In 1967, the Mexican resort of Acapulco was shining in all its splendor and glory. Showered in fame and fortune, Acapulco was the playground of Hollywood stars and a must-shoot for Mexican filmmakers.
Enjoying a reputation as a peaceful but party-filled destination, the Pacific port became the model for an international tourism industry that gave millions of gringos their lasting impressions of Mexico, its people and its culture.
In a year long remembered for the Summer of Love and the cosmic words of the Beatles, Acapulco Gold, a then-potent strain of marijuana tilled in the Guerrero mountains, was gaining in brand acceptance both among the sun and fun-seeking turistas as well as an export item in the underground NAFTA economy that long preceded the official treaty.
Yet even in that brilliant year of a different age, trouble was brewing in Paradise. This month marked the 44th anniversary of the Acapulco Massacre, when gunmen mowed down dozens of people and injured scores of others at the behest of regional caciques, or strongman, who took over a coconut farmers’ headquarters and crushed a demonstration for direct producer control and better prices than middle-men marketers offered.
The repression against the 1,800-member cocolero organization, most of which was based in the nearby Costa Grande, was carried out with the connivance of the state government.
Jorge Luis Salas Perez, current president of the Commercial Union of Coconut Producers, recently told a Mexican reporter that 35 people, including women and children, were killed in the massacre and another 150 injured. Salas showed the journalist a picture of a child popsicle vendor struck down by bullets.
“They were shot from different positions,” Salas said.
The growers’ leader blamed then-Governor Raymundo Abarca Alarcon and cacique Rosendo Rios Rodriguez for the killings.
“Nobody was ever punished,” Salas said.
The Acapulco Massacre climaxed a high season of state repression directed against popular movements and their leaders in the state of Guerrero. Also in August 1967, the prominent Acapulco land squatter leader Alfredo “El Rey Lopitos” Lopez Cisneros was gunned down.
A few months earlier, in May 1967, police in the Costa Grande town of Atoyac de Alvarez had attacked a demonstration led by school teacher Lucio
Cabanas, killing and wounding several people.
Commanded by Cabanas and others, left-wing armed opposition groups surged in Guerrero after the doors to peaceful change were slammed shut. The Mexican government countered with the Dirty War, detaining and disappearing hundreds of people in Acapulco and Guerrero alone.
Unlike Argentina or even Guatemala, no one has been punished for the disappearances and presumed killings. An unfulfilled 2009 sentence from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) hangs over the Mexican government in the case of Rosendo Radilla Pacheco, a former mayor of Atoyac de Alvarez who was detained and disappeared by soldiers in 1974.
Julio Mata, executive secretary for the AFADEM human rights organization, charged this month that the Calderon administration was simulating compliance with the IACHR’s mandatory sentence and not bringing the guilty to justice.
“The search for Radilla Pacheco is the search for all the disappeared detainees, which in Guerrero amount to 650 people,” Mata said. “The (disappeared) are the constructors of the insipid democracy that millions of Mexicans enjoy, and which little by little they are trying to take from us.”
Instead of the rule of law and the implementation of justice, an unholy trinity of impunity, corruption and cut-throat capitalism became the institutional norms. Cocaine and crystal meth replaced coconuts and coffee as the commodities of value.
Bloated by migrants fleeing a withering countryside, Acapulco grew to a city of 789, 971 people, according to the 2010 Census. Of the nearly 800,000 residents, 29.5 percent are 15 years of age or less and face grim employment prospects and extremely limited higher education opportunities.
The love nest by the Bay of Santa Lucia transformed from a getaway of international jet-setters to an economically stressed city dependent on weekend and holiday visits by financially-challenged Mexican nationals.
Pollution and big-city problems drove legions of foreign tourists away, while more and more people scrambled for the crumbs of a stale tourist pie. No industries outside tourism emerged to pick up the economic slack, and fast money of all kinds became the only real game in town. A required study in tourism enterprise arguably became a textbook case of development disaster.
Whereas tourist books once spoke of Acapulco as a kind of “Mexico City on the Beach,” it is perhaps now more fitting to refer to the old crown jewel of global tourism as “Juarez on the Beach.”
Killings, kidnappings and extortions related to control of the internal drug market and other rackets have jumped this year, with about 782 people slaughtered as of August 28, according to different press accounts. In typical dirty war fashion, squads of commandos roam the streets picking off victims or snatching people who are either never seen alive again or recovered as body parts dumped for public viewing.
Taking into account Acapulco’s population, the level of violence is more or less equivalent to what was witnessed in Ciudad Juarez in 2008, when the so-called narco war escalated.
Guerrero State Attorney General Alberto Lopez Rosas celebrated the “blank slate” of the evening and morning of August 25-26, when no murders were tallied, but killers were back to work the afternoon of August 26. In one instance, they hanged a possibly still-live victim from a pedestrian bridge in full view of startled motorists and in broad daylight.
Some authorities have tried to downplay the bloodshed by claiming that violence is confined to the working-class neighborhoods safely removed from the main tourist areas, but numerous incidents have occurred in emblematic places heavily frequented by visitors-the once trendy Costa Azul district, the Grand Plaza, the statute of Diana the Huntress, in front of the open-air nightclubs on the Costera main drag, outside the CICI family-oriented water park, near the Hotel Princess, and behind the Hard Rock Café.
Money-grubbing taxi-drivers and snooty waiters might make visitors think twice about returning to a vacation spot, but there is nothing like the sound of flying bullets or the sight of headless bodies to drive tourists away for good.
Nowadays, Acapulco is close to the breaking point and could even lose the national tourism that has kept it going in recent years if current trends continue.
The city is undergoing the “worst moment in its history,” declared Mexican journalist Denise Maerker in a recent nationally-televised special.
“The ones who are promoting the violence are people who don’t know what they are doing,” said Gustavo Solis Sanchez, president of a member group of the Association of Tourism Professional, “because they are killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Not surprisingly, the just-concluded Mexican summer high season was among the worst-if not the worst-of recent memory, according to different tourism industry representatives in Acapulco.
Legendary discos that were once jammed with dancers stood virtually empty. Hotel occupancy averaged a sickly 60 percent according to a labor leader, with one old business, the Las Joyas Hotel, reporting a 20 percent occupancy rate. Fed up with a vicious cycle, the owners of the Hotel Bor closed for business last week.
“Seven people who made a living from this hotel are now not going to be able to have anything to live from, and the taxation department and Social Security are not going to receive their money either,” said Protacio Rodriguez, the hotel’s manager.
Last December, the landmark El Olvido restaurant, once the den of politicians who dined on rolled salmon and tuna filet with goat cheese sauce, closed down and went up for sale; no buyers have since stepped forward.
Rodrigo Ramirez Justo, secretary for Section 112 of the Mexican Workers Confederation, estimated that 8,000 jobs have been lost in the local hotel industry. Ramirez warned of a dire economic situation facing workers during the remainder of the year, and called for an emergency employment program.
Ramirez criticized governmental authorities for not stepping up to the plate in a moment of economic crisis. “We don’t see anything from the state, municipal or federal governments,” he asserted.
Repeatedly, military and law enforcement authorities-federal, state and municipal-have mounted joint security operations, declared the seal-off of the Costera from potential violence and assured would-be tourists they can expect a safe and sound vacation. A few spectacular arrests of alleged law-breakers have made headlines.
Still, crime and violence show no signs of declining anytime soon. A recent report in Proceso magazine gives a strong hint why authorities of all political persuasions have been unable to contain the criminal storm. Citing documents from the federal SIEDO anti-organized crime squad, the newsweekly detailed the testimonies of two purported informants, “Zajed” and “Nemesis.”
According to the two cited sources, the US-Mexican break-up of the old Beltran Leyva organized crime organization is at the heart of the much of the current violence.
Zajed, who reportedly worked as a pay-master for the Beltran Leyva group, recounted regular payments to political, military and police officials as part of an arrangement that kept the Beltran-Leyvas in control of Acapulco during 2008 and 2009.
The onetime money-man estimated that nearly $400,000 was netted every weekend just from the sale of illegal drugs in Acapulco.
At one point, the “plaza” deal also encompassed another tourist destination, Zihuatanejo, up the Costa Grande.
But things soured badly after big boss man Arturo Beltran-Leyva was shot to death by Mexican marines in December 2009, and a Texan successor, Edgar “La Barbie” Valdes Villareal, was arrested in August 2010. The Beltran-Leyva branch in Acapulco then formed the Independent Cartel of Acapulco (CIDA) but soon fractured into rival organizations, with a splinter group signing messages as “La Barredora.”
Among the identified leaders of the latter band is Cristian Hernandez Tarin, the son of Arturo “El Chucky” Hernandez, a former high-ranking hit man for the Juarez Cartel who is in prison.
Members of the competing groups have been killed or detained by Mexican authorities, but violence continues. In the middle of the organizational upheaval, other organizations including La Familia Michoacana, the Sinaloa Cartel of Chapo Guzman and the Zetas have renewed efforts to take Acapulco and Guerrero.
Representatives of civil society have attempted a few scattered protests against the violence, most notably a three-hour work stoppage by gasoline station owners this month, but no sustained response to the societal crisis has been forthcoming.
On September 10, poet Javier Sicilia and his national Movement for Peace and Dignity are expected to stop in Acapulco in a caravan headed for the state of Chiapas.
Recently, the comments of State Attorney General Lopez Rosas stirred controversy. After detailing the arrests of 10 alleged members of “La Barredora,” Lopez Rosas appealed on the warring gangs to call a truce.
“I would hope for a truce…nobody has a right to put at risk the tranquility of society,” Lopez Rosas said. “Nobody has a right to make their business prevail, much less when it is illegal, at the expense of a society that has an affinity for working and making special efforts to get their families ahead.”
Lopez Rosas urged the criminal groups to show respect for “certain codes” of conduct that have been “completely thrown out the door by them.”
A longtime politician affiliated with the center-left PRD party, Lopez Rosas was Acapulco’s mayor from late 2002 to late 2005. Especially during the latter part of his administration, drug-linked violence began destabilizing the port city when the Sinaloa/Beltran Leyva organization and the Zetas went to war.
Lopez Rosas is the son of El Rey Lopitos, the popular leader assassinated in the fateful year of 1967.
Additional sources: El Sur, August 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 2011. Articles by Aurora Harrison, Zacarias Cervantes, Ezequiel Flores, Claudia Venalonzo, Mariana Labastida, Magdalena Cisneros, Apro, Agencia Reforma, and editorial staff. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), August 15, 20, 27, 28, 2011. Articles by Hector Briseno, Rodolfo Valadez Luviano and Francisca Meza. Proceso/Apro, August 15 and 21, 2011. Articles by Ezequiel Flores and editorial staff.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
- 5 decapitated bodies found in Acapulco (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Several Decapitated Bodies Found in Acapulco (foxnews.com)
- Mexican police arrest suspect in 2010 killings in Acapulco (cnn.com)
- Acapulco gas stations close to protest violence (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Acapulco, Mexico: 140 Elementary Schools Close Over Threats By Drug Gangs (lostchildreninthewilderness.wordpress.com)