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Mexico's drug cartels have turned a tourist mecca into 'Guerrero's Iraq'

Christopher Woody
Acapulco Mexico violence business cartels

(In May 10, 2016, photo, the gate of the once popular restaurant "Los Braseros" is emblazoned with a graffiti drawing of a gun, situated on the seaside boulevard, known as " La Costera," that runs through the hotel zone in Acapulco, Mexico.AP Photo/Enric Marti)

The idyllic Pacific coast town of Acapulco in Mexico’s Guerrero state once welcomed Hollywood stars and honeymooners, but the city has suffered a wave of bloody violence in recent years, as cartels and criminal groups battle for control.

Since 2012, Acapulco, which has been called “Guerrero's Iraq,” has been the most violent city in Mexico, and among the most violent cities in the world, with homicide rates above 100 per 100,000 people each year.

In 2015, Acapulco, home to about 800,000 people, saw 1,170 killings. In the first three months of this year, there were 205 homicides — in March alone, the city had 98 of Guerrero’s 182 homicides.

These numbers are down from violent peaks reached in 2012 — the city had about 100 homicides a month that year — but the intensity of the bloodshed stands out, and appears to be closely linked to the fragmentation of Mexico’s criminal organizations.

“Violence in the southwest coastal area is the result of the some of the shifting cartel dynamics that we've seen among the major players ... dating back four or five years … when we saw the takedown of the major figures of the Beltran Leyva Organization,” David Shirk, professor at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider.

The Beltran Leyva Organization, or BLO, partnered with “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel and controlled parts of central and southwestern Mexico. In the late 2000s, the BLO started fighting with the Sinaloa cartel and faced increased pressure from the Mexican government.

Acapulco Mexico beach soldiers homicides violence

(Federal police officers patrol Caleta beach, crowded with local residents and tourists, in Acapulco, Mexico, May 13, 2016. The city of Acapulco and Guerrero state in general have experienced a wave of violence attributed to warring drug gangs.AP Photo/Enric Marti)

“The fragmentation effect that followed from that led to the splintering of the remnants of the Beltran Leyva Organization into various regional players,” Shirk, the director of USD’s Justice in Mexico program, said.

"So it's a lot of those smaller groups along with the Sinaloa cartel that are in conflict in that area," Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider.

Acapulco Mexico map

(Acapulco, on Mexico's southwest coast, is located just a few hours' drive from Mexico City.Google Maps)

The BLO, backed by the powerful and violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel, has tried to reassert control in Acapulco since late last year, clashing with local groups like the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA), according to The Associated Press.

CIDA is one of three criminal groups operating in the city, and one of eight present in Guerrero, according to government reports seen by El Universal.

The CIDA is believed to be responsible for recent violence that has gained international attention, in particular for multiple attacks on federal police stationed in the heart of Acapulco on April 24.

The attacks were suspected to be retaliation for the capture of a CIDA leader the day before.

The violence has also likely been exacerbated by recent political shifts. Guerrero’s governor, Hector Astudillo, took office in late October. Instability caused by criminal groups jockeying to make deals or gain influence with the new government has likely added to the bloodshed, Vigil noted. In the first 100 days of Astudillo's term, there reportedly were 734 homicides.

“It’s a no-win situation” for local governments and politicians, Vigil said, as they frequently become targets regardless of their stances toward criminal groups. “Why anyone would want to be a politician in Mexico is beyond me,” Vigil added.

'For the majority, it’s hell'

As cartel clashes have intensified, the violence has filtered out of the poor neighborhoods surrounding the city, spilling into tourist areas.

In a trend that has further hurt Acapulco’s tourism industry, assassins used Jet Skis to approach targets on the city’s beaches. As the violence spreads, beach-goers have started carrying small tote bags with weapons for protection.

Acapulco Mexico beach vendor business

(In this May 13, 2016, photo, a fisherman tries to sell his fresh catch to beach-goers on Caletilla beach in Acapulco, Mexico. Violence gripping this once-glamorous resort has surged in recent months, scaring away what international tourism remained.AP Photo/Enric Marti)

Criminal groups in the city have turned more to localized crimes like kidnapping and extortion to create revenue, but Acapulco’s location as Guerrero's coastal outlet indicates why it’s a prized possession for big cartels like CJNG.

“Acapulco is the state of Guerrero, and Guerrero is a major heroin-producing state, and right now heroin is a very lucrative market because we're suffering from an epidemic here in the United States,” Vigil told Business Insider.

“So there's different groups that are battling out for control of ... heroin production in the state of Guerrero,” Vigil added. Astudillo, Guerrero's governor, has even suggested legalizing medicinal-opium cultivation as a way to reduce violence.

In addition to drug production, Guerrero also offers traffickers access to smuggling routes throughout central Mexico and along the Pacific coast. "If you're trying to move product from anywhere — from out of Mexico, into Mexico, or vice versa — these areas are logistically strategic, both for legitimate and illicit businesses," Shirk said.

Mexico police Guerrero Ayotzinapa violence protest

(Police officers carry a wounded colleague who was beaten up by rioting protesters during a protest in reprisal for the killing of 43 trainee teachers, in Acapulco, November 10, 2014.REUTERS/Claudio Vargas)

Extortion, and violence related to it, has even made its way to the city’s schools. In late 2014, schools were hit with extortion fees for each student and each teacher. In a two-month period at the end of that year, 21 teachers were killed.

In response, the local government stationed soldiers at schools. Students see troops “as something they like, something to admire. The girls even start to call them their boyfriends,” a teacher told news site Animal Politico late last year. “But in reality, in terms of security, nothing has changed.”

In that regard, conditions in Acapulco may mirror those in Mexico as a whole, which has seen a rise in homicides over the last year.

"It's the same problem in Guerrero, the same problem in Tamaulipas, in Michoacan," security analyst Alejandro Hope told the AP, referring to states where homicides have jumped.

Acapulco Mexico homicide murder killing

(In this May 9, 2016, photo, forensic workers remove the body of a man shot four times in an empty lot between residences in the Leyes de Reforma neighborhood of Acapulco, Mexico. Joaquin Badillo, who runs Acapulcoís, a leading private security firm, estimated that 95% of the killings in the city are linked directly or indirectly to criminal gangs.AP Photo/Enric Marti)

"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," Hope added.

In the near term, violence in Acapulco is likely to continue unabated, said Vigil, who has spoken with sources in Mexico’s federal-police force.

“Acapulco is the synthesis of the national tragedy,” Abel Barrera, director of the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center, told Maclean’s last year. “For a few, it’s paradise. For the majority, it’s hell.”

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