Overrun by narcos, once-posh Acapulco is in agony

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2010 

ACAPULCO, Mexico — Rival criminal gangs have hijacked this glitzy-but-faded Pacific resort, where the Hollywood Rat Pack once sipped martinis, Elvis filmed a musical comedy, Elizabeth Taylor wed (again) and starlets danced the night away.

Acapulco's newest arrivals are drug lords, and residents now cower from shootouts and keep a watch out for severed heads. Some visitors to the city simply vanish. Gunmen seized 20 Mexican men in broad daylight on Sept. 30. They haven't been seen since.

Occupancy rates have plummeted along the ghostly boulevard of beachfront hotels. Restaurants sit empty — or shuttered up.

The mayhem hasn't dulled the beauty of Acapulco, set on a semicircular bay flanked by mountains alive with bougainvillea, a stunning backdrop that made it the nation's oldest and best-known resort, "the pearl of the Pacific."

Violence has cast a dark cloud on many of the city's 800,000 residents, however.

"Everybody seems to be armed," said Areli Garcia Santana, a 22-year-old orthodontics student. "There are gunfights all over."

Even residents accustomed to the growing violence are spooked.

"Acapulco is on its back. People see the security situation as very bad. After 10 at night, there's fear," said Victor Diaz Juarez, a social scientist at the National Autonomous University of Guerrero.

During winter months, cruise ships still call in Acapulco, arriving from San Francisco and beyond. In recent years, Acapulco has revived in March as a favored spring-break destination. At other times of the year, though, foreign tourists keep their distance, wary of the deteriorating public safety.

Rather than blame drug-related violence for Acapulco's woes, hotel owners frequently accuse the media and citizenry of failing to protect the port's image, even denying that security is a problem.

"Why satanize a destination like Acapulco, where we live exclusively from tourism?" asked Javier Saldivar, the head of the National Chamber of Commerce in Acapulco.

"If you walk along the Miguel Aleman Coastline (Boulevard) or along the beach, there are plenty of law enforcement officers."

Diaz, the university professor, said the presence of police only obscured the deepening corruption in Acapulco's social fabric. Many of the cops are on the take from the cartels, he said.

"You see a lot of police cruisers pass along, designed so that tourists don't get scared, but the truth is there is no control," Diaz said.

At least three narcotics bands dispute power over Acapulco's strategic port: remnants of the Beltran Leyva cartel, Los Zetas and the Familia Michoacana.

In a brazen broad-daylight shootout on April 14, gunmen killed six people and wounded five others along the landscaped main boulevard in the tourist district, shattering hotel windows and triggering a chain of auto accidents with the blaze of automatic weapons fire. Among the victims were a woman and her 8-year-old daughter, the apparent targets.

Drug gang henchmen frequently use police or military uniforms, heightening a sense of insecurity. On Sept. 25, drug enforcers dressed in camouflage uniforms typical of marines threw grenades at a safe house that belonged to a rival group, then entered and executed seven men.

The same week, henchmen killed two nephews of the deputy city transit director, severing their heads and displaying them on a street. A sign accused the city official of being in the pocket of the Beltran Leyva cartel.

It was the daylight abduction, though, of a group of 20 men near a church on Sept. 30 that truly laid bare some of the crosscurrents of violence that rack the city.

The men, ranging in age from 17 to 47, were from the state of Michoacan, where drug lords' influence is vast. Many locals dismissed the vehement claims of family members that the victims were tourists, suggesting instead that they were hit men deployed for the battles raging in the city. The underlying message: Good riddance.

"Acapulco society does not believe that they were tourists," Saldivar said.

While it may offer consolation that tourists aren't vanishing, the arrival of vehicles filled with cartel hit men can't help Acapulco burnish a faded image as the former glamour resort of Mexico.

It takes only a stroll around the walkways and lobbies of hotels such as Los Flamingos and Villa Vera to discern how far Acapulco has fallen.

If the sweet bungalows of the Villa Vera could whisper their secrets, Frank Sinatra probably would be singing in the background. After all, it was here that The Voice romanced Ava Gardner. Regular visitors included Gina Lollobrigida, Rita Hayworth and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, who gazed into the eyes of producer Mike Todd, making him the third of her eight marital conquests.

John F. Kennedy brought Jacqueline to honeymoon in Acapulco in 1953, landing in a villa with a panoramic oceanfront view.

These days, the villa sits on the market with no takers. Asking price: $950,000. The owner, who lives in Florida, gave a hint of why he left the city.

"The biggest problem for me is that they were kidnapping people for any sum of money. It could be $2,000 or it could be millions. And they never make any arrests," he said, asking that his name not be used out of fears for his safety.

Around a bluff from which famous cliff divers plunge into the Pacific, Adolfo Santiago, the general manager of Los Flamingos Hotel, stood on the verandah, surveying the empty parking lot. Behind him, photos of Hollywood stars, including former owners Johnny Weissmuller and John Wayne, covered the walls. A ghostly quiet pervaded the hallways, restaurant and bar.

Asked how many, if any, guests were at the hotel, Santiago said: "Very few."

Such hotels once were packed, getaways for Hollywood stars and millionaires who flocked to the city, some of them to make films such as the 1963 musical comedy "Fun in Acapulco," which starred Elvis Presley.

"Mexico became known through Acapulco," said Felix Avila Diaz, the subsecretary of tourism for the surrounding state of Guerrero. Newer planned resorts such as Cancun, Huatulco and Ixtapa lured tourists, however. "Acapulco fell asleep. We thought we didn't need promotion, and that tourists would just keep coming."

The resort found its salvation in the more than 20 million residents of Mexico City, many of them auto owners eager to make the four-hour drive to Acapulco on a highway built in the 1990s. A condo boom occurred. By 2007, Acapulco chalked up 22 million tourist visits, mostly Mexico City weekenders.

Then, however, an April 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 flu that originated in Mexico further bit into tourism, and drug violence got worse, including an hours-long shootout in Acapulco in June 2009 that left two soldiers and 16 gunmen dead.

Of the 10 million to 11 million tourist visits expected this year, some 90 percent are Mexicans, with most of the rest Canadian. It's hardly enough to fill the 25,000 rooms scattered among the city's 384 hotels.

"Acapulco collapses from flu, crisis and insecurity," a front-page headline in the national El Universal newspaper read last Friday.

A lawmaker who heads the tourism committee of the Chamber of Deputies, Carlos Manuel Joaquin, chided the federal tourism secretary at a hearing for playing down security concerns that affect tourism. When a journalist contacted him later, Joaquin took a different tone, however, suggesting that beheadings, shootouts and abductions in Acapulco didn't make it unsafe for tourists.

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