- High-profile incidents in Playa del Carmen in recent weeks have prompted new travel warnings from the US government.
- The incidents come amid spiraling violence on the peripheries of one of Mexico’s most popular tourist areas.
- Criminal groups in the area thrive on tourist traffic – and corruption, weak institutions, and social conditions have facilitated their activity.
The calm in Playa del Carmen was shattered on February 21, when a blast erupted from the side of a ferry, injuring more than 20 people.
That was followed by the March 2 discovery of explosives on a ferry off the island of Cozumel, another tourist hub in the state of Quintana Roo.
The March incident led to a US Embassy alert for the area. This week, after getting information about “a security threat” in the area, the embassy barred US government workers from travel to Playa del Carmen.
The ferries are owned by the same company – run by the father of a former governor who is currently jailed on corruption charges – and while the second ferry was out of service and moored hundreds of yards from Cozumel, Mexican authorities suspended the company’s licence while they investigate.
The origins of the explosives and the motive behind them remains unclear. While the involvement of organised crime doesn’t appear to be ruled out, the state’s attorney general said no group had been identified as having a role.
But crime around tourist hotspots in Quintana Roo has been rising for some time, driving concern that the narco violence plaguing much of Mexico over the past decade is intensifying in one of the country’s most popular areas.
The state saw a decline from 232 homicide victims in 2015 to 165 in 2016. But 2017 saw a 118% increase, to 359 homicide victims, according to data from the federal government. The state’s homicide rate rose from 10.19 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016 to 21.57 in 2017, just above the national average. The spike overwhelmed state forensic officials, who sent unidentified cadavers to a mass grave to reduce crowding in its morgue.
In Benito Juarez and Solidaridad municipalities, home to Cancun and Playa del Carmen, respectively, a similar trend has emerged.
In 2015, Benito Juarez had 132 homicide cases, which can contain more than one victim. (Forensic officials said there 227 organised-crime-related killings in Benito Juarez last year.) That fell to 86 in 2016, but rose to 250 in 2017. In Solidaridad, there were 20 homicides cases in 2015, 26 in 2016, and 49 in 2017.
Other crime statistics point to growing insecurity.
In Benito Juarez, there were 1,955 robberies of businesses in 2017 – more than triple the number in 2016 and a 54% increase over the total in 2015.
In Solidaridad, the 377 robberies of businesses in 2017 were more than twice the 2016 total and over one-third more than reported in 2015.
Disputes between criminal groups over territory, drug sales, and extortion rackets were the principal causes of the violence, according to a report seen by El Universal early last year.
The major players, according to the report, were the Zetas cartel and an independent group, known as the Cartel de Cancun, led by Leticia Rodriguez Lera, a former federal-police officer. (The Gulf cartel and the ascendant Jalisco New Generation cartel are also present in the state.)
The Cartel de Cancun was reportedly made up of several former judicial officials and ex-members of other criminal groups, like the Zetas and the Gulf cartel.
Her group, which infiltrated police forces and the state prosecutor’s office, controlled drug trafficking and other criminal activities in northern Quintana Roo and was looking to expand to Playa del Carmen. But the group had been stymied by leadership changes in the prosecutor’s office, which the Zetas were taking advantage of to regain lost territory, the report said.
She was captured in August in Puebla, in central Mexico. Federal police attributed a wave of violence in northern Quintana Roo to her arrest. “There has been an imbalance in organised crime,” the federal police commissioner said last year. “The cartels have been accommodating.”
That same month, the US listed Quintana Roo and Baja California Sur, home to the Los Cabos resort area, on a travel warning for the first time – as did other governments, including Canada, France, and the UK.
“The presence of such crime is due to the selling of drugs. It’s not on a grand scale, but it is still quite prominent,” Quintana Roo state prosecutor Miguel Angel Pech Cen told PBS late last year. “There are groups fighting over having power to sell drugs here.”
“Since tourists are the consumers, this also creates havoc,” he added. “The drug lords immediately recognise them as revenue generators.”
Quintana Roo state security chief Rodolfo del Angel Campos said in December that additional police units were dispatched to areas where crime was elevated, including tourist spots in Playa del Carmen and Cancun. In late February, he said security forces increased inspection and surveillance efforts to prevent the arrival of more criminal groups from other parts of the country – movement known as “the cockroach effect” – and that members of the military, federal police, and municipal police were coordinating to address insecurity.
“Organised criminal groups are present in Cancun, and they cause a lot of violence. It’s extremely important to protect the tourists, but we care about everyone’s safety,” the Benito Juarez police chief told CGTN America in February.
Tourists arrivals have continued, however, rising 9% in 2017. Visitors told CGTN America and PBS they never felt unsafe during their trips. But locals outside tourist areas said there was no respite from crime and corruption.
“Cancun has become a focal point for narco-trafficking, and all the violence that comes with it,” activist leader David Sanchez Reyes told TRT World in summer 2017. “Murders have been a daily occurrence in the past six months, and if you walk around … you will see many shops are shut due to the extortion of the gangsters.”
Extortion reports dropped between 2015 and 2016 but rose slightly in 2017. But “almost no one reports” extortion or extortion attempts, security analyst Alejandro Hope wrote in December 2016. And the burden of those payments forced some 100 businesses in Playa del Carmen to close in 2016, according to Hope.
“We’ve been robbed with pistols and with other larger guns, but they never catch them. Everyone here gets robbed, because there’s no security presence in Cancun,” Laura, an employee at a pharmacy outside of Cancun’s hotel zone, told CGTN America.
A former Cancun police officer told PBS that police in the city were compromised and that criminals and police leadership often worked together.
“We see homicides every day on the street, in broad daylight, kidnapping, assaults … This didn’t happen before,” he said. “The boss in charge of the operation will tell you directly to let someone go and ignore all evidence.”
“The police officers who don’t respond to the criminals’ demands are laid off,” he added. “The police make a deal with the criminals that ensures disobedient officers will be fired.”
Insecurity is likely exacerbated by social conditions.
Quintana Roo has a large concentration of young men with dim economic prospects and has seen large population growth – 5.9% in the 1990s and 4.1% in the 2000s, the highest growth rates in Mexico during those periods – and disordered urban expansion, Hope noted in early 2017.
Alejandro Schtulmann, a security analyst in Mexico, told PBS that the pace of tourism would probably continue, as violence remains below levels elsewhere in Mexico and is largely outside tourist areas. But that violence looks unlikely to abate.
Days after the explosives were discovered on the ferry near Cozumel, gunmen burst into a private hospital in Cancun, killing a patient, who was believed to be a local boss for the Gulf cartel, and his female companion.
The state security secretary, Rodolfo del Angel Campos, called the attack “a possible settling of accounts by members of organised crime.”