Drug 'cartelitos' hit Mexico resorts

17 Mexican drug agents were picked up last week for alleged involvement in drug trafficking in Cancún.

The dilapidated safe house where the cocaine deal went wrong is a mere six miles from the pink beach umbrellas of Cancún's hotel zone. So are the warehouses where the men were found - shot, execution style. But for all those sunburned tourists downing banana shakes and getting set for "Water Aerobics with Raul" at 11 a.m., all that might as well have been in another world.

"What, like we don't have shootings in Cincinnati?" asks Alice Price of Ohio, a retiree on a one week all-inclusive vacation. This is her seventh trip to the resort town, she says, and she is coming back again in April - tickets already booked. She hadn't heard of the nine bodies found here late last month or the 17 federal and local agents picked up for questioning last week. But if she had, she says, she would have been right here, poolside, anyway.

In the 1990s, Cancún had a bad drug habit. Huge amounts of cocaine moved along the Caribbean coast, kingpins ruled the streets, and no less than state Governor Mario Villanueva protected the operations. But four years ago came the crackdown by Vicente Fox's new government - drug lords were arrested, lines of corruption were broken up, and the place went into rehab.

Or so it seemed. Now, a new spate of drug-related corruption and violence in America's favorite foreign resort has emerged. Just as in Colombia a decade ago, the blows to the major cartels have spawned smaller, boutique cartels - "cartelitos" as University of Miami's Bruce Bagley calls them - each acquiring its own police protection and turf. "The atomization of the industry has led to new wars among new, smaller groups over turf that used to be dominated by the big boys," says Mr. Bagley.

"It's not like in the past," agrees Jorge Chabat, an expert on narcotics trafficking at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Teaching. "Now you have a lot of unfamiliar new leaders. There are recruitments, poachings, subdivisions, inner fighting, and arguably more violence. And it's much harder to go after them."

All this would be very bad news for a town that survives on tourism - except for the fact that the tourists seem not to notice. "We have a full schedule here," says tour agent Jorge Ramirez. In between buffets, jet-ski lessons, and all-night disco parties, few vacationers have time to pick up a local paper and see the screaming headlines. And of the many day trips to water parks, pyramids, and malls, none, unsurprisingly, ventures to the back streets downtown or the warehouses by the airport.

But when the police went and checked out those warehouses a few weeks ago, they found three members of the Federal Agency of Investigation and two civilians blindfolded, bound, and executed. The same day, on a different road, they found four charred and unidentified bodies in the trunk of a smoldering car. After two more agents staggered up the main street in town shot in the legs, suspects began to be hauled in for questioning, including the attorney general's top representative in Cancún. as well as the head of the police force and half a dozen members of his staff, including the two wounded agents.

Drug lords and their corrupt protectors, it turns out, like Cancún as much as any Ohio retiree. The long coastline practically beckons small planes or boats coming up from Colombia with packages of cocaine; the Caribbean, another transit hub, is a straight shot away across the Gulf; and dozens of convenient flights taking off to the US every day, as well as charter boats moving in and out of the resort, offer ease of mobility. The lifestyle is pleasant, there are numerous businesses in which to launder money, and there is even a small in-town demand for drugs.

Cancún is not alone in its appeal to both sun seekers and trigger-happy drug traffickers. At least eight killings have occurred over the past two months in the postcard-perfect resort town of Acapulco, on the Pacific coast. The most recent case involved four men who apparently had been buried alive right outside the main tourist area.

The only question he ever gets from tourists about drugs, says Carlos, a taxi driver here who asked that his last name not be used, is how to obtain them. According to recent investigation by Por Esto, a daily newspaper, there are 1,600 small dealers in Cancún serving some of the approximately 2 million Americans who visit here annually. "The real industry is focused on moving the drugs north, to the US," says Carlos, "but even the small crumbs deals are considered to be some of the best business around."

Meanwhile in the big game, the lucrative supply route to the US does not seem to have been diminished, despite US law enforcement's best efforts. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reported this month that the US street price of two grams of cocaine averaged $106 in the first half of 2003, a fifth of its 1981 level. The US is as awash in drugs as ever, says WOLA's Coletta Youngers. "What we have learned from 25 years of failed policy is that as horrific as specific drug traffickers are," she says, "they are easily replaced - if there is the demand."

Monica Cardenas sells time shares here. "Cancún is paradise," she repeats for the umpteenth time. As many people are interested in buying property or vacationing here as ever, she insists. "I wouldn't call it a drug war here," she says. "It's more of a passing internal conflict."

She laughs when asked if she is related to Osiel Cardenas, the alleged leader of the Gulf Cartel, now behind bars. "No way!" she exclaims, forgetting her lines. "If I were related to him, with all that money, do you think I would be wasting my time here in Cancún? I would be away from all this.... Maybe in Monaco, where life is calm."

Danna Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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