In­creased vi­o­lence threat­ens Mex­ico’s tourism in­dus­try

Re­sort cities have been sites of re­cent vi­o­lence

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - David Agren

PLAYA DEL CAR­MEN, Mex­ico – Tourists tak­ing the ferry from this tourist town to the is­land of Cozumel now walk down a wharf lined with po­lice, heav­ily armed sol­diers and bomb­sniff­ing dogs.

Those safe­guards came af­ter a Feb. 21 ex­plo­sion ripped through one of the fer­ries, in­jur­ing 24 peo­ple, in­clud­ing five Amer­i­cans. Ex­plo­sives were later found on an­other ferry owned by the same com­pany.

“It’s some­thing that makes you feel safer,” Roberto Cin­trón, pres­i­dent of the Cancún ho­tel own­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion, said about the sol­diers and se­cu­rity af­ter a re­cent ferry ride to Cozumel. “It’s the com­plete op­po­site sit­u­a­tion of the in­se­cu­rity many peo­ple think of.”

Nu­mer­ous re­ports about crime and tourist tragedies have made re­cent head­lines as the vi­o­lence plagu­ing this coun­try erupts in cities pop­u­lar with for­eign vis­i­tors.

In­ci­dents caus­ing con­cern in Cancún and out­ly­ing Quin­tana Roo state in­clude bars al­legedly serv­ing adul­ter­ated liquor to un­sus­pect­ing tourists and po­lice tar­get­ing vis­i­tors in rental cars for

bribes.

A va­ca­tion­ing Iowa fam­ily of four was found dead March 23 in a condo in Tu­lum on the Caribbean coast. Au­thor­i­ties sus­pect the cause was a gas leak from a faulty wa­ter heater.

Vi­o­lence is not un­com­mon in Mex­ico, but in­ci­dents in re­sort cities such as Cancún, Playa del Car­men (in Quin­tana Roo state) and Los Ca­bos threaten Mex­ico’s lu­cra­tive tourism in­dus­try.

“The com­mon thread in Los Ca­bos and Quin­tana Roo is the pub­lic se­cu­rity sys­tem had been to­tally dis­man­tled,” said Fran­cisco Ri­vas, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Cit­i­zen Ob­ser­va­tory, which mon­i­tors se­cu­rity is­sues in Mex­ico. “There were pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fices that didn’t in­ves­ti­gate and po­lice that couldn’t pre­vent or re­act to crime.”

An­a­lysts of­fer a va­ri­ety of ex­pla­na­tions for the ris­ing crime across Mex­ico, from drug car­tels to the U.S. opi­oid cri­sis prompt­ing car­tels to switch from grow­ing mar­i­juana to pro­duc­ing heroin.

Mex­ico had the most mur­ders on record in 2017, with 29,158. The homi­cide rate in the first two months of 2018 was up 21% over the same pe­riod last year.

The U.S. State De­part­ment in Jan­uary is­sued a strict travel ad­vi­sory for five Mex­i­can states, in­clud­ing Guer­rero, home to Aca­pulco and Ix­tapa. The “do not travel to” ad­vi­sory put the states of Si­naloa, Colima, Mi­choacán, Guer­rero and Ta­mauli­pas (on the Texas bor­der) on the same level as war-torn coun­tries like Syria.

Mex­ico’s Tourism Sec­re­tar­iat said the ad­vi­sory was based on crime sta­tis­tics and atroc­i­ties “not re­lated to in­ci­dents that di­rectly af­fected for­eign vis­i­tors.”

The sec­re­tar­iat noted the list did not in­clude Mex­ico’s five big­gest tourist des­ti­na­tions: Cancún, the Mayan Riviera, Los Ca­bos, Puerto Val­larta-Riviera Na­yarit and Mex­ico City.

“This is not hap­pen­ing in tourist ar­eas,” Cin­trón said. “There have been cases, we can’t deny that” in the tourist ar­eas, he added, “But it’s some­thing very tar­geted” and not putting tourists at risk.

Mex­ico wel­comed nearly 40 mil­lion for­eign vis­i­tors in 2017, and tourism ac­counts for 8% of the coun­try’s GDP. Tourist hotspots also at­tract mil­lions of Mex­i­cans seek­ing jobs.

“There’s lots of work here ... and it pays bet­ter,” said Fabiola López, a wait­ress who moved to Playa del Car­men from Chi­a­pas, Mex­ico’s poor­est state. “I was able to buy a house.”

Tourists of­ten ask about se­cu­rity, said Is­rael Uribe, a concierge in Playa del Car­men. Af­ter a shootout on the tourist strip here in early 2017, his bosses in­structed him, “Don’t say any­thing” when asked about se­cu­rity.

Some in this re­gion sup­port the U.S. tourist ad­vi­sory, say­ing that’s the only way the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment will take se­cu­rity is­sues se­ri­ously.

“This is some­thing that will open our gov­ern­ment’s eyes, that the threat here is real,” said Daniel Vil­laseñor Pérez, a lawyer and com­mu­nity ac­tivist in Cancún.

EPA-EFE

A mem­ber of the Mex­i­can army stands guard near a ferry in Playa del Car­men.

ALONSO CUPEL/EPA-EFE

Mem­bers of the Fed­eral Po­lice guard ac­cess to boats and in­spect tourists in the tourist area of Playa del Car­men, Mex­ico.

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