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The Cancun that tourists don’t often see: soaring murders amid a bloody drug war

It's not part of Cancun that tourists travel to see: heavily armed police working to stop a soaring homicide rate. The fallout of Mexico's campaign targeting drug cartel leaders is spilling onto the periphery of the famous beach destination, where fractured gangs fight for control. Yet the area's violence has rarely put vacationers in danger. Special correspondent Danny Gold reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first- Mexico is Latin America's most visited tourist destination, bringing in $20 billion annually.

    However, 2017 was the country's most murderous year ever, with more than 23,000 people killed. Tourist areas that were once considered off-limits to gangs and drug cartels are now plagued by violence.

    Special correspondent Danny Gold has the first of two reports, and begins tonight on the streets of Cancun, where the murder rate has doubled in the past year.

  • Danny Gold:

    This is not the part of Cancun that tourists travel thousands of miles to see.

    Officer Alejandro Rodriguez commands this heavily armed unit of Cancun's municipal police. His team is working to stop a soaring homicide rate. In 2017, more than 205 people have been murdered here.

  • Alejandro Rodriguez (through translator):

    Homicides are our priority. We know that there are gangs who are probably fighting over territory. In the places where there have been homicides, there are patrols with special officers.

  • Danny Gold:

    In 2006, Mexico began an aggressive campaign of targeting the heads of drug cartels. Kingpins went to jail or were killed, but an estimated 80,000 others were also killed by organized crime since the strategy against cartels began.

    The fallout of the campaign can still be seen on the streets of Cancun, where fractured gangs fight bloody battles for control.

  • Alejandro Rodriguez (through translator):

    We want to prevent any crimes like homicide or theft. We also want to detect and identify people who carry weapons and drugs.

  • Danny Gold:

    Cancun has never seen this much bloodshed. In August alone, the deadliest month of the year, a record 38 people were murdered here.

    A few miles away from the armored patrol, Cancun looks vastly different. Here, resorts and tourists mingle with white sand and crystal blue water. But looks can be deceptive. Last August, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located.

    The warning stated, "Turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime."

    The notice didn't deter Andre and Michelle, vacationing from Los Angeles.

    Have you seen anything that would leave you like a little fearful?

  • Andre:

    Thus far? No, I haven't felt unsafe at all.

  • Danny Gold:

    Forty-two miles down the beach, another tourist hot spot, Playa del Carmen, is also under the same advisory.

  • Alyssa Bohan:

    I sent him the notice once I got it on my phone, but everything was already booked, so we just figured, might as well.

  • Danny Gold:

    Brett and Alyssa Bohan came here from Michigan for their honeymoon.

  • Brett Bohan:

    We have never felt like we were in any danger, I don't think.

  • Danny Gold:

    Alejandro Schtulmann specializes in analyzing security risks in Mexico.

  • Alejandro Schtulmann:

    So much of the violence that we're seeing in Cancun, as opposed to other places, takes place in the periphery of the city, also on the periphery of Playa del Carmen.

  • Danny Gold:

    As crime has jumped to record highs, occupancy rates at hotels in Cancun and Playa del Carmen have mostly held steady.

    Schtulmann doesn't think that will change, even though murders are at an all-time high.

  • Alejandro Schtulmann:

    You would see an upward trend in tourism, and that is unlikely to change. The crime rates that we're seeing in Cancun and Playa del Carmen are still very low compared to what is happening around the country.

  • Danny Gold:

    v The area's violence has rarely put vacationers in danger, even though some tourists come here to buy drugs from the same gangs that are making the state more violent.

    When there is demand for drugs, there is also violence, and Mexico worries the new crime wave could scare tourists off, so it's taking the threat seriously.

    Officer Francisco Viteron is patrolling in Playa del Carmen's top tourist market. He and his partner, both officers in Mexico's federal police, have just arrived here.

    Francisco Viteron (through interpreter): We are all working to apply different strategies to try to combat every form of violence. The public and even my bosses have the same concern. They gave us orders and tips on how to have a stronger presence here.

  • Danny Gold:

    The need for heavy security also stretches into the neighborhoods of Playa del Carmen that tourists often don't see.

    We rode along with Officer Alvaro Sanchez Jimenez from the Playa Del Carmen Police. Officer Jimenez insists that the city is not dangerous and no criminal gangs run here.

    Alvaro Sanchez Jimenez (through interpreter): There aren't groups here. They are people who come here and identify how lovely it is here. The people who come here come because it is a beautiful city, and it is safe too. If anything happens, it is really sporadic. It is all under control, though.

  • Danny Gold:

    But the same day that we met Officer Jimenez, a body was found not far from where we filmed these images. The following day, there was a banner threatening local police and government officials.

    Fabiola Jara (through interpreter): We don't have any security. It is not safe for us to be a family here.

  • Danny Gold:

    We met Fabiola Jara outside of Cancun's general hospital.

    Fabiola Jara (through interpreter): Suddenly, a car came close to us. I didn't recognize it. Two people came out of the car and started shooting. In that moment, I was screaming. I kept asking, why, why? I saw that my son had been shot in his leg.

  • Danny Gold:

    Erik, Fabiola's 13-year-old son, had his leg shattered from the bullet. When we visited the hospital, Erik's room was protected by a guard and we were not allowed to enter.

    Do you have any faith in the judicial system here or in the police force?

    Fabiola Jara (through interpreter): I don't know. Right now, I don't know. But I should, right? They are guarding us. We should trust them.

  • Danny Gold:

    The state's top prosecutor, Miguel Angel Pech Cen, argues the rising crime and murder rate is a product of the increasing drug trade and a turf battle following the arrest of Dona Lety, a prominent cartel leader.

    Miguel Angel Pech Cen (through interpreter): The presence of such crime is due to the selling of drugs. It's not on a grand scale, but it is quite prominent still. There are groups fighting over having power to sell drugs here.

    People here search for peace and quiet, but, because of this turf war, violence is growing.

  • Danny Gold:

    Pech Cen argues Cancun's beauty is part of the problem.

    Miguel Angel Pech Cen (through interpreter): Since tourists are the consumers, this also creates havoc. The drug lords immediately recognize them as revenue generators.

  • Danny Gold:

    Local journalist Pedro Canche says the system is rotten, the police are corrupt, and criminal leaders are emboldened.

    Pedro Canche (through interpreter): There is a lot of bribery. Quite often, the leaders are ex-police officers or ex-military.

    They would probably earn $2,800, and suddenly a narco group offers them $28,000. There is a huge difference. In this way, many police officers become drug lords themselves. This basically encourages other officials to do the same.

  • Danny Gold:

    Fighting this is not easy. We met this former Cancun police officer who asked that we disguise his identity. He told me, in Cancun, it's practically impossible to be an honest policeman.

  • Man (through interpreter):

    We see homicides every day on the street, in broad daylight, kidnapping, assaults, all in daylight now. This didn't happen before. The issue that every officer has is really just his own boss. The boss in charge of the operation will tell you directly to let someone go and ignore all evidence.

  • Danny Gold:

    We went out with the police last night. It seemed like they were well-armed, they were well-trained. Is that the reality?

  • Man (through interpreter):

    No, it is not the reality. The police have not been trained entirely. There are some groups that have no tactical training. They are blindly sent to the scene and exposed to the crime.

    They also lack the right amount of ammunition. Sometimes, they are only given six to eight rounds. That's all. This basically sets them up for death.

  • Danny Gold:

    He also accuses police of working with high-level criminals.

  • Man (through interpreter):

    The criminals ensure that the police cannot behave professionally. The police officers who don't respond to the criminals' demands are laid off. The police make a deal with the criminals that ensures disobedient officers will be fired.

  • Danny Gold:

    We have heard from people around here lots of accusations about corruption in the government and accusations that criminals have impunity to act.

    How do you respond to those allegations?

    Miguel Angel Pech Cen (through interpreter): To combat this type of impunity, the government here is being as transparent as possible. We are about to launch the anti-corruption program that will name all the perpetrators, and our office will have much better access to offenders.

    It's hard to choose between right and wrong sometimes, but we are trying.

  • Danny Gold:

    But, for now, in this increasingly violent paradise, the crime rate, the homicide rate and the hotel occupancy rate are showing no sign of slowing down.

    For the PBS NewsHour I'm Danny Gold in Cancun, Mexico.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow, we continue our series on the drug war in Mexico, reporting from the famed city of Acapulco.

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