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The Cancun that tourists don’t often see: soaring murders amid a bloody drug war
2017 marked Acapulco's fifth straight year of being Mexico's most murderous city. Once an internationally renowned tropical paradise, violence has shot up over the last decade. But while police and military forces protect tourists, residents say little is done to stop gangs from preying on them through extortion. Special correspondent Danny Gold reports.
This week, the U.S. State Department issued its top travel warning, usually reserved for war zones like Iraq, or Syria, but the do-not-travel advisory covered places much closer to home.
It cautioned Americans against traveling to five states in Mexico. One is home to the famed resort city of Acapulco.
Special correspondent Danny Gold has our second look at violence in Mexico from that Pacific Coast locale, and found a place that Frank Sinatra once crooned about, heaving under the weight of crime and violence.
Just over the hill from the strip of hotels that overlook Acapulco Bay, an all-too-common sight, heavily armed police and a forensic team.
We just got a call that there are a number of bodies that have been found in a house. We're in Zapata. It's one of the more notorious neighborhoods in Acapulco.
This is the grisly work of a violent gang, led by a man known as The Virus.
They're pulling this truck up here to take the bodies out. They don't want us to see that. In Acapulco, it's not just a war on the violence and the gangs. It's a war of perception. And they don't want people thinking about and seeing the violence that's going on here.
After the police put two bodies in this truck, they left the area, and we were able to take a look for ourselves.
This right here is part of what the police are trying to keep us from. It's two freshly dug graves. You can see there is still blood. There's some rope right here. And they pulled two bodies out of here just a moment ago.
Just hours before we met him, this 20-year-old, who requested that we protect his identity, was held hostage just a few feet away from the shallow graves. He's one of few people who have escaped death from The Virus and his fellow gang members.
Alberto (through interpreter):
After a day at work, three people came and covered me and took me by force and started firing gunshots everywhere. They hit me and took me to a house where there were lots of other captured people. They hit me again and again. They said they were going to kill me and they had already buried four people in the backyard.
What are you going to do now? Do you feel safe enough to go back to your neighborhood?
No, I don't. What I want more than anything is to leave Acapulco. There is no peace or security here.
2017 just marked the fifth straight year that Acapulco has been Mexico's most murderous city. But it hasn't always been like this. The city gained prominence in the '50s and '60s as a tropical paradise for celebrities and millionaires alike.
The Kennedys, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, all were regulars. Sinatra even mentioned one of his favorite vacation spots in "Come Fly With Me." But as the violence shot up over the last decade, international tourists have been frightened off.
Mexicans, like Iro and Sandy, now make up the bulk of those vacationing here.
And have you guys seen anything that would make you concerned about being here?
Iro (through interpreter):
No. Everything is very calm, and we have had fun. The last three days we have spent here, nothing has happened.
Protecting tourists is extremely important for the city. On Acapulco's main strip, it's common to see federal police, state police, city police, a new tourist police force. Even the military has been brought in.
However, the citizens of Acapulco say there is little being done to stop gangs from preying on them.
Laura Caballero (through interpreter):
We love Acapulco. That is why we stay here and enjoy it. But there is a lot of extortion here.
Laura Caballero is the president of a business owner's association. This empty space on Acapulco's main strip used to be her successful restaurant. Things changed after gang members demanded high-priced extortion payments from her.
They asked us to give them money every month in order to stay in business.
Caballero's restaurant is just one of over 2,000 businesses that have shut their doors in Acapulco over the past three years.
Is there anyone you can go to, the police, politicians, anyone who could do something about this?
No, definitely not right now. I had friends who denounced the issues, and this cost them their lives. Right now, there is total impunity and total corruption.
Javier Morlett (through interpreter):
The fragmentation of gangs in Acapulco is so big that we don't know exactly how many there are.
Javier Morlett is an advocate for victims rights, a job that hits close to home. He lost his own 20-year-old daughter in 2011 to violence.
He says that gang wars that have taken over Acapulco differ from Mexico's standard drug wars and offer a frightening new reality.
These small gangs came from fragmentation of big gangs. They don't have the ability or the logistics, so they abandon the drug business and instead start attacking civic society to survive.
Since there are no businesses that could finance politicians in their campaigns, the ones financing political campaigns are the gangs. When politicians rise to power, they owe favors to these financiers. Therefore, when politicians take power, they must establish a coexistence with those who financed them. And they cannot act against them.
With a fragile system of law and order, those that can afford it in Acapulco turn to private security, one of the few businesses still booming.
Joaquin Badillo, who goes by the nickname Jacko, runs a private security firm that employs over 1,000 guards across the city. They protect private businesses like shopping malls and residences.
Is your business growing as well?
Yes, I have to say that. But this crime of extortion is growing because not all the people have the money to pay the private security. So they prefer to pay the extortion because it's cheaper.
Acapulco's police chief, Max Sedano, surprisingly believes there is no criminal extortion in the city.
Max Sedano (through interpreter):
They make accusations that there are businesses closed down due to extortion, but the reality is that the businesses close down due to a lack of tourism, due to a lack of commercial activity.
We did talk to some business owners, and they all told us they had to close because of extortion.
I have not seen a single person who has told me that he had to close their business due to extortion.
Sedano, a highly decorated police and military veteran, was brought in by the federal government to help clean up both the city and the police force.
When I joined this administration, the city police were just coming out from a workers strike which lasted many months, one that deteriorated the institution. The morale of the policemen was very low.
The police then provided new uniforms and equipment. I can tell you that the police force is changing and we are going to have a great transformation.
We ran into Acapulco's mayor, Evodio Velazquez, during a public appearance at a busy night market.
Evodio Velazquez (through interpreter):
There are a lot of violent acts here, but, today, we are recovering. We are remodeling public spaces all across the city. Acapulco has around one million residents, so we are a huge city. Of course, there are areas where violence is prominent, and we are working to eliminate it.
Miles from the scenic beachfront views, in one of the slums controlled by the gangs, we arranged to meet up with this gang member. He painted a much drearier image of the city, and his life in it.
Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to join?
Man (through interpreter):
Because nothing ever happens here. At first, I was simply working with drugs, but then I became a person who liked drugs, and now I need them to do everything.
How do you feel when you see maybe a politician on TV saying how Acapulco is an amazing great place to come on vacation, how it's like paradise?
They're lying. They say that everything is OK, but we are not saying the same. Nothing is seen negatively on the TV, so tourists come here.
The gang member sees the police and politicians not as a solution, but a major part of the problem.
I have seen people killed. All the officers do is turn their backs and go. There are many people who have asked the police to help them, but they don't do anything to stop this. The police is bought here. The authority isn't the law.
Here, who governs is the cartels, the gangs, the hit men, and the extortionists. There is no future in Acapulco. It's not even worth trying here.
Every day at sunset, Acapulco's famous cliff divers take this brazen plunge. But it's the city itself that will remain in freefall until it can finally control it's crime and violence.
For PBS NewsHour, I'm Danny Gold in Acapulco, Mexico.
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