January 31, 2006
Drug killings, garbage hit once chic Acapulco
By Alistair Bell
ACAPULCO, Mexico -- As the tropical sun set over Mexico's Pacific coast, tourists drifted away from the pool, waiters shook the evening's first cocktails and three men sat murdered in a car, their brains splattered over the seats.Just inland from Acapulco's busy beach and luxury hotels, five killers toting assault rifles had stepped up to the brand new Volkswagen Jetta and pumped it with dozens of bullets.
The driver was still wearing his seat belt but half of his head was blown off. There was no doubt of the motive.
"It's the drug trade," Acapulco Mayor Felix Salgado said. "These were three people who lost their lives in the famous narco-execution style."
Since last year, Acapulco has suffered an explosion of drug violence that marks the lowest point in this city's slow fall from grace since the 1950s, when the Hollywood set frolicked here on yachts and in seaside villas.
The beach resort has turned into one of Mexico's most crime-ridden cities, with 11 people killed during the past month in a feud between Mexico's Gulf cartel and No. 1 drug capo Joaquin Guzman over cocaine smuggling routes.
Drug gangs brought chaos to one of Acapulco's main avenues during broad daylight last Friday in a shootout with each other and dozens of police.
A sport utility vehicle blew up in a grenade blast, suspects fired from inside a church and four drug gunmen posing as federal police were killed in the clash, which was captured on television and broadcast nationwide.
Locals are panicked. "The city is dying," teacher Enrique Barcenas said at an anti-violence rally on Sunday.
Acapulco, spread along a huge horseshoe bay and basking in year-round daytime temperatures rarely under 86 degrees (30 Celsius), was one of world's first international beach resorts and once the most glamorous.
FUN IN ACAPULCO
John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie honeymooned in Acapulco in 1953, John Wayne owned a cliff-top hotel here and Elvis sang "Fun in Acapulco" in his 1963 movie of the same name.
But now hotels from that era are crumbling and Acapulco has fallen behind more modern Mexican rivals Cancun, Ixtapa and Puerto Vallarta, as well as spots like Thailand and the Caribbean.
The city's population has exploded in recent decades in the low-cost housing in the hills overlooking the bay. Officially 700,000 people live in Acapulco but residents say the real population is more like 1.2 million.
The mayor admits the municipal garbage collection is failing and the sea bed in the bay is littered with trash washed down from the hills in the rainy season or discarded by thoughtless tourists.
"There are bottles, disposable diapers, condoms, spoons, everything down there," said scuba diver Frank Rosales who cleans the bay unpaid in his spare time.
Clutching a large bag, he dived into the sea near the La Roqueta island beach, packed at weekends with visitors on bus trips from the hinterland state of Guerrero.
Women bathers wore shirts and skirts out of modesty and launches hawking cheap souvenirs and spicy food darted through the waves.
Rosales emerged 15 minutes later clutching a bag full of garbage including a rusted bicycle wheel and an ID card of a man from the northern state of Tamaulipas.
The state government admitted last year that raw sewage was seeping into the bay from broken pipes.
A report in January by Mexico's ICESI security think tank called Acapulco the country's fifth worst city for the number of crimes committed per person with a poorer record than even Mexico City, one of the world's most dangerous capitals.
Drug smugglers are increasingly using bays and coves near Acapulco to land cocaine from Colombia and then take it overland to the United States.
But despite Acapulco's worsening image, the vast majority of tourists never see a violent incident and, ensconced in hotels at the other end of the bay from the shabby old town, are mostly sheltered from the garbage and pollution.
Hotel occupancy rates last weekend were unusually high at almost 90 percent, the town's tourist board said.
"There's a feeling that this is a war between narcos that that does not affect the general population or tourists," said U.S.-born Ron Lavender, 79, a naturalized Mexican citizen who has called Acapulco home for 51 years.
"I have traveled a lot and there is nowhere in the world like here," said Lavender, a real estate agent who makes a good living renting luxury villas in the smart end of the bay.
Mexican tourists have become a mainstay of Acapulco since a highway to the capital was built in the early 1990s, and many hotels and restaurants rely on domestic clients.
At the poor end of town, Acapulco's famed cliff divers, who plunge more than 100 feet into the sea several times a day in a death-defying stunt, say times are hard as the big-spending visitors go elsewhere.
Tourists leave smaller tips than before, said Rolando Carvajal, a diver for 23 years. "There are times when it's hardly enough for the bus home."
(Additional reporting by Gerardo Torres)