Mexico's surging narco violence is intensifying at the edges of one of its biggest tourist hotspots

  • 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.

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Scenes of the violence devastating Mexico
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Scenes of the violence devastating Mexico
TOPSHOT - A grandson of Mexican journalist Carlos Dominguez Rodriguez -murdered on January 13 in the state of Tamaulipas- mourns over his coffin during the funeral at the cemetery in the community of Nuxco in the municipality of Tecpan de Galeana, Guerrero state, Mexico on January 17, 2018. Dominguez, who became the first journalist killed in Mexico in 2018, had been working in the local newspaper 'Diario de Nuevo Laredo' until a couple of months ago. Mexico is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism, with more than 200 journalists killed since 2000. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO ROBLES (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO ROBLES/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of Mexican journalist Carlos Dominguez Rodriguez -murdered on January 13 in the state of Tamaulipas- carry his coffin upon arrival at the cemetery in the community of Nuxco in the municipality of Tecpan de Galeana, Guerrero state, Mexico on January 17, 2018. Dominguez, who became the first journalist killed in Mexico in 2018, had been working in the local newspaper 'Diario de Nuevo Laredo' until a couple of months ago. Mexico is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism, with more than 200 journalists killed since 2000. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO ROBLES (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO ROBLES/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUALS COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Forensic technicians work at a crime scene where three men were gunned down by unknown assailants, according to local media, in the municipality of Tlaquepaque, on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Fernando Carranza TEMPLATE OUT
Money packages are detected by Mexican Navy Gamma-ray equipment in a passenger bus at a checkpoint on the road between Reynosa and San Fernando, in Tamaulipas state, in this undated handout photo released by SEMAR Mexico's Navy on January 9, 2018. SEMAR Mexico's Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
A forensic technician stands next to her vehicle as policemen work at a crime scene where unknown assailants gunned down people at a garage in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Relatives stand next to the coffin of slain lawmaker Saul Galindo of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) during a mass in Guadalajara, Mexico December 29, 2017. REUTERS/Fernando Carranza
Relatives of slain persons react at a crime scene where their loved ones were gunned down by unknown assailants at a garage in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Relatives hold posters with images of some of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa College Raul Isidro Burgos students during a march to mark the 38th month since their disappearance in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City, Mexico November 26, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero
State policemen patrol near a tire shop, which according to local media is the crime scene of a quadruple homicide, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, December 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Relatives of a victim react outside a tire shop, which according to local media is the crime scene of a quadruple homicide, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, December 6, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
Relatives of missing women react next to wooden crosses at El Navajo creek, where the bodies of several women were found, during a ceremony to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Praxedis G. Guerrero, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, November 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
People react near at a crime scene where a man lies dead after being killed by unknown assailants outside a building in Chilpancingo, Guerrero state, Mexico November 15, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero
Guerrero policemen are seen during the arrest of a member of the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC) after a series of clashes that left at least 11 people dead at La Concepcion village, Acapulco municipality, in Guerrero state, Mexico, on January 7, 2018. At least 11 people were killed and 30 arrested during armed clashes among civilians, community guards and police in a rural area of Acapulco, in southern Mexico, the Guerrero government confirmed. / AFP PHOTO / FRANCISCO ROBLES (Photo credit should read FRANCISCO ROBLES/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of police forces and investigators guard a crime scene where six people were machine-gunned by unknown men at a business in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state on December 6, 2017. Since 2006, the wave of violence linked to drug trafficking has left more than 196,000 dead and 30,000 missing in Mexico, according to official figures that do not specify how many of these victims are related to organized crime. / AFP PHOTO / HERIKA MARTINEZ (Photo credit should read HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers stand guard as they carry out inspections at a checkpoint after 13 people were killed in battles between rival gangs in two states in central and western Mexico, in Uruapan, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Alan Ortega
Mirna Medina, founder of "Rastreadoras de El Fuerte" a group that searches for missing persons, excavates with other members at a site where they found the skeletal remains of her son Roberto Corrales Medina, in Ocolome village, El Fuerte, Sinaloa state, Mexico, August 26, 2017. The remains of Corrales were discovered by "Rastreadoras de El Fuerte" on July 14, 2017 and delivered to forensic authorities which confirmed the identity this weekend, according to local media. Picture taken August 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jesus Bustamante
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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 license while they investigate.

The origins of the explosives and the motive behind them remains unclear. While the involvement of organized 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.

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In 2015, Benito Juarez had 132 homicide cases, which can contain more than one victim. (Forensic officials said there 227 organized-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.

2017 had a violent start, with a mid-January shooting at a Playa del Carmen nightclub leaving several people dead, followed hours later by a deadly attack on a state prosecutor's office in Cancun.

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 organized 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 recognize 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.

"Organized 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.

Nevertheless, vigilantes have appeared, condemning state authorities and calling for a crackdown on criminals.

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 organized crime."

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