Decapitated bodies in Acapulco spotlight drug war's toll on tourism

Mexican tourists who still flock to Acapulco after foreigners have shunned the tourist destination due to drug-war violence may think twice after 15 decapitated bodies were found outside a shopping center Saturday.

Bernandino Hernandez/AP
Soldiers stand near dead bodies in Acapulco, Mexico, Saturday. In overnight violence 15 decapitated bodies were left in front of a shopping plaza.

Residents of Mexico's famous resort city, Acapulco, awoke Saturday morning to 15 decapitated bodies strewn outside of a shopping center and another six young men found dead in a taxi.

The beheadings are the latest flare-up in a turf war for drug shipment routes by at least three cartels, La Familia, Los Zetas, and the Sinaloa Cartel.

While it is unknown which gang is responsible for the beheadings, handwritten posters at the crime scene are signed “El Chapo Guzman,” referring to Mexico’s most wanted man and leader of the Sinaloa crime syndicate.

The posters – which reportedly warn rival cartels against extorting "quotas" from local politicians and businesses – are being seen as an attempt to separate the Sinaloa cartel as less predatory than its rivals. The grisly apparent PR effort, however, may only serve to scare away the Mexican tourists who still flock to Acapulco after foreigners have shunned the once-popular tourist destination due to similar attacks.

Tourism down

The “Pearl of the Pacific,” as Acapulco is known, has seen its share of violence in the past year as drug cartels battle for the covetous stretch of coastline. And yet, until now, tourism has been only marginally affected, at least according to official figures.

US and Canadian tourism to Acapulco may have plummeted 50 percent over the past year, according to a November report by Guerrero’s travel agency association. But hotels are still jammed with intrepid Mexican visitors undeterred by safety warnings, many of them Mexico City dwellers itching to flee the landlocked metropolis for the beach and nightlife.

Hotel occupancy was above 90 percent during the holiday season, beating out the previous two Decembers, and is holding at a steady 76 percent so far in January, says Jessica Garcia Rojas, Acapulco’s tourism minister.

Foreigners don’t hold as much sway on Acapulco’s tourism industry as they once did, says Ms. Garcia. Since the 1950s’ celebrity frenzy in Acapulco, foreigners have slowly moved on to other lavish resorts built in Cancún and elsewhere on the Yucatán Peninsula. For the past couple of years, international tourists have only accounted for 10 percent of all visitors to Acapulco, Garcia says.

Second thoughts

But after Saturday, even the most stubborn Mexican tourists may be thinking twice about visiting the port city.

Still fresh in their memory is the grisly discovery in November of 18 Michoacan residents found in a mass grave after their families say they disappeared while touring Acapulco. Extortions, kidnappings and daylight shootouts have already shuttered some stores.

Ulises Campos, a Mexico City business consultant with a weekend pad in Acapulco, says he has grown more hesitant about taking trips to the port, and will only drive the five-hour journey during the day.

“After Saturday I won’t be going to dangerous places anymore, like nightclubs,” Mr. Campos says.

Warning to rival cartels

The posters found with the decapitated bodies this weekend reportedly warn rivals against charging “quotas” to civilians, likely referring to the practice of extorting businesses in exchange for protection. “Civilians in general will not be charged ‘quotas,’ ” one poster reads, according to several newspaper reports.

The more thuggish Zetas and La Familia cartel gangs are notorious for this practice, while the Sinaloa Cartel is not, says Pedro Isnardo de La Cruz, a security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.

This, he says, is either because of Guzman’s old guard tactic of cultivating locals and politicians as informants and not attacking them, or because Guzman needs no extra cash thanks to his drug smuggling successes. For the same reason, the cartel is not known to dabble in kidnapping, experts say.

If Guzman is indeed behind the beheadings, he may be trying to publicly vindicate his cartel, while undermining his chief rival, Los Zetas, says Jorge Chabat, national security expert at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

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