Extortion and murders in the Riviera Maya: the dark side of Mexico’s tourist gem

Photo: El País - TERESA DE MIGUEL

Organized crime lurks on the beachfront. The red lights have shifted from Cancun to the southern corridor, where businessmen denounce the siege of their businesses by drug trafficking mafias. 

A report by DAVID MARCIAL PÉREZ for the newspaper “El País”. 

The Walczak family is happy in the sun. The parents drink Coca-Cola belly up on the sun lounger, and the child plays with the sand without losing sight of the sea. A young woman has just taken off her bikini to take a selfie with her back to the regiment of tourists crowding the beach on the shore. The Walczak’s arrived from cold Warsaw almost two weeks ago, and the Mexican Caribbean is tanning them inside and out. “Our Polish friends said we’d better go to the Canaries. They were worried about the narco, but here it’s been all margaritas and mojitos,” says the mother in somewhat orthopedic English.

They don’t read Spanish-language newspapers and haven’t watched the news lately. During the interview on the beach with the reporter, they learn what happened a week ago behind their sun loungers for the first time. Less than 20 steps up some stairs, past the Buddha bust but before reaching the massage room, the manager of Mamita’s Beach Club was murdered in the bathroom. The mother has just translated it into Polish for the rest of the family. The father hugs his son, and they don’t want to talk anymore.

Tourists spend the day at Mamita’s Beach Club in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, on February 2, 2022. -El País- Photo: TERESA DE MIGUEL

There were three bullets —one in the leg and two in the head—. Claudia Suarez, a Mexican businesswoman from the capital with a summer home here in Playa del Carmen, tells the story from the lounger next door. “The one on the leg was a warning: ‘Either you pay, or we kill you,” she explains as if she already knew the instruction manual of the crime by heart. Mamita’s is the trendy place in the area, and except for a discreet black ribbon on the entrance gate, nothing indicates that the manager was murdered in the bathroom a few days ago. “People come here to enjoy their vacation. Besides, what happened has already happened,” Suarez continues as her husband spreads cream on his forehead. “In Mexico, it’s like that: pretend nothing has happened here.”

Mexico has become accustomed to the daily violence that hits it in almost every corner. For the last few years, official figures have been above 90 murders a day, surpassing even the worst period of the so-called war on drugs. But here, in the heart of the Riviera Maya, the tourist heart of the country, violence seems more amortized than anywhere else, an uncomfortable problem that is taken for granted if you want mojitos and mariachis.

Tourism resists
The events on the beachfront, murders at close range, shootings, stray bullets, amongst others, since last year does not seem to have affected the arrival of tourism. On the contrary, after a fateful 2020 due to the pandemic has recovered better than the rest of the great destinations of global tourism. Cancun closed last year as the airport with the second-highest number of international arrivals, only behind Dubai. There were more than 12 million visitors, something like if the entire population of Belgium traveled on vacation to the State of Quintana Roo, which has barely two million registered residents.

State authorities claim that the latest events are the exception, isolated cases -of which they have already arrested the first ones- within the complexity of managing these gigantic movements of people in search, many times, of beach leisure by day and party by night. That is to say: juicy business -legal and illegal- also for the drug trafficking mafias. Politicians put the official security data on the table to scare away the alarm. The State is far from the national murder rate. The daily average – 90 – for them is the monthly death toll. This January, it even dropped to 34.

The numbers have been dropping slightly over the last two years, as organized crime hits have increased. This time, the focus has shifted from Cancun, the matrix of tourism development in the area, to the corridor that ends south in Tulum, the last pearl of the Riviera Maya. Some 200 kilometers of highway stuck in the middle of the jungle parade the giant gates of the even more disproportionate resorts, spas, and private clubs.

Military on the beaches
The biggest problems are now concentrated in the middle of the road, in Playa del Carmen, a former fishing port transformed since the 1990s into a vacation and party town. Five days before the Mamita’s bathhouse crime, two Canadian tourists were killed in a shootout at the Xcaret hotel, the famous theme park 15 minutes away by car. And in early November, an armed commando broke into another exclusive hotel nearby and killed two people in the reception area.

Faced with a succession of blows, at the end of last year, the president sent a reinforcement of 1,500 soldiers of the National Guard to the entire Mexican Caribbean coast as reinforcements. Boots, uniform, and military helmet, in Playa del Carmen, they can be seen patrolling the sand of the beach where the two murderers of Mamita’s escaped on a jet ski last week. It was five o’clock in the afternoon. According to the authorities, four days later, the Prosecutor’s Office presented three detainees, thanks to public security cameras. Both were alleged members of a cell of the Sinaloa cartel.

El País – Two members of the National Guard guard the beach in front of Mamita’s Beach Club, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, on February 2, 2022. Photo: TERESA DE MIGUEL

A few months ago, the Quintana Roo state police just inaugurated a new surveillance center in Cancun. A vast building, the size of a soccer field, intelligence and control of the more than 2,000 cameras reside there. The cameras are distributed throughout the State. The central room is a circular space with a giant screen, a sort of “matrix” of more than 20 meters, operating 24 hours a day.

Fears
From its headquarters, the Secretary of Public Security of Quintana Roo, Lucio Hernandez, explains the details of the murder at the private club in Playa del Carmen. “The owners told us that they did not need the authority, that they had a good relationship with them, and that they preferred not to denounce because they had had bad experiences. The crime is derived from an excess of trust. They don’t have a word and what happens happens happens.” “They” are the organized crime mafias that, according to testimonies collected for this report on the condition of anonymity, have the businessmen of Solidaridad, the municipality to which Playa del Carmen belongs, in their grip.

Extortion is the silent crime in the area. Official statistics, which have been falling for the last three years, do not reflect the magnitude of the problem. “For every 100 cases, we receive only three or four complaints,” Hernandez acknowledges. That is why they encourage a system of anonymous complaints and new devices such as the infiltration of plainclothes police in businesses. In December, the authorities removed the street vendors from the main avenue, La Quinta. “They are a disguise for drug dealing,” says the head of security.

One of the businessmen who does not give his name for fear, confirms the thesis. “They control everything. Drugs, alcohol, prostitution, the beds, the massages… and they have everyone under threat”. But at the same time, he explains the side effect for them of being kicked off the street by the police. “Now they are losing money, and that means they are putting more pressure on us.” The businessman says that after several months of resisting, he could not take it anymore and agreed to pay 25,000 pesos – about $1,200 – per month for each business. “Our families,” he adds, “no longer go to La Quinta for fear of being recognized and kidnapped. And the authorities do nothing. So we need vigilance”.

Mexican hitmen and Canadian mobsters
The security guard no longer lets in any tourist who wants to ask if there are free rooms at the Xcaret hotel, a 15-minute drive from Playa del Carmen. This is how the pair of armed hitmen who murdered two Canadian tourists two weeks ago in one of the hotel’s bars managed to get in. Xcaret is a mega tourist development of 150 soccer stadiums that includes a theme and archeological park in an ancient Mayan city, a nature reserve with jaguars, sharks, and dolphins, and a complex with three hotels. More than one million people pass through here every year.

How could a weapon have entered the site? Again, the authorities justify themselves with the difficulty of identifying the needle in the haystack. And they again defend the effectiveness of the cameras, this time the hotel’s remote cameras. Thanks to the tracking of the images, they were able to follow the car’s track in which the murderers fled until they reached the apartment where they were hiding. Four days after the event, the State Prosecutor’s Office announced that two people had been arrested.

Since then, the information that the authorities have been announcing seems to be straight out of a Hollywood thriller. With criminal records in their country, the victims belonged to a mafia of Canadian criminals with outstanding accounts within the group. The Mexican Caribbean was the place chosen to execute the vendetta. Mexican hitmen hired by the Canadian mafia flew from Mexico City to assassinate the traitors. They followed them for days until they found the right moment, inside the exclusive hotel, to shoot them at point-blank range.

“We are aware of the entry into our territory of members of international criminal gangs. I cannot reveal which countries they come from out of respect for the embassies, but they pass themselves off as tourists and often come to enter the United States later,” said the Secretary of Security. Last year, the Prosecutor’s Office arrested the alleged leader of a Romanian criminal organization that operated in the main tourist areas of the State by duplicating tourists’ credit cards.

In Mexico alone, authorities have identified at least three mafias: Sinaloa, the Jalisco Cartel – the two most significant in the country – and the remnants of the Gulf, the historic cartel that dominated Mexico’s east coast in the 1990s. At that time, southern Quintana Roo was one of the nodes of the so-called Caribbean route through which Colombian cocaine entered the United States. A route that is still in operation. In the nineties, a DEA investigation uncovered a money-laundering network through real estate investments in Cancun that ended with the former PRI governor, Mario Villanueva, imprisoned in the USA for money laundering and drug trafficking.

Stray bullet? or settling of scores?
Tulum is the last jewel of the Riviera Maya, at the end of a 200-kilometer road lined with resorts. It is built on another natural park and another ancient Mayan city. The attraction is different from the bulk tourism of the northern cities. If in Playa del Carmen the offer is cheap alcohol, live mariachis, and dancers in thongs, Tulum offers eco-chic: organic food, new age music, and ayahuasca retreats.

The boom in Tulum, which has plans for a new international airport in the next few years, has been helped by the wave of violence in Playa del Carmen. In 2017, a shooting in the middle of an electronic music festival left five dead and 15 injured. It was a turning point. Event promoters decided to move to the new hipster sanctuary of Tulum.

Violence, however, has also hit the last pearl. In October of last year, a stray bullet in a restaurant killed an Indian and a German tourist and wounded three other diners. Three months later, a police patrol car remains stationary at the doors of La Mezcalería, which has been closed since that event. A waiter from the bar across the street recalls serving a few beers when the shots rang out. They pulled all the customers inside and lowered the grill.

“When people came out, they were screaming in despair,” says the waiter, who is one of the few who did not decide to quit his job out of fear: “Yes, you think about it, but we need the job.” In September, a cab driver and a security guard were gunned down in another shooting in the town. And in August, a man died after being shot in the back of the head, also in Tulum.

The new municipal police chief, Oscar Alberto Aparicio, has been in office for less than a week. He comes from working in the intelligence department of the National Guard, and among the first measures, he has decided to install more cameras, hire more policemen and raise their salaries by 20%. 

About the event in La Mezcalería, he slips another line of investigation. “Tourists are starting to buy drugs for resale. The local mafias respond with violence. On that occasion, they were warned that two foreign girls were selling. When they arrived, they mistook them for the two victims”. This newspaper asked the Prosecutor’s Office about this new thesis, which insisted that, according to the camera images, it was a fight between two rival gangs, and the crossfire ended the lives of the tourists.

The tourist explosion in the Mexican Caribbean was an invention of the PRI governments of the mid-seventies. Cancun, the first seed, was a city “integrally planned” by the Ministry of Tourism in the middle of the jungle and archeological ruins. 

The Riviera Maya brand was born in 1998 under the impetus of the hotel industry employers’ association. The boom of the Caribbean as a new destination for international tourism coincided with the decline of Acapulco, the playground of the Hollywood jet set, until the seventies. Then, it was common to see Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, or Cary Grant on its beaches. Acapulco faded precisely because of the social decomposition derived from political violence and organized crime. Riviera Maya businessmen are already beginning to see the ghosts: “Let’s hope we don’t become the new Acapulco.”

For “El País”
David Marcial Perez

David Marcial Perez is a reporter in the Mexico City bureau. He specializes in political, economic, and cultural issues. He has spent most of his career at El País. Previously worked at Cinco Días and Cadena Ser. He holds a degree in Law from the Complutense University of Madrid, a master’s degree in journalism from El País, and Comparative Literature from UNED.

Read the note in Spanish.



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