Beach of death

Lesotho Times - - In­ter­na­tional -

MEX­ICO CITY — Along with beach tow­els or san­dals, there’s a new pop­u­lar beach ac­ces­sory that says a lot about the vi­o­lence grip­ping this once-glam­orous re­sort: a small black leather tote hang­ing from the neck or shoul­ders of some men.

It’s not a man-bag, ex­actly; it holds a small pis­tol.

“When I saw you guys stand­ing out­side my of­fice, I al­most went for my bag,” said one busi­ness­man who lives in ter­ror after get­ting death threats and ex­tor­tion de­mands by crim­i­nal gangs at his of­fice four blocks from the wa­ter. “I’m in fear for my life.” Death can strike any­where in Aca­pulco th­ese days: A sarong ven­dor was slain on the beach in Jan­uary by a gun­man who es­caped on a Jet Ski.

An­other man was gunned down while en­joy­ing a beer at a sea­side restau­rant.

In the hill­side slums that ring the city, a 15-year-old girl’s body was found chopped into pieces and wrapped in a blan­ket, her sev­ered head in a bucket nearby with a hand-let­tered sign from a drug gang.

The up­surge in killings has made Aca­pulco one of Mex­ico’s most vi­o­lent places, scar­ing away what in­ter­na­tional tourism re­mained and re­cently prompt­ing the US govern­ment to bar its em­ploy­ees from trav­el­ling here for any rea­son.

In re­sponse, Mex­ico has lined the city’s coastal boule­vard with heav­ily armed po­lice and soldiers, turn­ing Aca­pulco into a high-pro­file test case for a se­cu­rity strat­egy that the govern­ment has used else­where: When homi­cides spike, flood the area with troops.

To­day it’s al­most eas­ier to find a truck full of soldiers, a fed­eral po­lice­man or a gag­gle of lo­cal tourist cops than it is to find a taxi along the “costera,” the sea­side boule­vard that runs through the ho­tel zone. Marines pa­trol the beach, while fed­eral po­lice watch over the break­wa­ters.

“This area has been made bul­let­proof,” Guer­rero state prose­cu­tor Xavier Olea said. Ex­cept it hasn’t. A week after As­so­ci­ated Press (AP) re­porters vis­ited, gun­men shot to death three young men in broad day­light two blocks away from a restau­rant where they met with an un­der­world fig­ure.

Two of their bul­let-rid­den bod­ies lay on the con­crete just off the beach, and one bled out on the sand. Two were wait­ers, and the third a rov­ing co­conut oil ven­dor.

On a re­cent day, far­ther down the beach, an­other black bag hung around the neck of a man nick­named “the lieu­tenant.”

He works as a body­guard for a man with un­der­world con­nec­tions who agreed to meet near an open-air restau­rant to dis­cuss the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion. He spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity to avoid be­ing tar­geted by ri­vals or au­thor­i­ties.

“There are 300 paid killers on the costera,” the un­der­world fig­ure said, ges­tur­ing ex­pan­sively over plates of fried fish and shrimp. At least one other body­guard was nearby. “A de­cent killer makes about 5 000 pe­sos (M4500) a week.”

Ex­perts say Aca­pulco shows the lim­i­ta­tions of the govern­ment’s se­cu­rity strat­egy.

Fed­eral po­lice, al­most none of whom are from the city, quickly get lost once they leave the coastal boule­vard and as­cend into twist­ing, hill­side neigh­bour­hoods.

Their heavy weapons are ill-suited to ur­ban polic­ing, and they’re ham­pered as well by Mex­ico’s un­wieldy ju­di­cial sys­tem and a lack of in­ves­tiga­tive train­ing.

Last week two men were shot and wounded on the street a block from the pop­u­lar Caleta beach.

Po­lice showed up, but when no am­bu­lance ar­rived, rel­a­tives or friends sim­ply bun­dled the men into pri­vate ve­hi­cles to take them to the hospi­tal.

Po­lice marked spent shell cas­ings with cut­off plas­tic soda bot­tles, but there was no sign of any in-depth in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“It’s the same prob­lem in Guer­rero, the same prob­lem in Ta­mauli­pas, in Mi­choa­can,” se­cu­rity an­a­lyst Ale­jan­dro Hope said, re­fer­ring to three states where homi­cides have spiked.

“Sud­denly there’s an emer­gency, they send troops to where the prob­lem is and in the short term crime drops. But then there is an emer­gency some­where else, and then the troops have to leave, and they have not de­vel­oped lo­cal law-en­force­ment ca­pac­ity.”

Aca­pulco’s lat­est wave of killings be­gan April 24, when bursts of gun­fire broke out along the coastal boule­vard.

It was the first time such sus­tained shoot­ing had been seen there since the dark­est days of 2012, when the mur­der rate in this city of 800 000 hit 146 per 100 000 in­hab­i­tants.

It has since fallen to about 112 per 100 000, but that re­mains far higher than na­tion­wide lev­els and ap­pears to be on the rise again.

Both prose­cu­tor Olea and the un­der­world fig­ure agree the con­flict started late last year be­tween the Bel­tran Leyva gang, which used to con­trol the city, and the In­de­pen­dent Car­tel of Aca­pulco, or CIDA, which arose fol­low­ing the death of car­tel boss Ar­turo Bel­tran Leyva in 2009.

The Bel­tran Leyva fam­ily, now sup­ported by Mex­ico’s fastest-ris­ing car­tel, the Jalisco New Gen­er­a­tion gang, tried to re­assert con­trol in Novem­ber, call­ing them­selves “La Em­presa,” or “The Com­pany,” and em­ploy­ing a small group of pro­fes­sional killers known as the Rus­sians.

The Bel­tran Ley­vas quickly an­tag­o­nised the CIDA by cut­ting pay in half for en­forcers and deal­ers, re­sult­ing in an open war. It is sus­pected that the wait­ers and the co­conut oil ven­dor killed last week were in­no­cents with no drug con­nec­tions, al­legedly slain by the Rus­sians just to bring heat on the lo­cal gang.

Street-level drug deal­ing may well be sec­ond only to Aca­pulco’s much-di­min­ished tourism in­dus­try for the amount of money in­volved.

A so-called Oxxo - lo­cal slang for a drug re­tail house, bor­rowed from the name of a ubiq­ui­tous con­ve­nience store chain — can do an es­ti­mated $8 100 in busi­ness in a sin­gle night.

The un­der­world fig­ure said there are about 50 such “stores” in Aca­pulco, mean­ing that drug sales prob­a­bly amount to about $400 000 per day. That pays for a lot of hit men. The April 24 shootout came just after mys­te­ri­ous text mes­sages cir­cu­lated among city res­i­dents warn­ing of a bloody week­end, prompt­ing many to stay off the streets and keep their kids home from school.

State au­thor­i­ties ini­tially de­scribed it as a di­rect at­tack on po­lice in­stal­la­tions, but as more in­for­ma­tion emerged it seems to have re­sulted from an at­tempt by un­known at­tack­ers to rob a drug gang pay­roll of about 50 bun­dles of cash, each con­tain­ing thou­sands of pe­sos.

After the first shots were heard on the coastal boule­vard, fed­eral po­lice in their un­der­wear be­gan fir­ing from a nearby ho­tel where they were stay­ing. Far­ther down the road, an­other ho­tel had its fa­cade sprayed with bul­lets.

The po­lice re­ac­tion, cap­tured in on­line videos of loud, stac­cato gun­fire, wors­ened the pub­lic per­cep­tion of vi­o­lence in Aca­pulco.

About 1 600 busi­nesses in the city have al­ready closed due to se­cu­rity prob­lems, said busi­ness cham­ber leader Ale­jan­dro Martinez.

“There is a lot of mys­tery about what hap­pened (in the shootout), but what­ever they did, they did it badly,” Martinez said of se­cu­rity forces.

“That was an er­ror on the part of the fed­eral govern­ment that cost us a lot.”

He added that the drop-off in tourism has hit busi­ness own­ers al­ready deal­ing with ex­tor­tion de­mands from the gangs.

“First they send text mes­sages,” Martinez said.

“Then come the phone calls, and if you don’t pay, they come to your busi­ness, four or five men, ask­ing for the owner.”

There have been tar­geted killings of busi­ness own­ers, and also col­lat­eral dam­age: One waiter at a down­town restau­rant was killed by a stray bul­let dur­ing a gun bat­tle.

Joaquin Badillo, who runs Aca­pulco’s lead­ing pri­vate se­cu­rity firm, es­ti­mated that 95 per­cent of the killings in the city are linked di­rectly or in­di­rectly to crim­i­nal gangs.

“Some­body didn’t live up to a deal, some­body didn’t pay, some­body didn’t de­liver, some­body was given (drugs) to sell and didn’t, some­body else went to work for the com­pe­ti­tion,” Badillo said.

“None of th­ese peo­ple are do­ing Aca­pulco any good.”

But that’s lit­tle com­fort to res­i­dents of Aca­pulco’s slums, who still suf­fer the worst of the vi­o­lence de­spite the high-pro­file tourist-quar­ter killings.

New po­lice Chief Max Sedano said he thinks the gangs “have re­treated up into the ‘colo­nias,’ or slums, where few tourist dol­lars ever ar­rive.

In one, Ci­u­dad Re­nacimiento, soldiers in bat­tle gear guarded the chained gates of the Gabriela Mis­tral grade school on a re­cent day while moth­ers waited out­side to pick up their kids.

Like many schools in Aca­pulco, se­cu­rity was stepped up after gang mem­bers de­manded teach­ers hand over year-end bonuses or a cut of their pay­checks.

A few steps away, Pe­dro Ramirez, 71, sat at the street stall where he sells kitchen­ware. Ges­tur­ing to­ward the soldiers, he said all is quiet dur­ing the day but the dan­ger be­gins as soon as they leave.

“It’s like there is a cur­few, no­body goes out at night any­more,” said Ramirez, who has lived in the slum since its be­gin­nings in 1980.

“In the morn­ing, dead peo­ple turn up on streets.”-ap

Armed soldiers pa­trol the beach packed with tourists.

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