Mexico: Acapulco torn by drugs and disaster

Santo Muerte ' 'Saint Death''' plays a big part in the lives of many Mexican groups, including drug clans and prison gangs. Picture: Getty
Santo Muerte ' 'Saint Death''' plays a big part in the lives of many Mexican groups, including drug clans and prison gangs. Picture: Getty
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GANGLAND violence and looming bankruptcy had all but obliterated the glitter of Acapulco before catastrophic flooding last month drove crocodiles onto the streets of the Mexican beach resort and turned much of it into a mud bath.

Once a playground for the rich and famous, by 2012 Acapulco had become the murder capital of Mexico, mired in a cycle of killings, kidnappings and extortion as drug gangs fought for control of the former pirate cove.

Acapulco was still battling to contain the violence when in September it was hit hard by the worst storm damage yet in Mexico. The rains swamped the city’s airport, stranding thousands of tourists who are crucial to the health of the economy.

Roads to Acapulco closed, and the average hotel occupancy rate fell to less than 20 per cent in the weeks after the disaster.

The road is open again and much of the mess has been cleaned up, but that rates has yet to recover. Last week, it hovered at less than half the 2012 average of 49 per cent – a record low.
Weeks later, Acapulco’s hotels bought up ads in newspapers offering two-for-one deals. The message is simple: the best way to help is to come spend money.

Tourism makes up more than two-thirds of the surrounding state of Guerrero’s income, and with many hotel rooms empty, the city’s finances in tatters and drug violence widespread, the resort faces a slog to recover.

At the 180-room Hotel El Cano, only about 20 rooms were occupied.

“Let’s hope this is as bad as it gets,” said El Cano’s manager, Pedro Haces. “We’ve never had occupation rates like these.”

Acapulco relies now on national tourism and still gets visitors because it is the closest beach resort to the capital, a four-hour drive instead of an expensive flight to other places like Cancun.

The rains brought by tropical storms Manuel and Ingrid have pole-axed Guerrero’s economy, with governor Angel Aguirre saying damages would exceed 18 billion pesos (£870 million) – equivalent to 9 per cent of the state’s annual economic output.

That huge bill has dug a bigger hole for the city, which mayor Luis Walton declared bankrupt last year.

Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto has promised to investigate allegations of building permits issued illegally in areas like Miramar II, which have
become a symbol of graft.

Catapulted to fame by guests such as President John F Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, Acapulco urbanised rapidly from the 1960s with ramshackle settlements known as colonias cropping up in the steep hills behind the beach front.

Demand from tourists and the port’s handy location for smugglers moving cocaine from South America into Mexico and on to the US helped turn the city into a hub for drug cartels.

When local gangs began to fragment during the military offensive launched by former president Felipe Calderon, chaos descended as rival groups fought for control.

The demise of the Beltran Leyva cartel in 2009 was a turning point. Within three years, a wave of violence had given the city the highest murder rate in Mexico.

In 2012, there were some 1,063 murders. That gave it a homicide rate of 135 per 100,000 people – more than 50 per cent higher than Honduras, the world’s most murderous country.

Since Mr Pena Nieto took office in December last year, the number of murders has fallen. But with roughly 1,000 drug-related killings taking place across Mexico a month, gangland violence still remains a fact of life. Acapulco is no exception.