling on those fears can turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. But safety precautions remain necessary, for some.
Berwick employs a personal bodyguard. He half-jokes that guardian angels, shamans, and even his Chihuahua Lucy are looking out for him. A fellow anarchist has threatened to kill him, Berwick says.
The attack on Galton—and the subsequent media spotlight—has caused undeniable tension. A few Anarchapulco ticket holders backed out of the trip this year. Speaker Judge Andrew Napolitano, the Fox News pundit, participated via Skype, rather than in person. Libertarian trailblazer Ron Paul still showed up. Conspiracy theorist David Ickehis first bitcoin.
The real threat, Berwick believes, comes from outside as the anarchist movement grows both in numbers and spirit. His goal is to “wake people up.” Slavery, debt, war, and poverty, he says, “can all be stopped through getting rid of governments and central banks.”
Yet he suspects the powers that be won’t sit idly by.
“Basically what we’re talking about here is a lot of what Gandhi talked about, even what John Lennon talked about. Or even JFK to an extent,” Berwick says. “Recognize anything similar with all those people? They all got killed. Because when you get this close to changing the world, the system will come after you.”
Back on the beach, Monica Vallarino waves a hand dismissively when asked if she’s concerned that the turtle poachers will do her harm; they are from the same community, she says, looking to make an easy peso. Meanwhile, out in the open sea, the baby turtles swim in search of their own freedom.
Amy Guthrie ( @Amy_GuthrieDF ) is a Mexico City-based journalist who covers business, technology, health, and general news. She contributes regularly to The Associated Press and The Financial Times, and has written for publications such as MIT Technology Review and The Wall Street Journal.
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