Drug-trade violence grips Acapulco
Warring drug cartels have brought a surge in gruesome violence to this Mexican resort town this year.
ACAPULCO, MEXICO — He took office as a charismatic, ballad-singing maverick who promised to contain crime in this coastal resort town.
But during his term, Acapulco, once known as the "Pearl of the Pacific," has seen its reputation – and its mayor, Félix Salgado – battered by the worst drug violence in the town's history. Mr. Salgado has lost 33 pounds in nine months and, when asked what his major accomplishment has been so far, answers deprecatingly: "that I'm alive."
"I've been dealt a very complicated situation, very hard," says Salgado, turning serious. In July he mourned the death of his city's security chief found suffocated in the back of a car.
Salgado's survival during a siege of violence mirrors the impact on Acapulco and beyond, as the drug war between two cartels has spread from the northern ganglands along the US-Mexican border toward the south – both startling, and horrifying, the nation.
Some 1,500 have been killed in drug violence this year, double the number in previous years. But it's the recent, and growing, viciousness of the acts that has been most unsettling. Acapulco has seen grenade attacks and decapitations haunt its front pages. Bodies have been wrapped in garbage bags, heads hung on the fence outside government offices.
Salgado and other city officials say that a national plan of stepped-up police enforcement has helped stem the violence. But just last week, in the neighboring state of Michoacan, five heads were hurled onto a dance floor while the disco was in full swing, showing how volatile the situation is becoming. It will be one of the most vexing problems for incoming president Felipe Calderón.
"I never expected this war would last so long, and it is bad news for Mexican society," says Jorge Chabat, a criminal justice expert in Mexico City. "One of the challenges Calderón has to face is he has to reach an agreement with other parties to make long-term reform."
Acapulco has old ties to drugs, with coves along the Pacific Coast where speedboats have long picked up cocaine from South America. But growing domestic consumption and the battle for key entry points into the US has fueled unprecedented violence, with over 65 execution-style killings this year alone.
"In the last 50 years, we have never seen anything like this," says Jorge Valdez Reycen, a spokesperson for the local police. "This is a police force not trained for war, it is trained for tourism."
The escalating violence is believed to be the fallout between the Sinaloa cartel, which had dominated Acapulco, and the Gulf cartel, which has been moving into its territory. "It has gotten really personal too, which is why it is spiraling out of control," says Laurie Freeman, who authored a report this summer on Mexico's drug trade for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. "The trafficking is nothing new, the level of violence is."
In the past six years, President Vicente Fox has made the war on drugs a top priority, making high-profile arrests. The arrest last month by US officials of suspected drug cartel kingpin Francisco Javier Arellano Félix was lauded a major cross-border success.
The top-level arrests have created opportunities for smaller players to vie for control of principal traffic routes. The result: Battles once contained in border towns have spread to tourist hot spots.
"In some sense, as the country is more democratic, so is the drug trade," says Bruce Bagley, a drug-trade expert at the University of Miami. "There are a lot more players in it, and crime has risen because Mexican authorities don't have the personnel [to tackle it]."
In Acapulco, the results have been devastating. The bay town was once a playground of Hollywood stars. On a recent day, as Mr. Valdez Reycen from the police department went through photos chronicling events over the last few months, it seemed more like the backdrop to a horror film.
In January, a daytime shootout a mile from the beach left four suspected traffickers dead. Three months later, two heads were hung outside the state Finance and Administration headquarters, where the shootout had been, with a note: "So that you learn to respect."
Teresa de Jesús Rivas, the city's tourism director, says that vacationers have not been scared away in recent years. The number of visitors increased from 5.3 million in 2004 to 5.7 million in 2005, and she expects this year to keep pace with, or exceed, the last.
Still, drug violence does image damage. "When people are looking for a destination for vacation and they see there are heads in Acapulco, it's not going to be as attractive," she says outside her office, next to a huge photo of the bay when foreign tourism dominated the market. These days, only about 15 percent of tourists hail from other countries.
These are among the challenges for Salgado, who says security is his top priority. He led a peace march in July. And he says that random street patrols, which include 400 federal, state, and local police have started to tranquilize the town. "The people were afraid, terrorized, horrified, but it's improved," Salgado says.
Fernando Tenopala, the president of a local business group, agrees that the situation is better. "When the extreme violence began [this year], suddenly we felt very alone ... and protested for peace," he says. Since then the police have received training in using arms, as well as 250 additional HK-36 rifles. "Things have improved, though we have to continue fighting."
President-elect Calderón has already outlined plans to create a national crime database and sweep the police of corruption.
Local residents remain doubtful. Mari Acosta, a cook in a local eatery, says she is tired of the line that the drug wars are between enemies – especially since she says no one knows who the enemy is. "It's hurting the rest of us too, but the government does nothing about it, probably because they are involved, otherwise they wouldn't get killed," she says in a low voice so customers don't hear.
Just last month she saw in the newspaper that a regular customer was gunned down outside town. She didn't know his name but recognized his face. Says Ms. Acosta: "I don't know what's going to happen with us here in Acapulco."
• Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.