Drug war intrudes on Mexico's coastal resorts

The arrest of a top drug cartel chief in Cancún comes a week after a deadly shootout killed 16 alleged cartel members and two soldiers in Acapulco.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Most vacationers to Mexico's coastal resort towns prefer not to be bothered. They might turn off their cellphones and shun nightly newscasts to escape into beach days that blur into one another.

But lately, the reality of the nation's brutal drug war keeps intruding.

The Mexican military announced on Sunday that a local leader of the powerful Gulf Cartel, Juan Manuel Jurado Zarzoza, was arrested Friday in Cancún, where tourists frolicking in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean share space with an important corridor for illegal drugs headed from South America to the US. The Army says that Mr. Jurado Zarzoza ordered extortions and kidnappings in the Cancún area.

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The arrest follows a deadly shootout in Mexico's other iconic resort town the weekend before. In Acapulco, best known for its sprawling bay and daring cliff divers, 18 were killed after soldiers faced off against drug gangs.

Mexico's tourist industry has been on the defensive. The increased violence – nearly 11,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug gangs in late 2006 – has led to US advisories detailing "large firefights" in patches of the country.

Over spring break, some US colleges urged their students to avoid Mexico as a vacation destination. Then the swine flu, which had its center in Mexico, caused bookings to drop by as much as 95 percent at its height in April and May.

But even as Mexico emerges from the swine flu scare and rides out economic woes also keeping tourists away, it has a much larger struggle ahead when it comes to drug violence.

"Constant headlines about violence isn't doing Mexico any good," says Bruce Bagley, a drugs expert at the University of Miami, especially in the wake of swine flu and the global recession. "It's not just a single or double whammy but a triple whammy here. It is going to take a serious toll on the Mexican economy during 2009."

Tourists are not so big on the shootouts

In Cancún, says Ana Maria Salazar, a national security specialist in Mexico City, tourism has not been widely affected by drug violence because most perceive it to take place outside tourist zones, even as violence between rivals and law enforcement has intensified. But where firefights have emerged, such as in Acapulco, tourism is more vulnerable. "There have been open shootouts in much more public areas. Acapulco is different in that sense."

Still, even the sight of military trucks patrolling beach zones can be jarring. The arrest in Cancún comes after the kidnapping and murder of a former retired Army general last February who had been dispatched to the city to clean up corruption in the local police forces. Today, military trucks roll down streets as authorities seek to clamp down on the drug trade.

A balancing act

The government must carry out an important balancing act, says Ms. Salazar, between fighting corruption and not scarring off vacationers, though the intensity of their response depends on how much cartels fight back. "This [drug] organization [in Cancun] thought they could kill a general, but it was a big mistake because clearly the government was going to focus a lot of attention to that city," she says.

In Acapulco, last weekend's shootout was triggered when soldiers surrounded a safe house and gunmen inside began to throw grenades. Hours later, 16 alleged members of the Beltran Leyva gang, as well as two soldiers, were dead.

Violence compounds swine flu stigma

After the swine flu caused flight reductions, and governments urged their citizens to avoid Mexico for all nonessential travel, Mexico's Tourism Minister Rodolfo Elizondo estimated industry revenue will fall by more than 40 percent in 2009.

Drug violence will not help the situation. Over the weekend, the Mexican Army also arrested 25 gunmen who were reportedly disguised as soldiers in a ranch in northern Chihuahua state; the defense department reported to federal prosecutors that 10 mid-level officers had been allegedly passing on information to drug traffickers; and highway shootouts in Michoacán were responsible for the deaths of three federal agents.

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