ACAPULCO, Mexico — Shots rang out behind one of Acapulco’s Walmarts and not far from my hotel. They were strangely muted thuds on a hot and rainy September night. Within minutes, the assailants were gone, the food truck parked nearby had closed in a hurry, and police officers were taping off the scene.
Another taxi driver dead.
“A lot of us have been killed recently,” says a rookie 19-year-old taxi driver we’ll call Rigoberto, since he’s too scared to have his real name published. “We’re afraid. If they ask us for money, what happens if we don’t have it?”
Roughly 20 taxi drivers have been killed this year in Acapulco, a number based on local media. It could be more. There is no comprehensive means of tracking the deaths, and the local taxi union did not respond to a request for comment.
There are several types of taxis in Acapulco. Gonzalez drives one of the many blue 1970s Volkswagen Beetles that rattle up and down Avenue La Costera Miguel Alemán, the strip next to the breathtaking beaches of Santa Lucía Bay that made this one of Mexico’s most famous resorts in decades past.
These taxis are commonly referred to as “tortugas,” Spanish for turtle, and they show their age. Sometimes water from the street splashes up through the floorboard, often the door handle on the outside does not work, so the driver has to open from the inside, and air conditioning is a distant dream. A ride usually costs 40 pesos, or a little more than $2.
But it was a driver of a white taxi, slightly more modern (perhaps from the late 1980s), and slightly more expensive, who was gunned down behind the Walmart.
From Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, in fact, three drivers were killed and four left injured after attacks near Avenue La Costera Miguel Alemán.
What’s the motive? The attorney general of Guerrero state, Javier Olea Peláez, has attributed the high number of these attacks against taxi drivers to two somewhat contradictory causes.
At the beginning of September, Olea said it was because the drivers refused to pay extortionists—no affiliation named—and were targeted.
Extortion is the “root of the problem,” the attorney general said then. The “taxi drivers have been systematically refusing to pay and we’ve already detained a group of extortionists,” he told the Mexican news site Milenio.
Back in July, however, the story was different. Olea said drivers were targeted because they were delivering drugs for the cartels and giving information to hitmen concerning their targets’ locations and movements.
“That’s the problem,” Gonzalez reportedly said in July. “Maybe there are some taxistas working with organized crime, but when a taxi stop is attacked, they hurt people who aren’t involved. You can’t trust anyone. You can’t trust the police, either.”
In 2015, Guerrero was the most violent of Mexico’s 32 federal entities for the third year in a row with a murder rate of 57 per 100,000 residents, the U.S. State Department says.
Indeed, in April the State Department prohibited U.S. government employees from traveling to Acapulco at all.
The response of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government has been a “kingpin” strategy similar to that which took down the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels in Colombia, according to a 2013 report prepared for the U.S. Congress (PDF).
But the strategy to capture or kill high-t0-mid-level cartel bosses hasn’t been so successful in Mexico, the report claims.
Taking cartel bosses out of the game has spawned equally violent but less organized splinter groups. This “has created more instability and, at least in the near term, more violence,” says the report, which estimates kidnappings in Mexico increased by 188 percent from 2007 to 2012, armed robbery by 47 percent, and extortion by 101 percent.
The same pattern holds true today, and what we’ve seen is that the ruthless and often crazy violence of the cartels has reached down into every aspect of life and every corner of society. You can be far from any involvement with the drug lords or lordlings, and suddenly discover your taxi driver is their target.
The Daily Beast reported in March on how cartel violence had spilled over into the tourist areas of Acapulco. The article said that the “violence that has for years plagued the favela-like neighborhoods on the city’s periphery has reached at last the tourist beaches downtown.”
The newly developed penchant for attacking taxi drivers, who transport tourists, in tourist areas, could be seen as proof that the cartels have completely forgotten the former line between tourists and locals.
As a result, law enforcement has ramped up a years-long crackdown.
Highly militarized police are visible throughout Acapulco. On Avenue San Miguel Alemán, soldiers decked out in full camo with huge assault rifles are constantly on patrol. Checkpoints sit at roundabouts throughout the avenue, reminiscent of those manned by occupation forces in the Middle East.
According to researchers from the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a broad coalition that aims to support democracy and human rights across the globe, this may not be a good thing.
An OSF report entitled “Broken Justice in Mexico’s Guerrero State” found that both federal and state actors operate without accountability (PDF).
The most shocking example of police malfeasance, which made international headlines, was the 2014 disappearance and murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College who had commandeered buses to attend a demonstration in Iguala.
“According to federal authorities, members of the Guerrero Unidos drug gang allegedly slaughtered the students, who were delivered to them by the police, or according to other indications, state actors themselves disappeared the students,” the report says.
Eric Witte, one of the OSF researchers who worked on the “Broken Justice” report, told The Daily Beast that the situation is “bleak for Guerrero right now. It’s also difficult for citizens to turn to the federal level.”
The IAHCR’s 606-page report concluded that Mexico’s government sabotaged its own investigation into the mass disappearance and even suggested that federal authorities and the cartels worked together.
Witte concurred. He said there are clear cases of co-perpetration that “go unsolved. They’re left to fester.”
In some respects, the U.S. government must share the blame. Under what’s called the Mérida Initiative, since 2008 Mexico has received over $2 billion in aid to fight the drug war. Much of this was used to arm police and military forces—who then play a part in the abuses.
In 2015, the State Department cut off 15 percent of that year’s aid, about $5 million, contingent on human rights improvements, the Los Angeles Times reported. This year, that amount was reinstated.
Witte said the aid was restored “even though there is widespread abuse of human rights that even count as crimes against humanity… The U.S. has a long and unfortunate history of encouraging Mexico to adopt counterproductive measures.”
The situation has deteriorated so much that the OSF researcher doesn’t believe the answers can currently be found in Mexico. “For citizens who want justice for any of these crimes, we think the answer is the temporary involvement of international investigators and prosecutors,” Witte concluded.
Rigoberto, the teenage taxista, said he will continue driving. “It’s a reality here—it’s dangerous. What other choice do I have? I haven’t been extorted… yet.”