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From glamour to gunfire: the tourist city of Acapulco torn apart by violence

Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

by Nathaniel Parish Flannery in Acapulco
When mayor Evodio Velázquez’s sparkling white Jeep Cherokee SUV pulls up at the side of the road, patrols of soldiers and heavily armed federal police are waiting for him. Velázquez’s “tourist police”, a special unit of young female officers who wear light blue uniforms, stand in a small cluster by the kerb.

Nominally law enforcement agents, these young women are really part of Velázquez’s broader marketing effort for the city of Acapulco – to add some friendly faces as the first point of contact between visitors revelling on this famous Mexican resort’s golden beaches, and the security forces struggling to keep the city safe.

Mid-morning, the sun is rising over the glittering bay but the beaches are mostly empty. Machine-gun carrying police officers – veterans of a decade-long conflict with sophisticated organised crime groups and myriad splinter groups of local street gangs – stand on the perimeter, just out of view of the crowd of photographers who have assembled to document the mayor’s press conference.
Acapulco’s tourist police.
The night before, gunmen with pistols stormed on to a patio on Playa Angosta, one of the city’s most picturesque beaches, murdering two men. Hours earlier, an assassin had walked into a city government office and brazenly killed one of Velázquez’s senior officials. In both cases, the assailants escaped before the police arrived.

Throughout the year, gangsters have been dumping bodies in public places and leaving messages threatening Velázquez’s administration. 

During the first six months of 2016 alone, 461 people were killed in Acapulco, including a long list of taxi drivers, small business owners and security personnel. The Pacific coast resort is again heading for the unwanted accolade of Mexico’s most violent city in 2016, a title it has received every year since 2012.

But the mayor is undeterred. With his gelled black hair and crisp short-sleeved dress shirt – unstained by sweat despite the oppressive heat – Velázquez narrows his gaze and addresses the reporters: “My government is working to stop crime. I’ll keep working. Acapulco is a city with complications – it has to be accepted. But today we’re at over 90% hotel occupancy. People love Acapulco.”

A reporter yells out: “Has the protective barrier around the tourism zone failed?”

“I think we have to reinforce it,” Velázquez says. “We have to review and strengthen it.”

“Will there be an effect from the Playa Angosta incident?”

“The port is still an option for tourists,” the mayor replies. “We won’t take a step backwards. We’ll keep going.”

As the photographers crowd together, Velázquez joins the squad of tourist police handing out green coconuts to the visitors arriving on the avenue. “Welcome to Acapulco,” he says warmly.

The 38-year-old politician from the leftist PRD party is respected as a local leader who thinks deeply about public policy and isn’t afraid to get out in the streets and talk to his city’s residents. He’s working to improve Acapulco, but it often seems like he faces impossible odds.

The state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located, is considered one of the least developed, poorest and most problematic states in Mexico. Seven out of every 10 of the state’s 3.4 million residents eke out a living in the informal economy, in precarious self-employed jobs that don’t provide benefits. 

Around two-thirds of the state’s population lives in poverty.

Guerrero gained international attention after the disappearance – and alleged murder – of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in 2014, but has continued to struggle through a constant barrage of unrelated but similarly terrifying incidents over the subsequent years. Mexico’s federal government has sent in trucks full of police and soldiers to patrol the beach, and maintains the narrative that the generalised violence in the mountain towns away from the coast doesn’t affect tourism along the beach front. In 2016, however, that fiction has started to unravel.

Although it remains true that most gangs in the area focus on retail drug distribution and extorting small businesses, on multiple occasions throughout the year gunmen shot and killed people in front of visitors on popular beaches.

On 25 April, for example, heavily armed gunmen attacked a group of federal police staying at the Alba Suites hotel, starting a prolonged shoot-out while terrified visitors fled for cover. On 29 October, two soldiers were kidnapped by a group of armed criminals inside a busy market in downtown Acapulco; their cadavers were discovered two days later. From 29 to 31 November, during one particularly violent weekend, 13 people were killed across the city.

Together with the press and police, the mayor makes his way down the main stretch of coastal highway, stopping to greet patrons at the beachfront restaurants. “We’re happy to see you,” he gushes. 

Then he pulls in a group of smiling waiters: “Great guys, thanks,” he beams, shaking their hands.

“The perceptions are there – but what I’ve learned in politics is to keep going forward,” Velázquez tells me.

As the entourage moves onward, a middle-aged woman who works as a promoter for a local hotel stops and addresses him. “Give it your all – it depends on you,” she pleads. “And we depend on tourism.”

A fall from fame

Perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, the pastel pink Los Flamingos is one of Acapulco’s oldest and best-known establishments. The hotel’s 82-year-old manager was a friend and protege of the actor John Wayne, one of the hotel’s original owners.

In the 1950s and 60s, Acapulco emerged as a hidden escape for A-list celebrities from California. Over subsequent decades, it transformed from a sleepy beach town to a sprawling city with a population of around two million. But Los Flamingos remains a time capsule to an earlier era.

Christian Hernandez, a big-bellied 34-year-old tourist visiting from Estado de Mexico on the outskirts of Mexico City, lounges with his family by the hotel’s pool. He has been coming to Acapulco since he was a child.

“Normally I come three times a year,” he explains. Over the course of his life, Hernandez has seen the beach town evolve. “Acapulco changed. It was a pueblo and now it’s become like Mexico City,” he says. “But you wake up and you still have this view of the sea – it’s paradise.”

Hernandez has brought eight members of his family with him, including his primary school-age children. The unit of soldiers who camp out in the hotel’s garden and stand guard next to the front gate don’t unnerve him; he says he has come to see Mexico’s ongoing security problems as just another part of the scenery. “There are a lot of police,” he shrugs.

recently ranked Mexico as the world’s third-highest country for crime, behind only Afghanistan and Guatemala. “All over the place it’s the same in this country. Everywhere there’s organised crime,” he says.

Hotels such as Los Flamingos have their own clusters of loyal clients, but they still rely on the general flow of tourism into Acapulco. Collectively, hotels here are depending on the mayor to rebuild the city’s image.

“Acapulco is a city with one million residents and a population of two million during vacation periods. Eighty percent of the population lives from tourism,” the mayor points out. “They work in different professions: cab drivers, tourist services, stores, restaurant owners, nightclub operators … People work in fishing; [there are] farms that supply the restaurants.”
The veteran holidaymakers from the generation of American visitors who first started visiting Acapulco in the 1950s and 60s remember a beach village scratched out of dense foliage along the flat expanse of sand. Now the houses are tightly packed in a haphazard agglomeration of improvised constructions that stretch close to the top of the adjacent mountain ridge. These residential areas have spilled over the hilltops into new, lower-income barrios such as Renacimiento – places that are far from the sea and marked by serious security problems.

Since he came into office in mid-2015, Velázquez has seen Mexico’s federal government focus on dismantling the large trafficking groups that historically operated in Acapulco. The federal police and army have had success in taking out a number of cartel kingpins, but residents regard the new dynamic of gangs and splinter groups as just as dangerous.

Ten years ago, they shared stories and rumours of well-dressed hitmen from out of state driving luxury SUVs and carrying out well-orchestrated, military-style attacks. The players have changed but the threat level remains largely the same: in Renacimiento, residents see young gangsters selling drugs on street corners, and all too frequently hear about teenage gunmen carrying out hits.

“If tourism works then the economy flourishes and the government has resources for managing public policies, for building infrastructure,” he says. “We’re renovating, rebuilding facades and painting historic residential neighbourhoods.”

One of his major projects is the completion of a new bus rapid transit system, which should vastly improve the city’s public transportation network. Another initiative involves painting low-income housing developments with brightly coloured murals.

On a micro scale, Velázquez can work to generate loyalty with visitors by greeting tourists and handing out coconuts, but winning back foreign visitors who book vacations online will require a more expansive, holistic approach.

The mayor, though, is confident that Acapulco’s prospects are improving. Last year its hotels reported 90% occupancy for the December holiday season, and he is sure that 2016 will end with a steady stream of arrivals and a mix of Mexican and foreign tourists celebrating the New Year in Acapulco.

“Acapulco is recovering its tourism,” Velázquez vows. “Little by little, we’re getting out of it.”

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