Cartel Watch

Acapulco: Tourist Mecca and Cartel Murder Capital

There used to be a line of demarcation between the drug-gang violence and the tourists in this once-glamorous resort. Not any more.

03.05.16 5:15 AM ET

ACAPULCO, Mexico — One comforting truism of the drug war in Mexico holds that drug-related violence and tourism are mutually exclusive of one another—like the orbits of neighboring planets, the two supposedly never intersect.

But the sunburned vendors who trudge from beach umbrella to beach umbrella hawking their wares to tourists here along the Bay of Santa Lucía have a different story to tell. Five of their number have been murdered here in a month, as the violence that has for years plagued the favela-like neighborhoods on the city’s periphery has reached at last the tourist beaches downtown.

On Saturday, Feb. 20, after the fourth such murder, sun bathers and tourism boosters in this city were treated to the spectacle of Mexican Army and Marines trudging past them on the sand in combat helmets and battle fatigues with assault rifles at the ready.

The deployments are part of a new and somewhat desperate government effort to keep the violence contained. The playground of Sinatra and the Rat Pack, immortalized by Elvis Presley’s “Fun in Acapulco,” is finally getting the Francis Ford Coppola treatment.

Tourists and locals give the new strategy mixed reviews. Several told The Daily Beast they feel safer and more reassured. Others did not. “I don’t think it deters crime. And it’s scary,” said one Canadian tourist, who declined to give his name.

There is broad consensus, however, on one point: in the city long known as The Pearl of the Pacific, this is a first.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s a bad image for tourism,” said a woman in her sixties who has worked as an ambulant vendor on the downtown beaches for 30 years. “I don’t consider it a healthy response.”

Members of a forensic team and policemen work at a crime scene where a man was gunned down, in Acapulco, Mexico May 11, 2015. Unknown assailants riding a motorcycle killed a man and left one more person injured in a drive-by shooting, local media reported. REUTERS/Claudio Vargas  TEMPLATE OUT


Members of a forensic team and policemen work at a crime scene where a man was gunned down, in Acapulco, Mexico May 11, 2015.

There were 903 homicides in Acapulco last year, 104 for each 100,00 inhabitants, the highest per-capita murder rate in Mexico, and fourth highest in the world. In the first two months of this year, there were 149 murders—an average of 2.5 per day.

The violence in Acapulco is suffocating its tourist sector: the average hotel occupancy rate for the year is down to 40 percent; a recent survey by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness ranked Acapulco last out of 78 tourist destinations in Mexico. The president of the Acapulco Hotel and Tourism Association, Jorge Laurel González, put it most succinctly: “If the problem of safety is not resolved there will be no tourism recovery.”

Acapulco is the largest city in Guerrero, a state where the military solution to violence is old hat. Guerrero has the highest murder rate in Mexico, and the Mexican Army is routinely deployed to conflict areas in the rough-and-tumble interior of the state, where cartels operate clandestine drug labs and harvest an estimated 40 percent of the opium poppy used to supply heroin to the United States. In an infamous case in Iguala, about three hours’ drive from Acapulco, 43 students disappeared in September 2014.

Acapulco, the keystone of the state’s tourism sector that provides 70 percent of the GDP, was exempt from military patrols until last October. But then the new governor of Guerrero, Héctor Astudillo, in one of his first official acts deployed the army and navy to patrol the port. Astudillo, whose election restored the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party to power after several years out of power, ran on a campaign pledge for “a Guerrero of peace and order.”

Until recently there was a line of demarcation that violence rarely crossed: Avenue La Costera Miguel Alemán, that scenic boulevard of palm trees and high-rise hotels that links the cliffs of Las Brisas to the old quarter of La Caleta, and shelters the eight miles of beachfront along Santa Lucía Bay, known as the Golden Zone.

Until a month ago, every tourism booster in Acapulco affirmed that La Costera effectively quarantined the beaches of the Golden Zone from the plague of homicides in the city. The U.S. State Department affirmed as much in a Mexico travel advisory issued on Jan. 19, which is the department’s most recent statement on Acapulco. It cautions tourists not to travel through the interior of Guerrero, but says they can go to Acapulco if they “remain in tourist areas.”

In fact, the warning signs started almost a year ago. In April and then July, in separate incidents, a waiter and an ambulant vendor were murdered in the area of La Costera.

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Then, on Jan. 30 this year, the first day of a three-day holiday weekend, an ambulant vendor of bathing trunks was assassinated at Carabalí Beach in broad daylight, not 10 feet from where tourists were relaxing under their umbrellas. The assassin, in a twist suited for a Hollywood script, made his escape on a jet ski. It was the most newsworthy of the seven murders in Acapulco that day.

On Feb. 15, an employee of a refreshment stand who rented sun-shades to tourists was shot and killed at noon before the saucer-eyes of two American couples at Playa Tamarindos. Bystanders ran for cover, and the kids who pulled the trigger ran away. El Sur de Acapulco reported that, “The body remained under a palapa, sprawled on the sand with shots in the face, next to chairs and a plastic table where there were beer bottles and glasses.” A second man, seated at the victim’s table drinking a beer, was wounded.

Later that same day, at 6:30 p.m., police discovered another body, an employee of yet another beachfront business. The second murder victim, age 25, was found beaten to death at an access point at Playa Hornos, with a local drug gang claiming credit in a handwritten sign found next to his body.

“We used to be able to tell tourists the beach is safe,” said the woman who has worked the area for 30 years, who declined to give her name for the story. “Now how can we look them in the eye and tell them that? We can’t.” She knew both murder victims, and said she wasn’t aware of their involvement in any criminal activity.

Gov. Astudillo’s latest decree, expanding the military’s responsibility to the busy beaches of the Golden Zone, does not appear to be improving the security situation.

In February, a local attorney was assassinated in broad daylight 50 feet from Playa Caleta, the most popular beach in Acapulco. (It’s at the north end of La Costera, that Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd in 1957.)

“The authorities never seem to be around when these things happen,” said another ambulant vendor who was weaving multi-colored bands into diadems to sell to tourists on Playa Caleta, within sight of the Rorschach of damp blood that still dabbed the sidewalk. “Tourists get scared and they won’t go back to the beach,” he said.

El Sur de Acapulco quoted Astudillo on Feb. 23 attributing “98 percent” of the murders in Acapulco to a turf battle between drug gangs. It was worth noting, the governor said, that the victims don’t represent the “organized civil society” but rather “unknown persons” tied to organized crime.

Critics argue that arbitrary estimates and off-the-cuff statements of that sort serve to criminalize the victims and excuse the government’s inability to bring the violence under control.

Might some of the dead have been involved with drug trafficking? Perhaps. But it is one thing for a beach vendor or bartender to offer a tourist a little chance to try something “más fuerte,” stronger than beer or margaritas, and another thing for the man to have his brains blown out for his troubles.

It’s also bad for criminal business. The dive in tourism, local experts say, has caused a parallel dive in the party-time market for drugs in Acapulco, and dealers are competing for a shrinking clientele. 

The prosecutor general of Guerrero, Xavier Olea Peláez, estimated that the drug rackets by the bay are run by 40 different street gangs, which are also responsible for the extortion and money rackets in the city, not to mention most of the murders that occur.

“In Acapulco there are 40 gangs and we know who they are and so the thing is to go after them, cleaning up, there is no other way to face this,” Olea said.

Most of the hotels, restaurants, water parks, and shopping malls crowded along the Golden Zone were constructed in the 1970s and ’80s.

As recently as six years ago, 20,000 American college students flocked to the Golden Zone for spring break; this year, the local hotels and tourism industry expects about 300. These days, international tourism to this area consists largely of Canadian pensioners, and the occasional cruise ship.

Soon there may be more military on patrol than there are tourists to protect. Soldiers along La Costera turn up standing outside the bank, outside the convenience store, eyeballing passersby on the steps where locals gather for a beer at night at La Bandera. They are posted outside the entrance to the hotels and gated residences in Las Brisas and the newer and pricier Diamond Zone.

And still…

On Sunday, Feb. 28, Alma Delia Lázaro Ramos, 55, who sold seafood from a shop on the beach called Cholita, was assassinated at around 2 p.m. at Playa Condesa, a beach at the heart of the Golden Zone known for clubs and restaurants that light up the night.

An American tourist who has wintered in Acapulco the past 25 years, and declined to give his name, said he dove onto the sand in an area near the banana boat and jet ski rentals when the five shots were fired.

Lázaro, like previous victims, was a local who had worked at the same business for years, and was well known. And his was the second murder at La Condesa in 12 days.

This tourist had witnessed both.

“We’ve known for many years that drugs are available around here, but we’ve never felt unsafe until now,” he said. “I love Acapulco. I love the people. The weather is absolutely perfect. It doesn’t get cloudy. I’m really angry at what’s happening, because it’s the best community, the best area, but they’re going to kill it with what they’re doing.”