Mexican Drug Violence Spreading to Tourist Areas

Mexican drug violence has become so widespread and blatant that the nation’s President Felipe Calderon has announced he is hiring “the best (public relations) agencies in the world” to try to brighten up the nation’s business and tourism image. The week before his announcement, 160 people died in drug-related killings—many of those in two of Mexico’s major tourism areas, Taxco and Cancun. Think well before booking a vacation in Mexico this winter season.

The violence is no longer restricted to northern border cities such a Ciudad Juarez. It is spreading throughout the country, something Mexico doesn’t need after just starting to recover from its disastrous H1N1 tourism drop-off in 2009.

Shootouts between federal police officers and drug cartel thugs killed 15 suspects in the tourist mecca of Taxco this month (June 2010). Taxco, halfway between Mexico City and Acapulco, has long been a favoured tourist destination for Americans, Canadians, and Europeans attracted by its world-famous colonial architecture, silver shops, and temperate climate. But in June of this year, 15 drug trafficking suspects were killed in a shootout with federal police in Taxco, just weeks after police found 55 bodies dumped in an abandoned Taxco silver mine—suspected victims of the drug cartels.

Meanwhile, 12 decomposing bodies were found in four caves in Cancun, victims of the drug cartel wars. Just before this grisly find, six other bodies, three of them with their hearts cut out, were found in another cave in the same area. Cancun, a major drug trans-shipment area, has also been wracked by top-level government corruption. In 2009, Cancun’s police chief was arrested for conspiring to shield drug gang leaders, and just last month the city’s mayor was arrested on drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime charges.

On the Pacific coast, Acapulco and the state in which it is located, Guerrero, has become a battleground between rival drug cartels, with drug violence on the main highways and streets killing innocent bystanders in the crossfire. Hotel and travel service groups in the city are routinely cautioning their foreign guests to be careful where they go, to watch their surroundings, and preferably to stay close to their hotels.

According to the government’s own figures, at least 22,700 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence.

To help stem the $10-billion-a-year cash flow into drug trafficking, the government recently announced new currency restrictions. From now on, tourists and Mexicans without bank accounts will be limited to exchanging a maximum of $1,500 (US) for pesos each month.

To date, according to tourism officials and foreign travel agencies, little of this violence has affected individual tourists. That’s not quite true. Though few tourists or expats have been killed so far in these drug wars, restrictions on where tourists should go, and what locations they should avoid outside of their own hotel compounds, are becoming more commonplace. Even Mexico’s tourism defenders don’t deny that until the drug wars are suppressed—which seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future—things will get worse before they get better.

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