The Mexican Government Wants You to Think Acapulco Is Safe. But Is It?
Despite 874 murders in 2018 and more than 200 already in 2019, the Mexican tourism industry thinks that the crisis on their hands is just one of communication.
A young man on vacation with his wife, enjoying a seafood dinner just steps from Acapulco Bay, was left riddled with bullets on April 6 after a gunman stormed into the restaurant and opened fire.
The tourist, a Mexican national named Esteban who was living in Fresno, California, collapsed, and his wife Zulema jumped to his aide, administering mouth-to-mouth and pressing a towel against his head to stanch the bleeding.
“No, no, no!” she wailed as paramedics arrived and struggled to pull her away so they could take over the CPR. The chilling scene was caught on cellphone video.
As Esteban took his last breaths, hundreds of dignitaries, business executives, tourism industry bigwigs and travel writers gathered several miles down the coast, washing down gourmet finger foods with complimentary cocktails at the opening reception of Tianguis Turistico 2019, Mexico’s biggest travel trade show. The welcome party was held at 7.17., an avant-garde reception hall where white-cloth tables and romantic lighting spotted the lawn, and a DJ livened up the crowd, playing Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic and Treasure” under the stars.
There were no news alerts at the ceremony, or in the days that followed, even though more than a dozen additional homicides were reported in Acapulco that second week of April. Four corpses were discovered in a mass grave in the Simon Bolivar colony and two bodies washed up on consecutive days at Langosta Beach in the Port of Acapulco. The violence was the last thing the organizers at Tianguis wanted to talk about.
Acapulco hosted the four-day conference with a mission to show the world that this former playground to Hollywood stars is safe for travelers, but they did so by skirting the issue. Security was not on the agenda.
Conference organizers instead focused on presenting the new face of Mexico’s original beach destination, taking travel writers on whirlwind tours of the area’s hot spots.
At Los Flamingos waiters served pink piña coladas on the cliffside deck where John Wayne once gazed out on the Pacific. Hotel staff then showed off the new suite, which has a view that might have made even the Duke smile.
They strapped their guests into harnesses so they could soar like Superman on the world’s longest zip line over water, and tantalized them with news that the wire will be raised so they can fly even faster and at night, and in a hammock.
Star chef Eduardo Palazuelos prepared soft shell crab and short rib taquitos, served with a boutique mezcal created exclusively for his new bistro called Mario Canario.
“This is the real Acapulco,” Piquis Rochin, Acapulco’s international promotion director and stalwart cheerleader, declared to a group of foreign travel writers flown in for Tianguis. “We bring you to enjoy what any normal tourist would enjoy in Acapulco.”
The city she depicted was so magnificent that the guests might overlook one not so minor caveat—that Acapulco has the second highest homicide rate in the world.
The onetime “Pearl of the Pacific” in recent years has become the ultimate Potemkin village. It offers some of the country’s most spectacular resorts and beaches—and is also a virtual shooting gallery where gang warfare occasionally spills onto the streets and sands of the tourist zone.
It makes for some gruesome spectacles.
Hank Fey, a Philadelphia resident who’s been vacationing here with his wife since the 1970s, stood slack-jawed on the balcony of his hotel overlooking the popular Condesa Beach when he noticed why police and sun worshippers were massing on the shore.
“This dead guy was floating out there in the bay and they just let him drift back in,” recalled Fey, 79. “They said he drowned, but I believe he drowned with holes in him.”
That was in 2017. Last year, a person was shot dead outside his hotel, Fiesta Americana, he said. In the days since the tourist expo, mutilated bodies have popped up on a daily basis within a few miles of the coast, shocking but not surprising locals who’ve grown accustomed to the displays.
On April 23, tourists stepped around a sheet covering a bloody body on the sidewalk of Puerto Marquez, in the newer Diamond Zone where the expo center is located.
The previous week, a half dozen bodies were discovered, local media reported—one chopped up and dumped in two different neighborhoods. Another was found stuffed in the trunk of a taxi. A security guard was also found beaten to death with his finger tips mutilated, and a doctor was shot to death at a pharmacy in the Magallanes district, a couple of blocks from Condesa Beach.
On the roads, state police engaged in a shootout on Acapulco’s main highway, and a Mexican tourist leaving town after Easter was carjacked at gunpoint, according to local reports.
“It’s everywhere. There’s no control,” said Mary, a Buffalo native who lives in Acapulco. “The cartels are in control.”
Mary, 55, saw a man getting executed in the parking lot of an OXXO convenience store last year. Her husband fears he too might get targeted so takes a different route home from his restaurant job in the tourist area each night. A suspected gang member attempted to run him off the road by smashing into his car in September.
Local Spanish-only news sites, such as Lo Real De Guerrero, report on the daily bloodshed, and don’t shy away from posting pictures of the mutilated bodies. But the reports don’t get western media coverage unless they involve a foreign tourist, or a year-end murder roundup.
Esteban’s suspected killer, Javier Salvador, aka “El Koreano,” was arrested April 24. The homicide received almost no outside attention, in part because the victim was reportedly a Mexican national and not a U.S. citizen, despite his residency in Fresno. Another reason it didn’t get further publicity is that police in Acapulco kept it largely under wraps. They shared the victim’s first name, last initial and city of residence. No motive was presented. Victor Mateo, a crime reporter for Lo Real De Guerrero, said this is typical. Police are reluctant to share much of anything.
“I don’t know why he was killed,” Mateo said. “The police don’t say anything. A lot of times, the government or the police don’t give you the last names. They say they’re protecting the family. Maybe they don’t talk too much sometimes because they don’t want to scare the tourists away.”
The city logged 874 murders in 2018, and another 207 in the first three months of this year—averaging more than two a day.
None of them occurred in public view of the Tianguis crowds.
“Do you see any violence?” Acapulco’s promotion director said when asked about the reality that cartels are battling it out on the streets.
Piquis, a happy warrior in the field of public relations, repeats the mantra sounded by nearly everyone at the conference—that tourists are perfectly safe here.
“We don’t hide anything,” she says. “Nothing different happens here than any city in the world with guns. The perception is totally different from the reality of Acapulco.”
The dignitaries and business executives working their way through the Mundo Imperial conference center were in agreement that there is a crisis in Acapulco. But for them, the biggest problem isn’t the violence—it’s with messaging and the belief Mexico is barely fighting back against all the damning news.
Local reps and corporate leaders with business in Acapulco all scoff when asked if it’s safe in Acapulco. They insist the only people getting killed are gang members and their associates outside the tourist zone.
What’s needed, they say, is crisis management, a massive and sustained PR campaign to accentuate the positive. The more immediate problem as they see it is that the new president of Mexico, who spoke at Tianguis, recently slashed funding for tourism promotion and shut 18 of the government’s 21 international tourism offices, including several in the United States. It was the hottest topic not on the official agenda.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his tourism minister talked up his strategy to deploy more soldiers to improve security in places such as Acapulco, and invest in poorer neighborhoods outside tourist zones.
Tianguis participants, however, were more concerned with the PR aspect, arguing the cutbacks are limiting the government’s ability to counter damaging press after a year in which Mexico saw a 15 percent spike in homicides.
Promotion is “very important, particularly at a time when Mexico is losing global market share,” argued Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group, the mega-wholesale travel company that is investing millions of dollars to renovate a 600-room hotel in Acapulco. “The perception of safety in Mexico, along with all the other issues and President Trump’s rhetoric against Mexico, describing Mexico as a very dangerous place, these are factors we have to fight. We need marketing. We need crisis management. We need to continue to have the promotion and we don’t have the resources now to do that.”
And Acapulco officials were using Tianguis to orchestrate their own PR blitz.
With a large swath of the travel industry present, they showcased a city in the midst of a renaissance. The dozens of travel writers and travel agents visiting from the United States, Canada and Europe enjoyed guided tours to see the haunts of Howard Hughes, Elvis and Frank Sinatra that are still in operation. They met a new wave of entrepreneurs who are investing in fusion-style restaurants, an international tennis stadium, and a world-class hospital to attract health tourists.
The officials pampered their guests with four-course meals in five star hotels, serving endless varieties of ceviche, stews and curries, flans and soufflés, and mango and tamarind cocktails. The writers and agents oohed and aahed during tours of penthouses offering spectacular views of the bay, before boarding a yacht to enjoy the calm waters. The guests left with their bags stuffed full of brochures, business cards and gifts such as mini-bottles of mezcal and hats. Photographers from the city’s tourism office documented the smiley exchanges.
All of it was standard PR. But there was no avoiding a brutal reality. The U.S. State Department is warning travelers to stay away because of widespread killings, kidnappings and robberies, in a city where federal and state police last year seized control of the local police force because of its corruption and gang ties.
Extortion is also prevalent, especially during the high season and holidays when workers, not tourists, are targeted.
“They don’t let us work if we don’t pay,” said Connie, 56, who owns a restaurant on Caletilla Beach, where in April 2018 a man’s body washed up on the tourist-packed sands after a suspected shooting. “We know already that they can kill us if we don’t pay.”
In late March, she and co-workers had to hit the floor when eight gunshots rang out during a gang dispute just outside.
On Good Friday, a gang member walked through her front door demanding 500 pesos in extortion at lunchtime. He barked that it was for “the bank,” not wanting customers to know his affiliation or the real reason he was there—to take his cut of the earnings during a busy holiday weekend.
Connie paid it, as she always does.
But despite her predicament, she was anxious not to frighten tourists.
“The problem is really not for the tourists; the problem is for the people who work here,” she said. “The mafia is not interested in doing something bad to tourists.”
That’s because the gangs need tourists to fund their operations, she explained. If tourists get killed, the international media would cover it and scare travelers away, hurting business owners and ultimately their ability to pay extortion to the gangs.
It’s a pretzel logic that keeps tourists relatively safe—but not one that would instill confidence in international travelers. Americans have long since abandoned Acapulco. Most traffic in recent years has been from Mexicans who drive in for the weekend. Average hotel occupancy is just 40 percent. This was evident even in the famed celebrity hangouts that were showcased during the non-holiday workweek. Las Brisas, the cliffside resort that once housed Brad Pitt and Liza Minnelli, was less than 20 percent full, despite steep discounts. Rooms at John Wayne’s Los Flamingos were going for $47.
“The indicators are telling us that Acapulco, despite having the whole infrastructure, has a security crisis that is keeping tourists away,” said Fatima Masse, project coordinator for the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness.
And it’s not just tourists who are scared, she said. Nine out of 10 residents fear for their safety in their chosen city, which ranks last out of 22 tourist destinations its size in Mexico, according to a recent survey by the think tank.
Even a tour guide hired by Tianguis, while riding around Acapulco, told a reporter that he too fears for his safety and remains in Acapulco only because his wife’s elderly parents can’t move.
He was not among the official speakers. Piquis was, and she admitted she’s got a tough job trying to sell the city in an environment where nearly all major news stories are negative. Google “Acapulco” and the first items to pop up after Trip Advisor and Wikipedia entries are reports referencing “Mexico’s murder capital.”
"We have to change that perception,” she said. “But I am not a genius and we have not been able to find the key to change that perception. So we can do that through you.”