ACAPULCO: AGING PACIFIC QUEEN STILL HAS HER CHARMS
WITH VIOLENCE FALLING, ACAPULCO OFFERS TRAVELERS MORE FOR THEIR MONEY
James J. Horn, Ph.d., Acapulco Gro., Mexico December 13, 2012
An edited version of this post appeared in THE NEWS (Mexico City), December 13, 2012.
N.B. This article has been updated to reflect publicity on violence in the port.
In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra crooned “come fly with me. . .down to Acapulco bay, ” and jet-setters, honeymooners, middle-class tourists, and Hollywood stars like Tarzan, John Wayne, and Elvis Presley took flight to the spectacular bay on Mexico’s Pacific coast. But now the glamorous beach resort has fallen on hard times. Last week the mayor, Luis Walton Aburto, declared that his port city is bankrupt, blamed the financial disaster on his predecessor, Manuel Añorve, and begged the federal congress to bail out the city’s finances. One of the federal deputies who would vote on the bail-out is former mayor Añorve, vice-coordinator in the PRI delegation, while Mayor Walton is a member of an opposition leftist party. (Reforma & CNN Mexico online, Nov. 13, 2012). While the cry for crisis intervention may have come as a surprise, the affliction has been a long time festering.
By the early 1990s Cancun and the Riviera Maya had superceded Acapulco many times over in tourist arrivals. Some three-quarters of all foreign travelers to Mexico prefer the Cancun-Riviera Maya destinations. Still, Acapuclo, the aging queen stayed attractive to Mexican nationals. With Mexico City’s metropolitan area teeming with over 25 million inhabitants within a four hour drive of the beach, weekends and holidays kept the port city’s hotels above 50 percent occupancy most months of the year. Several other large urban areas are within an easy drive of the port including Toluca, capital of the State of Mexico, Cuernavaca, capital of Morelos, and Chilpancingo, capital of Guerrero.
Alas, in the last few years drug-related violence and the resultant bad publicity have dealt a devastating blow to the city’s tourist-dependent economy. According to Reforma, (Nov. 1, 2012) hotel occupancy has plummeted to under 43 percent, all but a few cruise ships have ceased docking, and air passenger arrivals have plunged to a quarter of what they were in 2008. The Chamber of Commerce reports over 2000 businesses closed this year alone, and the public market has lost 50 percent of its stall merchants. Some of the closures are due to declining tourism but many are the result of extortion demands by the five major drug cartels and as many as 17 smaller criminal gangs battling for control of the lucrative drug trade.
Mexico’s enormous Pacific coast has long been the landfall for drug shipments from Central and South America, and Acapulco is situated ideally to move those shipments north on the coastal highway or on the three-hour autopista (super highway) to Mexico City and points beyond. Control of the plaza or drug business in the port city and its environs was dominated by Arturo Beltrán Leyva whose death at the hands of Mexican marines in December 2009 caused a fragmentation of his cartel and competition from four other narco families who moved in to stake their claims to the rich market. The result has been a bloody wave of violence that has taken the lives of hundreds of rival sicarios (hitmen) and some innocent bystanders.
Daily at least three cadavers are dumped on city streets, decapitated, dismembered, burned, maimed, accompanied by a sign boasting the name of executing group and warning rivals of what is in store for them. On January 8, 2012, the most violent day, Excelsior reported 25 deaths. In May the casualty count for the month was 195 cadavers. Acapulco has become the second most violent city in Mexico after Juárez.
The surge in violence and cries for help from outraged citizens and merchants caused the federal government to launch Operativo Guerrero Seguro in October 2011. Operation Safe Guerrero sent hundreds of federal police and army troops to assist local and state authorities resulting in a sharp drop in murders, but not an end to the violence. The Federal Police announced a reinforcement of the Operation on November 23 (El Sol de Acapulco) including 400 more officers, more army troops, two Black Hawk-type helicopters, investigative and tactical groups, and technical assistance. Plastic bags with body parts still appear over night on highways and local streets. Police pressure may have cut some drug trafficking but many criminal bands have branched out into kidnapping and extortion. Market vendors report being pressed to pay monthly fees to extortionists, and even taxi and bus drivers are being murdered for not paying up. Several schools are currently closed because threatened teachers are afraid to show up for work.
Low police salaries and corruption in the ranks impede suppression of minor crimes and street gangs, much less the operations of well-financed cartels. According to El Universal (August 1, 2012) municipal police salaries in the port are among the lowest in the nation at 8,210 pesos monthly, about 640 dollars at the current rate of exchange. Mayor Walton has announced he will fire 500 police officers from a total staff of 1700 for failing to pass the examen de confianza, an investigation of drug use, ties to drug lords, taking bribes, or other forms of corruption. (Associated Press, Nov. 1, 2012)
It’s hard to know if the hundreds of commercial closures are due to low sales volume or extorsion threats, but the metal shutters are down on scores of businesses along the Costera Alemán, the beach-front hotel strip. Restaurants, bars, discos, dance clubs, and even convenience stores are closed or display for- sale or for-rent signs. Many others open only Thursday through Sunday. Small, family-oriented restaurants are likely to survive on weekends thanks to the slower but steady tourism from Mexico City and other urban centers in the Central Valley. But more elegant restaurants aimed at international tourists are struggling. Gone are Le Bistroquet, Linda Vista, Pompano (formerly Madeiras), and Coyuca 22. Even KFC on the Costera is an empty shell.
Needless to say, the local economy has been impacted severely. Reforma reports (Oct. 31, 2012) real-estate sales have plunged and many agencies have stopped paying dues to their promotional groups. Even in the ritzy and safer Diamante zone, housing values have fallen 50 percent but still there are no buyers. The Chamber of Commerce is begging the State and Federal governments for a solution to the crisis. Now add the most recent announcement by the mayor of Acapulco, saying the city will run out of funds when it has to pay the annual aguinaldo or mandatory Christmas bonus to city employees. (El Sol de Acapulco, Oct.30, 2012) Both the federal and state governments are expected to provide loans soon.
The alarming publicity no doubt deters the thousands of North American tourists and retirees who used to winter in the port. Whole square blocks near the Costera formerly hosted hundreds of French Canadians and restaurants and hotels displayed welcoming signs in French. CBC News Online (Jan. 6, 2012) lists Acapulco as “not safe,” and local gossip has it that the Canadians have moved to Puerto Vallarta. But such alarmist views should not deter those seeking an inexpensive beach vacation this winter. It is important to note that tourists have not been the targets nor the victims of the drug wars. So far in 2012 no reports have appeared on violence against American tourists in Acapulco and the annual spring break was uneventful.
Lonelyplanet.com reported (April 30, 2012) that 120 U.S. citizens died in all of Mexico in 2011 out of 5.7 million visitors, for a rate of 2.1 deaths per 100,000 compared to a rate of 7.5 in Orlando and 4.8 for the U.S. as a whole in 2010. Most of the violence has been in border areas and 80 percent of the country has not been plagued by the drug wars. The Yucatan peninsula is safer than Canada. (The Economist, Aug. 27, 2010)
The U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory does not call on Americans to defer non-essential travel to Acapulco but to “…exercise caution and stay within tourist areas.” The last travel warning (Feb. 8, 2012) notes that “Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year….” (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5665.html) Widespread press reports note a surge in murders in Chicago, but that should not deter tourism there. Smart travelers know to stay in tourist areas and to avoid danger zones.
Real bargains abound as hotel rates are down by 30 percent. Numerous hotels offer all-inclusive bargain packages and travelers need not stray from these secure properties. The U.S. dollar goes farther than in many countries with recent internet-quoted rates varying from 12.8 to 13 pesos to the dollar, 20 percent higher than in 2010. Pacific-coast weather in the winter months is almost guaranteed sunshine with temperatures in the 80s and 90s Farenheit. Despite the bad publicity, tourists seeking winter travel bargains can safely give Acapulco a closer look.
UPDATED REPORT ON VIOLENCE: After posting this article, in February six Spanish women, residents of Mexico City, were raped by a group of thugs. The incident created world-wide bad publicity for the port. But these women rented a beach house far outside the port in an area where no police agency is assigned to patrol. Local gossip has it that they bought drugs from their assailants, but that has not been confirmed in the press. All assailants have been arrested and are in jail.
A wealthy busninessman from Mexico City was murdered during an apparent robbery as he sat in a luxury vehicle in a plaza parking lot in February. I do not have figures to substantiate this claim, but I would guess more tourists have been killed in Miami than in Acapulco.
The recent incidents have prompted the U.S. State Department to modify its travel advisory for the port, issued March 27, 2013.
In Acapulco, the Embassy suggests
that U.S. citizens defer non-essential travel to areas further than two blocks
inland of the Costera Miguel Aleman Boulevard, which runs parallel to popular
beach areas. Lodging should be limited to the “Hotel Zone” of Acapulco,
beginning from the Hotel Avalon Excalibur Acapulco in the north and going south
through Puerto Marquez including the Playa Diamante area. In general, the Playa
Diamante area, just south of Acapulco Bay, has been less affected by violence
and criminal activity. Any activity outside the Hotel Zone should be limited to
the coastal area from La Quebrada to the beginning of the Hotel Zone and only
during daylight hours. Flying to/from Acapulco is the preferred method of
travel. If traveling by automobile, U.S. citizens should exercise caution and
limit travel to the Highway 95D toll road, staying on the toll road towards the
Playa Diamante area and avoiding the highway running through the city of
James Horn is Associate Professor of History Emeritus at the State University of New York (SUNY) College at Brockport. During vacations and after retiring from academia, he organized and guided over 100 tour groups in Mexico. From his home in Cuernavaca he drives to Acapulco six to eight times a year. He blogs at jimhornnews.wordpress.com