Why do Canadians still vacation in Mexico?

A staggering 35,000 people have been murdered in Mexico since December 2006

Beaches. Buffets. Bullets.

Mexican police keep a close watch on one of the beaches in Acapulco Pedro Pardo

The Plaza Sendero shopping mall on the outskirts of Acapulco has a fabric store, a shoe shop, and a movie complex, screening Tron: Legacy, The Tourist, and Gulliver’s Travels. A red-eyed dog lies asleep in the shade of the mall entrance, and nearby a man sits on his haunches, awake but equally motionless. The parking lot is scattered with bright orange shopping carts. Across the adjacent highway, shanties cling to an eroding hill, where the scorching sun has singed off almost all greenery. Smoke drifts upward from a cooking fire or burning rubbish.

A pedestrian bridge spans the highway. On it someone has pasted a flyer for a local church that promises salvation for those who suffer from vice, broken families, curses, or sicknesses with no known cause. Fifteen bodies were dumped here in January, most with their heads cut off and bodies mutilated. Six more were found stuffed into a nearby taxi. Their hands and feet had been bound. Two police were shot and killed the same day.

Handwritten posters at the crime scene link the murders to one of the drug cartels in the midst of a war for territory and export routes in Mexico. The victims almost certainly belonged to rival gangs. They are among more than 1,000 murdered over the past year in Acapulco, a popular vacation spot for Canadians.

The violence in Mexico began to soar four years ago, when President Felipe Calderón intensified a crackdown on drug cartels. The cartels fought back, but also turned against each other, where previously a sort of fragile truce had persisted in the interest of mutual profit. The growth of domestic narcotics consumption drives the escalating competition. “The size of the pie has increased,” says Jorge Chabat, a specialist in Mexico’s drug cartels at CIDE, a Mexico City think tank. “There are more reasons to fight.” A staggering 35,000 people have been murdered since Calderón took office in December 2006.

Terror and cruelty have exploded along with the death toll. Decapitations are now commonplace. A policeman or soldier involved in taking down a drug lord, if identified, risks losing his family. Dying first won’t save them. Mexican marine Melquisedet Angulo died during a 2009 raid against a cartel. He was celebrated as a hero. Hours after his funeral, gunmen burst into his home and murdered his mother, aunt, brother and sister.

Now, members of elite anti-drug units wear masks and die anonymously. Even street-level police patrol without ID. “The most dangerous thing is not knowing who might attack us, who we should worry about,” says one local officer, standing on an Acapulco sidewalk with a submachine gun. “If the criminals wore uniforms like us it would be too easy.” He declined to give his name. “I’m afraid of reprisals.” It’s more difficult for senior officers to hide. Gunmen in Acapulco attacked the home of a local commander last month. He, along with his son, survived. Politicians are likewise threatened. At least 14 Mexican mayors were murdered last year.

Many in authority are also corrupt. Faced with choosing between promised death and an offer of cash, some politicians, bureaucrats and security officials choose the latter. Calderón’s government has purged thousands of compromised police and law enforcement officials, including from top levels of the country’s security apparatus. But no one believes the problem has been eradicated.

Beaches. Buffets. Bullets.

Photograph by Rodrigo Cruz

“The strength they have is not their military power, it is money and their ability to corrupt,” says Chabat of the cartels. “They can corrupt low-level policemen, middle policemen, sometimes top policemen. And that’s all they need. All they need is one local chief of police. You don’t need to corrupt the president to survive.”

Partly in response to worries about police corruption, and partly because municipal, state and federal police are outgunned, Calderón has enlisted the country’s armed forces to confront the cartels. Truckloads of marines roar through Acapulco streets. Some armoured vehicles have heavy machine guns mounted on their roofs. Calderón describes his government’s conflict with the cartels as a war. It’s one he can’t claim to be clearly winning. There are areas, particularly near the U.S. border, where cartels openly rival state security forces for control.

“When the government fails to provide security, there is a sense in the public that it is failing in one of its core missions,” says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “When it cannot send off a violent threat, that is of grave concern for the population, and it does raise serious concerns about the long-term well-being of the state.”

According to Samuel González, who from 2006 to 2008 ran the anti-organized-crime division of Mexico’s attorney general’s office, Mexico’s violent drug cartels are a sign of deeper problems. “It’s not the sickness, it’s the symptom,” he says. “The real sickness of Mexico is called a weak state.”

Unlike previous administrations, Calderón’s is not pretending the problem doesn’t exist, leaving the cartels alone in exchange for kickbacks, or at least stability. But that doesn’t mean the Mexican state has the means to best the cartels. “You don’t have the institutions, you don’t have the people, you don’t have the power,” says Chabat. “The police are inefficient to catch these guys. The judiciary is inefficient to process them and put them in jail for a long time, and the prisons are inefficient to keep them in jail. As long as these problems last you will have this kind of violence, because the criminals just don’t have fear of the state.”

Back at the Plaza Sendero shopping mall, near where the headless bodies were dumped, there is a small snack bar where two women fry quesadillas on a hot plate, for customers who consume them standing up or on one of two rickety plastic chairs placed in the dust, a few feet from the highway. “They’re mostly young men,” one of the women says. Her grey hair is pulled into a bun. She wears a thin apron and a long beaded crucifix. “It’s sad. Some of them don’t have jobs. They want money to buy drugs and don’t have any,” she says. “I have grandchildren,” she adds. “Thanks to God, they’re fine.”

The other woman, who owns the makeshift kitchen, says she doesn’t worry about her safety. “The bodies were of other drug traffickers. They don’t target us, those of us who do regular work.” But then she says she doesn’t go out at night—you never know when you could get shot. And like virtually everyone else in Acapulco interviewed for this article, she doesn’t want to be named.

José Luis Ávila, mayor of Acapulco, wants Canadians to understand that his city isn’t dangerous. Tourists, he tells Maclean’s, are Acapulco’s most important treasure, and he wants to keep them safe. Come, even for a day, he says, and you will always remember it forever like a dream. “While we recognize that there are outbursts of violence, the city has not been affected in its day-to-day life. The schools, the restaurants, banks, tourist areas, have not been changed. Cultural events have not been cancelled,” he says. “Normally the people who become victims, they don’t belong to the city and its daily lifestyle.”

It’s an argument made by many who wish to promote Acapulco and Mexico. They acknowledge the violence—and Ávila stresses that any death is a tragedy—but it is as if those slaughtered live in a parallel world of gangsters and drug dealers. They don’t belong to the city. But of course they do.

Maclean’s visited the local morgue, where all victims of violent deaths are brought. There, Dr. Keynes García Leguizamo has the job of determining the cause of death, and of stitching bodies back together. It’s a gruesome job, but García brings a detached and clinical mind to his work. He uses scissors and paper to demonstrate how dismembered bodies can be reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle, so no pieces are unaccounted for or sewn on to the wrong body. He knows friends and relatives of the dead may eventually see his work. “We classify them. Some are shot, some decapitated, some beaten, some hanged, some burned. These days most are shot. And they are mostly young men,” he says.

Beaches. Buffets. Bullets.

Toru Hanai/Reuters

The door to the morgue is covered with posters of missing men. García has been able to match bodies with the images on the door. Other times family members hear on the news that bodies have been found and show up to identify them. “It’s better to know, than to have a kidnapping or a missing person in your thoughts,” he says. García says about 60 per cent of the bodies he receives are locals. The rest are murdered elsewhere and dumped in Acapulco. Of the 1,009 bodies he worked on last year, all but 120 were claimed. The dead mattered to someone.

Mayor Ávila’s contention that tourists are unlikely to be affected by the violence sweeping Mexico is accurate. Canadians visit Mexico more than one million times every year. Most are untouched. But at least 17 Canadians have died in Mexico since 2006, and more than 120 have reported being assaulted to Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs (last year saw six murders and 35 assaults). These figures are higher than those for other top winter vacation spots, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Compared to other destinations, tourist facilities in Mexico are often more closely integrated with local communities. And Canadians assaulted and murdered in Mexico include those targeted in and around such supposedly safe enclaves, with the attacks frequently bringing responses from authorities that victims and their families consider to be incompetent, or worse.

In February 2009, travel writer K. Jill Rigby was walking from a friend’s house in San Miguel de Allende, a town in central Mexico that is popular with artists and tourists—”a pretty perfect little place,” says Rigby. Late afternoon, in bright daylight, Rigby was mugged in an attack that was so violent she hobbled on crutches afterwards for weeks.

“When the police came, one of the witnesses to the crime disappeared because she was too afraid. As it turns out, everyone is too afraid,” she says. “As I was lying there in pain before the ambulance went away, they brought two guys in the back of a pickup truck, to try to identify them. I said, ‘I think it’s possible it could be this man.’ Then one of the police guys said to me, ‘The one on the right couldn’t have done it, he had a loaf of bread, and it’s still warm.’ [The investigation] became comical.”

On New Year’s Eve, Rebecca Rutland and her fiancé Richard Coleman allege Rutland was gang-raped and Coleman beaten by Mexican police in Playa del Carmen. Mexican authorities deny the allegations. They say the couple was arrested after getting drunk and attacking each other.

Andy and Crystal Foster, from Orillia, Ont., were staying in the resort city of Mazatlán last December. They left their hotel on a guided ATV tour in the countryside. A group of eight or nine young men with guns and bandanas covering their faces ambushed them. They tied up the tour guides and made Andy kneel while they placed a pistol against his neck. “I thought in three minutes I was going to die and they were going to take my wife and rape her in the bushes,” he says.

The young men took Andy’s wallet and watch, and Crystal’s digital camera, before driving off on the ATVs. The two tour guides walked to a nearby farm and called the police. Because the farmer didn’t want them to wait on his property, they had to hitchhike back to the hotel. A truck driver who picked them up didn’t want to carry them once he reached the highway. Andy says when they finally made it back and called Foreign Affairs’ 24-hour emergency line, they were told not to go to the Mexican police until they had consulted with Canada’s local consulate.

The next day the consulate advised them to see Mexico’s tourism police. The regular police, called by the tour guides at the farm where the robbery took place, never contacted the Fosters and, according to the tour guides, didn’t show up at the scene of the mugging until 4 p.m. The Fosters flew home three days later. “I’ve never been so happy to have a vacation end,” says Andy.

The Fosters are lucky to have survived. Ottawa-area businessman Daniel Dion, CEO of a Mexico-based company that produced purses made by Mexican prisoners, was murdered in October. Dion’s charred body was found in the trunk of his rental car 140 km northeast of Acapulco. A former employee has been charged with aggravated homicide.

Renée Wathelet, 60, of Montreal was stabbed to death in her flat on an island near Cancún in 2009. In 2008, Bouabal Bounthavorn of Burnaby, B.C., was shot dead by gunmen who broke into his hotel room in Cabo San Lucas and also wounded his girlfriend. Last November, five Canadian tourists and two Mexican workers died in a hotel explosion in Playa del Carmen. The attorney general for the state of Quintana Roo says a gas line had been illegally installed.

Statistics for Americans, who visit Mexico in greater numbers, are worse. More than 200 have been killed there since 2007. The numbers are climbing. Forty-eight were murdered in the first half of 2010 alone.

The Department of Foreign Affairs advises Canadians visiting Mexico to “exercise a high degree of caution due to a deteriorating security situation in many parts of the country.” It also advises against all non-essential travel to the U.S. border areas “due to continuously high levels of violence linked to drug trafficking… Shootouts, attacks and illegal roadblocks may occur at any time.”

Beaches. Buffets. Bullets.

Photograph by Rodrigo Cruz

These warnings, and the violence that provokes them, have not kept Canadian tourists away. The number of Canadians visiting Mexico increased steadily from 2005 to 2010, with 1.46 million going last year. (Indeed, December saw the highest monthly number of Canadian tourists ever: 194,128). Gary Ralph expects another increase this year. He is the director of communications and marketing at the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, which has just partnered with Mexico to promote travel to the country. Ralph said the worries are overblown, and that “every country has its bad parts. Mexico is sun and sand. I’d be concerned if I were going to Tijuana and Juárez. Would I be concerned about Acapulco, Cancún, Cozumel? Not particularly.”

In Acapulco, the local secretary of tourism, Jessica García, told Maclean’s hotel occupancy was up in 2010, compared to 2009, and she points to a similar increase in visits from cruise ships. This year may tell a different story: the Mexico City newspaper El Universal recently reported that Acapulco tourism could be down as much as 88 per cent this year. And long-time visitors to Pie de la Cuesta, a small town near Acapulco, say there are fewer visitors. When Maclean’s visits, the beach is mostly empty. Two fishermen cast nets into the surf. Local teenagers on horses ride up and down the beach looking for customers. Claude Fiset, 72, from Quebec City, relaxes at a restaurant. He comes to Mexico every year and says the upsurge in violence doesn’t worry him. “If you take care of your own business, you won’t have a problem,” he says.

Another Canadian, who spends six months a year in Acapulco, says news media have exaggerated the violence. Almost every morning, he says, he drives out of Acapulco to golf, and he’s never had a problem. His Mexican wife interrupts: “But now, not alone.”

The notion that things in Acapulco are not as bad as they appear in news reports is echoed by Acapulco’s mayor and secretary of tourism. On Jan. 20, authorities even announced that they had apprehended the cartel member believed to be behind the January killings. But on Feb. 10, three more people died, their bodies dumped in Acapulco. One was chopped into 11 pieces. On Feb. 13, another three men were found dead in a car parked in a local prison parking lot. A fourth man, shot in the face and neck, survived.

What is most remarkable about the Mexican coverage of the drug wars is how shallow so much of it is. This isn’t because Mexican reporters aren’t good at their jobs. They simply don’t want to die because of them.

“If there are corpses on the street, we write about it,” says an editor at one Acapulco daily. “But we don’t investigate what happened or give our opinions. We wait for the government to confirm it. We don’t want to risk our staff’s lives.”

The editor, who did not want to be named, has reason to be cautious. Journalist Amado Ramírez was murdered here in 2007. He had aired a report linking the murder of local police to drug traffickers. One of his co-workers said Ramírez had received death threats. A man convicted of his murder was sentenced to 38 years. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, one witness told the court he had been coerced into identifying the convicted man in a police lineup.

In November, gunmen forced their way into the offices of Acapulco’s El Sur newspaper, shot it up and dumped gasoline on the floor. Juan Carlos Moctezuma, the news editor, says his paper is critical of the police, and he suspects politicians or state authorities, rather than cartels, were behind the attack.

Beaches. Buffets. Bullets.

Photograph by Rodrigo Cruz

According to Ricardo Gonzalez, a journalist protection officer for Mexico and Latin America at the press freedom group Article 19, Mexican journalists are at greatest risk when they report on links between the drug cartels, governments and security services. He cites the case of Armando Rodríguez, a crime reporter in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. In 2008, Rodríguez was shot dead in his car while his eight-year-old daughter sat in the back. Days before, Rodríguez had written an article accusing a local prosecutor’s nephew of links to drug traffickers. The federal investigator assigned to his case was murdered in July 2009. His replacement was killed a month later. “We are living in a general state of impunity,” says Gonzalez, who claims 90 per cent of cases of aggression against the press go unpunished. “It’s a mixture of a lack of capacity and lack of political will.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 30 Mexican journalists and media workers (drivers and delivery workers) have died or vanished since December 2006 in incidents that are confirmed or may have been directly related to their work, making Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a reporter, and limiting those probing what is arguably the most important story in Mexico today to those willing to risk their lives doing so.

Still, most of the dead in Mexico’s drug wars are gangsters, or police who fight them. That makes it tempting to downplay the conflict’s impact on the rest of Mexican society, as indeed many try to do. But the conflict cannot be isolated. The cartels are expanding into other areas such as kidnapping and people smuggling. Mexicans who have nothing to do with the drug trade have reason to fear them. More fundamentally, the mayhem the cartels are able to inflict, and the impunity with which they do so, erodes Mexicans’ faith in their state institutions. Violence has a “spreading factor,” says Samuel González, the former head of Mexico’s anti-organized-crime division. “If there is impunity, people tend to believe that they can also kill without any problem. So it is really changing Mexican attitudes.”

How Mexico can reverse this slide is unclear. The narcotics business was not so bloody in the past because governments left the cartels more or less alone. This is no longer an option. A democratic government will not be seen as legitimate if it is complicit in illegality. Tackling corruption is a necessary first step, and Calderón, along with many local politicians, say they are doing so. There are programs to screen and train police, who will also be paid more in an effort to eliminate some of the temptations to take bribes. Ávila, mayor of Acapulco, says he hopes 100 per cent of the city’s police will pass through such a program by 2012. He has already fired 55 officers for failing drug tests.

“What you’re doing is changing the balance of risk versus opportunity,” says John Bailey, a director of the Mexico Project at Georgetown University. “So that if you’re a police officer and you know that the context you’re working in is changing, it begins to affect your calculations on the payoff of corruptions.”

But the drug trade doesn’t exist in Mexico because police are corrupt. It exists because people, especially in the U.S. and Canada, want to consume drugs. One Mexican, a wealthy engineer of 69, tells a story about a senator friend who met with one of his U.S. counterparts some 20 years ago. The American told the Mexican he should burn down the farms of peasants growing marijuana. The Mexican senator agreed, on the condition that the U.S. burns the homes of everyone who consumes the drug.

The story may be apocryphal, but it speaks to a larger truth: as long as there is a demand for Mexican drugs, there will be those willing to supply them. And as long as consuming those drugs is illegal, the suppliers will be criminals. The most anyone can reasonably hope is that in time—and with luck and skill on the part of the Mexican government—those criminals will become fewer, weaker, and less murderous.

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