As the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon enters its final weeks, parts of Mexico remain awash in blood from the so-called narco war. And Mexico’s old beach resort of Acapulco is among the most violent places. Practically on a daily basis, executions, shoot-outs and the discovery of dismembered bodies disturb the social peace.
The state of Guerrero’s biggest city, Acapulco is a hub of violence that extends into the countryside and reverberates back into the Pacific port city.
“The corridor of the Costa Grande of the state, from Acapulco to the municipality of La Union that borders the state of Michoacan, has been a constant news item because of the criminal acts that are now common in the zone,” recently wrote a reporter for the Guerrero daily El Sur.
In a possible retaliation for the dumping of 17 murdered men in La Union late last month, the bodies of 16 tortured men were found September 10 in a truck parked near police installations up the highway in the rural municipality of Coyuca de Catalan.
Signed by La Familia Michoacana, accompanying messages were directed against the rival Knights Templar; both organizations have common roots in the neighboring state of Michoacan. At least 11 of the earlier victims were identified as residents of Michoacan.
In Acapulco, press accounts report that at least 50 people were murdered from August 24 to September 10. Official numbers released by the Guerrero state government during the first week of September reported that 797 gangland-style homicides were recorded in Acapulco since the commencement of the government’s Operation Safe Guerrero anti-crime campaign in October 2011.
The murder victims include taxi and bus drivers, businessmen, current and former police officers and many, many young people. On Sunday afternoon, September 9, gunmen stormed a city bus, shot driver Antonio Ullua Suastegui repeated times and then doused their victim in gasoline before setting his vehicle ablaze; 20 terrified passengers fled the scene.
Victor Manuel Cadena Macari, a former federal police official who served as chief of the Acapulco transit police during the 2005-2008 municipal administration of Felix Salgado Macedonio of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), was assassinated in a local restaurant on September 5. Cadena also had been associated with the Guerrero state police during the term of former Governor Zeferino Torreblanca.
At the time of his murder, Cadena was president of the Guerrero State Federation of Transport Organizations, a group of private bus owners embroiled in a conflict over the operation of a major bus line in Acapulco.
While killings often occur in low-income districts like the massive El Coloso housing project or Colonia Zapata and other neighborhoods in the city’s periphery, incidents take place throughout the city, frequently in broad daylight, and even touch the Costera main drag in plain view of tourists. For instance, public panic ensued August 4 when a daytime shootout broke out just off the Costera, leaving three bystanders wounded.
Violence in Acapulco and Guerrero can’t be fully grasped without analyzing the interplay of geography, economics, politics and demographics. Endowed with a breathtaking beauty that embraces tropical bays, bountiful beaches and big lagoons as well as high and isolated mountains, the state’s landscape is fertile ground for illegal drug cultivation and smuggling.
Reaching a population of nearly 800,000 people by the time of the 2010 census, Acapulco is a youthful city with 29.5 percent of its residents under the age of 15. But a tourism-dependent economy can no longer absorb the potential workforce, and rackets in small-scale drug sales, money laundering, prostitution, gambling, extortion, and pirate products form an alternative economy.
Historically, emigration has been another means of survival. Rodrigo Cortes Vivar, Guerrero state undersecretary for the international migrant, estimated that approximately one third of Guerrero’s population resides in the United States.
Of the one million Guerrenses living in El Norte, fully one-half hail from Aca-pulco, according to Cortes.
Increasingly, Guerrero’s population is migrating to other Mexican states, expelled not only by poverty and economic hardship but also by violence.
“The poverty belts surrounding Renacimiento, Coloso and the rest of the suburbs are ter In addition to Acapulco proper, the CIDA is said to have a presence in the Costa Chica region south of the city. Six members of La Barredora were recently arrested for the murder of politician Margarito Genchi, a PRD candidate for the Guerrero state legislature who was killed during the campaign last June.
Besides CIDA and its offshoots, other groups including La Familia and the Knights Templar moved to fill in the void left by the fractured Beltran Leyva organization. In a twist on an old saying, all roads-and guns-seemingly led to Acapulco.
Not surprisingly, the post-2009 violence-dovetailing with the world economic crash and the swine flu scare-spelled disaster for Acapulco’s tourism economy, which had survived a historic drop in international visitation years ago thanks to national tourism.
Roberto Balbuena Naves, leader of Section 113 of the Workers Confederation of Mexico, calculated that 1,300 local businesses have since shut down or are on the verge of calling it quits. Balbuena judged the last three years as “worse” than the period after Hurricane Paulina devastated the port city in October 1997.
In contemporary times, what remained of the once-thriving foreign tourism flow sailed in on cruise ships. But according to the Acapulco Integral Port Authority, boat dockings have plunged from the 120-140 cruise ships that brought about 240,000 passengers annually prior to 2010 to a projected 14 ships with 10,000 passengers in 2012.
While the economic impact of cruise ship tourism is sometimes exaggerated by industry boosters, millions of dollars in legal income have disappeared from the streets of Acapulco, a city also now burdened with a municipal debt of about $32 million and a thousand lawsuits pursued by disgruntled city workers.
Immersed in crisis, employers have fallen behind in payments to the Federal Electricity Commission while evaporated tax contributions from thousands of laid-off workers translate into less revenue for the social security and public health systems.
Acapulco’s newly-elected mayor, businessman Luis Walton of the Citizen Movement party, will inherit a multi-layered mess caked with violence when he takes office at the end of the month.
The Mexican press provided more clues on the profiteering, intrigues, corruptions, and betrayals of all stripes behind the Acapulco catastrophe after the arrests of six high-ranking army officers this year on federal organized crime charges.
Citing case documents, the stories alleged that the officers provided protection for the Beltran Leyva group in return for millions of dollars between 2007 and 2009. One story also claimed that Edgar Valdez unsuccessfully colluded with Mexican military officials to nab fugitive drug lord and former ally Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Two cooperating witnesses, “Jennifer,” identified as Valdez associate Roberto Lopez Najera, and “Mateo,” former Beltran Leyva enforcer Sergio Villareal, are at the heart of the government’s cases against retired Gen. Tomas Angeles Dauahare, Brigadier Gen. Roberto Dawe Gonzalez, retired Gen. Ricardo Escorcia, Gen. Ruben Perez Ramirez, retired Lt. Col. Silvio Isidro de Jesus Hernandez Soto and Maj. Ivan Reyna Munoz.
A former undersecretary of defense in the Calderon administration, Gen. Dauahare held other positions of note in his career, serving as the personal secretary of Mexican Defense Secretary Enrique Cervantes during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) and also as a military attaché in Washington, D.C.
General Dawe was briefly the delegate for the federal attorney general’s office in the state of Chihuahua in 2009, precisely at the moment when an underworld war between Chapo Guzman’s forces and the Juarez Cartel was tearing apart Ciudad Juarez and spreading to the rest state, before going on to a military command in Sinaloa.
Lawyers for Gen. Dauahare and the other defendants vigorously challenge the accusations, arguing that the charges are based on the hearsay of informants. Meanwhile, Villareal, a former federal cop, has been extradited to the United States, while his one-time ally and subsequent foe Valdez, awaits a similar fate.
Although violence continues to savage Acapulco and many regions of Guerrero, military and civilian leaders insist the overall situation has improved with the advent of Operation Safe Guerrero, a multi-agency campaign involving 7,000 soldiers as well as units of the Mexican navy, Federal Police and Guerrero state law enforcement.
In a message to reporters, Guerrero state spokesman Arturo Martinez pointed to the 797 murders tallied in Acapulco between October 2011 and early September 2012 as an improvement over the comparable period from 2010 to 2011, when 849 similar homicides were counted in the city. Martinez also emphasized state intervention in the social sphere:
“There is a commitment to reconstruct the social fabric in the seven regions of Guerrero, with the reoccupation of public spaces and investments in artistic and cultural activities that will foment healthy well-being and distance our young people from delinquency.”
On September 5, the Federal Police detained Jose Alberto Perez, aka “Juan Diego,” an alleged leader of CIDA, along with 11 associates.
Separately, the commander of the Mexican Army’s 68th Infantry Battalion, Benito Medina Herrera, affirmed to reporters that even though Acapulco and other regions of the state had experienced recent rebounds in violence, the overall security panorama was getting brighter.
Medina attributed the latest violent outbreaks to power struggles involving the criminal organizations. “When they lose a leader, they kill each other,” the military officer was quoted. Medina appealed for more resources and public support to continue the government’s campaign.
Pressed by reporters, however, Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre acknowledged this week that not all was going well in the eyes of many residents. Aguirre said he would ask outgoing Interior Minister Alejandro Poire to “review” Operation Safe Guerrero so the state and federal governments can “strengthen and reinforce more actions in terms of public safety.”
On the economic front, some voice optimism. Javier Aluni Montes, state secretary for tourism promotion, reported that Acapulco’s room occupancy for the month of July, the peak of Mexico’s summer tourism season, reached 65.4 percent, an improvement over July 2011, when the occupancy rate was gauged at 55.8 percent.
According to Aluni, this July’s room occupancy was even better than in July 2008, a time when violence was at a much lower level. “We are doing something good in Guerrero,” Aluni quipped. Later, the state official predicted that Acapulco’s room occupancy rate will exceed 90 percent during the long weekend of September 15-16, when Mexicans celebrate their Independence Day holiday.
Currently, the Aguirre administration is polishing up a new promotion abroad of Acapulco’s and Guerrero’s tourist attractions, and courting the cruise ship industry to send more ships back to the Bay of Santa Lucia.
In the United States at least, Acapulco’s promoters face a tough sell. Mexico’s pioneering international resort was mentioned on the latest edition of The Travel Show, a nationally-syndicated radio program produced by the influential travel writers Arthur and Pauline Frommer. Responding to a caller interested in traveling to Mexico, co-host Pauline Frommer heartily recommended Cancun and other Mexican beach resorts but pointedly excluded Acapulco from the list. “Unfortunately,” she told the caller, (Acapulco) is not safe right now.”
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.