Drug demand from tourists drives cartel violence to Mexico’s most popular resorts

PUERTO MORELOS, Mexico – The trouble began, as is often the case here, when tourists asked hotel staff to help them buy cocaine.

It is a fairly common request throughout the Riviera Maya of Mexico that the employees of the Hyatt Ziva knew how to welcome their customers. They called a few local drug dealers, according to security officials who investigated the incident.

But the traffickers who arrived at the resort outside Cancun last month were from rival cartels, part of the kaleidoscope of criminal groups that have converged on Mexico’s busiest tourist corridor. In a few minutes, the shooting began. Security footage shows assailants running from the beach to the $ 400-a-night hotel, and tourists in swimsuits seeking shelter in the hallways.

“It was further proof that the only reason the cartels are here is the huge demand for drugs, especially among tourists,” said Lucio Hernández Gutiérrez, head of security for the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. . “It’s a very difficult thing to stop.”

The hotel denies that its staff are blamed for the attack.

“To suggest that our associates were in any way involved or bear some level of responsibility in an incident that started on a public beach is unfounded and unfounded,” said Dean Sullivan, spokesperson for Playa Hotels & Resorts, which operates the Hyatt.

In recent weeks, some of Mexico’s most famous Caribbean coast destinations have seen alarming outbreaks of violence, still rare collisions between the country’s serious security concerns and its glittering tourist attractions. Many have pointed to these incidents as an illustration of Mexico’s anarchy. But Mexican officials say the criticism ignores how increasing drug demand from tourists has emboldened the cartels that sell them.

In Tulum, a German and Indian tourist were killed by gunmen in October. In November, the shooting at the Hyatt spared tourists but left two apparent cartel members dead. This month, gunmen arrived at a well-known Cancun beach aboard jet skis in yet another apparent targeted assassination attempt. They fired their guns before flying to the Caribbean. No one was hurt.

In response to the series of incidents, Mexico this month launched a “tourist security battalion,” sending more than a thousand troops and police to patrol its most visited beaches and popular nightclubs and bars. Mexican officials have also quietly explored ways to reduce drug demand among tourists without stopping or discouraging them from visiting – a delicate balance.

Officials from Quintana Roo recently met with representatives of the US consulate and diplomats from more than a dozen other foreign countries.

“The message was: ‘We want tourism, but remember that it is illegal here to buy drugs,’ said Hernández Gutiérrez.

Asked about the meeting, U.S. Embassy spokesman John Vance said U.S. officials “frequently meet with Mexican officials to ensure that we provide accurate and timely information that helps ensure [U.S. citizen’s] security.”

The Tourist Protection Battalion has already arrested dozens of low-level drug traffickers. Most are young men from neighboring states, among the poorest in Mexico.

These dealers are replaced almost immediately. Visitors walking down Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen, for example, are always greeted with a chorus of offerings: “Hey Amigo, do you want some weed? Coke? ”Or the more subtle:“ Do you want to party? – with a finger pointing to one nostril.

“We know that it is not easy to cut supply as long as there is demand,” said Hernández Gutiérrez.

Even some of the battalion troops don’t care about the mission. Last week, a unit was sent to a four-star hotel in Cancun to provide security during a concert. A soldier remembers seeing tourists getting more and more intoxicated.

“Looks like Americans, when they come here, just want to get lost, don’t they?” He asked a reporter.

Adding to the volatility: In Quintana Roo, unlike other states in Mexico, no cartel predominates. At least six criminal groups operate in the state’s tourist corridor, including three with links to transnational trafficking organizations. Competition between them often becomes fierce, as groups compete for access to tourist hot spots.

In Tulum, tourists killed in October appear to have been caught in a shootout between two local groups, Los Pelones and Los Compich. Authorities said gunmen from one group spotted a rival dealer at a popular bar called the Malquerida.

“The tourists were unfortunately caught in the middle,” said Óscar Montes de Oca Rosales, Quintana Roo’s attorney general.

These groups have been at the heart of the growing tourist demand for drugs in Tulum, where an underground party culture has exploded in recent years, alongside wellness retreats and yoga classes.

“By working in hotels here, you get used to being asked to help get drugs. You know, coke, MDMA, ketamine, all that stuff. We do the presentations to the dealers because that’s what customers want, ”said a concierge at a well-known boutique hotel in Tulum. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared losing her job.

A party promoter in Tulum described the guiding principle as “ensuring that there is only one cartel providing drugs at a party, so that there is no fight between the dealers ”.

Quintana Roo has suffered 650 homicides so far this year, up from a peak of 866 in 2018, but a marked increase from previous years. The majority of these killings, officials said, were between criminal groups and occurred miles from the state’s tourist corridor.

In November, for example, two homicides took place in separate gymnasiums in Cancun. Several drive-by shootings have taken place along La Luna’s main road, four miles from the city’s famous beachfront hotel strip. Further inland, the bodies of three victims were found buried behind an auto repair shop.

On November 27, a Cuban singer, Dayami Lozada, was shot dead by two armed men on motorcycles. Although Lozada performed in tourist bars, she was killed – like most victims – in a part of town rarely visited by foreigners.

In Tulum, some of the city’s most violent crimes occur in informal settlements, known locally as invasions, where drug traffickers live alongside hotel and restaurant workers, who struggle to find housing because of soaring housing prices.

Mexican tourism officials and hoteliers were quick to tell their customers that while Mexico can be violent, their hotels are safe.

“The first thing [we] explaining is how far they are from the violent event that the guests may have seen in the news, ”said Miriam Cortés Franco, president of Quintana Roo vacation clubs.

Unlike other states in Mexico, where gangs fight for control of territory so they can get drugs to the US border, the coast of Quintana Roo is no longer a major route for drugs. Its value is as a market: a bubble of foreign demand for drugs in Mexico. For this reason, officials say, Mexico’s two largest drug trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, both based on the other side of the country, have sent hundreds of infantry in the state.

This month, state officials followed a convoy of 50 armed men from the Jalisco Cartel entering Quintana Roo.

More than 18 million tourists visited the state between January and October 2021. More than 3 million of them were Americans. Because Mexico has imposed almost no travel restrictions related to the pandemic, it has been a particularly attractive destination for those looking to break out of quarantines. Last Saturday was the second busiest day in Cancun airport history.

Tourism provides more than eight percent of Mexico’s GDP. In Cancún, the contribution is around 50 percent.

Millions of tourists will discover cities like Cancun and Tulum without any indication of the violence that is raging across much of Mexico. The country has recorded more than 30,000 homicides this year, for the fourth year in a row.

Cartels are generally keen to avoid confrontations with tourists that will affect local demand for drugs and attract the attention they now receive from security forces. Earlier this month, a video surfaced of two tourists heading to Cancun via back roads in Tabasco state when they were stopped by gunmen, apparently members of a cartel.

After a few minutes of confusion, the gunmen, realizing that they had accidentally arrested two foreign tourists, tried to calm them down.

“No problem, no problem,” said one of the gunmen, patting one of the tourists on the back and giving him a hug.

Elsewhere in Mexico, authorities have seen how violence can destroy a major tourist destination.

As murders increased in Acapulco, making the city the murder capital of Mexico, international tourism plummeted. The number of foreign visitors fell by 63% between 2012 and 2017.

Again, the violence was caused in part by cartels fighting to sell drugs to tourists. As in Quintana Roo, the homicides were concentrated far from tourist hot spots, but the few incidents that occurred in hotels and restaurants were enough to frighten many potential visitors.

“We know how much depends on our ability to make tourists feel safe,” said Andrés Aguilar, tourism secretary of Quintana Roo.

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