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“We’re All Guilty”: How Mexico’s Caribbean Coast Tourist Paradise Became A Battleground For Drug Gangs

At its idyllic heyday in Hollywood’s golden age, the Mexican resort town of Acapulco hosted John Wayne’s vacation, Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding, and Errol Flynn’s luxury yacht.

But by 2012, it had become Mexico’s deadliest city – a title it held for the next five years as powerful drug cartels and neighborhood gangs fought fiercely for control.

That’s the fate that could await Cancun and the rest of Mexico’s Caribbean coast if Thursday’s seaside shootout between rival drug traffickers becomes routine.

Four American tourists were injured and two suspected traffickers shot dead when armed gangsters arrived to “execute” their rivals, right across from a five-star luxury resort where around 750 LGBTQ travelers were on a group trip.

Two weeks earlier, on October 20, a Californian blogger and a German tourist were killed in a similar shootout between crooks on the nearby street of Tulum, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s hopes of boosting the tourist economy are now threatened.

“I hope, hope, hope it doesn’t have the same effect here,” said Dan Howell, travel agent in Cincinnati, Ohio, who was among the travelers forced to take refuge at the hotel. Hyatt Ziva Riviera Cancún when the shooting broke out.

Hotel guests take shelter on Thursday

(Armando Tundidor via Reuters)

He too used to travel to Acapulco in the 1990s, but says drug violence has “largely killed” tourism there now.

“I’ve been selling this area for 25 years, bringing my family there every year, and part of that is we’ve always felt very safe here,” he said. “It’s pretty much escaped violence from other parts of Mexico.

“In this region, there is no other industry – tourism is how these lovely people make a living. They’ve been through Covid and they’ve suffered, and they’re dependent on tips and gratuities. I do not see how this does not harm tourism.

A “sleepy fishing village” caught in a wave of crime

Mr Howell said he was particularly shocked because the incident took place near Puerto Morelos, a “sleepy little fishing village” more than a 30-minute drive from Cancun or Playa del Carmen which attracts tourists. bathers looking for a quieter experience.

Initially, guests were unaware of what was going on and some feared it was a mass shooting or a deliberate attack on LGBTQ people. Quintana Roo governor Carlos Joaquín González initially said the gunmen arrived by boat, echoing the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, but another official said they came overland in vehicles.

The US State Department has been warning since at least 2018 that travelers should “exercise extra caution” when visiting Quintana Roo, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula province home to Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen.

“While most of these killings appeared to be targeted, turf battles between criminal groups resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by US citizens. There have been incidents of shooting injuring or killing passers-by, ”the ministry said.

The province has already seen 1,000 murders this year, according to official data, and eight in ten residents told a government survey they did not feel safe. Lack of security tops the list of issues that concern them, far exceeding unemployment or access to medical care.

Tourists in Cancún. in August 2021


The same survey suggests that the crime cost Quintana Roo more than 7.4 billion pesos ($ 364 million) in 2020, a 43% increase from the previous year.

“This is definitely what you would consider a brand damaging event,” said Brad Bonnell, a seasoned hotel executive who has worked in Mexico often during his 18 years as global head of security for Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), owner of the Holiday Inn and the Crowne. Plaza chains.

In 2011, Mr Bonnell was sent to Mexico following the horrific attack on the Monterrey casino, in which members of the drug union Zetas stormed a casino and set it on fire, killing 52 people (including a young IHG sales manager).

“I’m sure some people are canceling reservations,” he said of this week’s murders.

Indeed, Keith Jackson, a Londoner who left the beach just before the shoot, said on Friday: “We’re not sure we’ll be back. We’re not sure we’ll be back after this.

Tourism fuels growing demand for drugs

Even the deadly shooting in Tulum last month was just the latest of several incidents. A taxi driver and a security guard were shot dead there in September, while another man died from a gunshot to the neck in August.

The same week the tourists were killed, a man was found dead and tied up in a park in Cancun. And in Playa del Carmen, police recently arrested 26 people in a series of raids triggered by the murder of a police officer, found locked in a car trunk.

Prosecutors said crime had increased due to “extortion [and] drug sales to foreigners and Mexicans.

“In Tulum we have about 10 drug trafficking groups and here in Puerto Morelos there are two groups fighting,” Prosecutor Oscar Montes de Oca told Imagen Radio station on Friday.

He said the 20 million tourists who visit Quintana Roo each year generate a high demand for drugs that fuel violence, with the Jalisco Cartel and a Gulf Cartel affiliate both at stake. Thursday’s battle has reportedly been sparked. by victims claiming lucrative drug-selling territory on Puerto Morelos beach.

Hotel guests take shelter after Cancun beach shootout

Politicians are taking note. Claudia Anaya, a former Mexican senator, described Thursday’s chaos as a “horror movie,” asking, “Do you think tourists want to keep coming to share our tragedy?

In the center is Governor González, who reportedly took six hours to comment on the attack. When he did, he called it “a serious blow to the development and security of the state … seriously jeopardizing the image of the state”.

It was not until Tuesday that Mr. González had makes a speech expressing contrition for not having stopped the dead in Tulum. “Today we have over 500 security guards in Tulum, but it took us such an event to reach these numbers,” he said.

“We are all guilty, we all share the responsibility, and that is why the challenge is to regain the image of a safe and successful destination.”

He added: “That same morning, the National Security Secretariat reported that Quintana Roo was one of the three states that had lowered their crime rate the most. It’s ironic, isn’t it? But it’s like that.

Mexico places its hopes in the “Riviera Maya”

The stakes are high given Mr. López Obrador’s plans for the so-called “Riviera Maya”, named for its proximity to Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza. In addition to Tulum Airport, an intercity rail loop around the entire Yucatán Peninsula is under construction.

Yet that is exactly why Mr Bonnell believes Quintana Roo can avoid the fate of Acapulco. “The Mexican government is making great efforts to protect this resort area,” he said. “They built it, and it generates an extraordinary amount of revenue for the republic.”

Injured American returns from hospital after Cancun shooting

He described the harm to foreign tourists as an “isolated incident,” saying: “Cartels, criminals, kidnappers don’t like to play with Americans. There is very little profit and it gets a kind of attention that they don’t want.

“Their target, mainly, is going to be their own competition… I would say the gringos have nothing to fear.”

Jim Berkeley, director of Destinations and Adventures International, said, “I don’t think you’ll see a drug gang very often fighting on the waterfront of a Hyatt hotel in Cancun.

Vacaya, the LGBTQ travel agency that organized the Hyatt trip, was keen to highlight the “resilience” of guests and staff, providing video of American tourist injured in brawl returning “triumph” from hospital at the complex.

For his part, Mr. Howell said government forces reacted “instantly” to the shooting, quickly raising helicopters and covering the Hyatt complex with armed troops.

By the time he spoke to The independent Things were back to normal on Friday: Vacaya’s guests gathered around the pool, cheering as they judged the contestants in a high-heeled walking competition.


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