FFifty years ago Cancun was little more than a hurricane-battered fishing outpost, but it has become a tourist mecca thanks to massive government investment – and by the 1980s it was firmly established as the jewel of the Mexican tourism industry.
Millions of tourists from all over the world descend each year on the destination and the Riviera Maya, which stretches south.
But the success has also brought other less welcome visitors. Criminal groups organize extortion rackets and sell drugs. And its location in the eastern Yucatán Peninsula makes it an ideal stopover for drug traffickers who transport cocaine out of Central and South America.
This week, the two Cancuns collided in spectacular fashion when a dispute between drug dealers led to gunfire and killings on the beach outside a luxury hotel crowded with foreign visitors.
Authorities say 10 or 11 masked men stormed the beach outside the Hyatt Ziva hotel in southern Cancun, killing a member of a rival faction. A second man tried to hide in a hotel room but was dragged along with the attackers as they fled in a stolen boat.
Meanwhile, guests hid in their rooms and sent SOS messages and calls for intervention on social media. Four U.S. citizens were injured in the assault, a U.S. official told ABC News.
Local officials described the violence as a struggle for the local drug market.
According to Vicente Carrera, editor of the Noticaribe news site in Quintana Roo, at least seven rival cartels are present in the region, where they control drug trafficking and extortion rackets.
“I am sure all the narco groups across the country are present here because of the importance of Quintana Roo’s drug sales territory and the value of tourism,” he said.
“This is the transformation of Mexican organized crime over the past 15 to 20 years,” Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. “We see groups drifting more and more into, supplementing or substituting local drug markets for extortion markets… They don’t produce, ship or export anything anymore.
Cancun’s economy collapsed when the coronavirus pandemic arrived. It marked its 50th anniversary without a celebration in 2020. But the destination has rebounded – in part because Mexico has not required Covid tests to enter the country or barred travelers from pandemic hotspots.
However, violence continues to rage in the region. Last month, a Californian blogger and a German tourist were killed at a restaurant in Tulum, 200 km south of Cancun, in a shootout between suspected gang members.
Carrera said there had been numerous murders on the same tourist strip in Tulum, “but no tourists were caught there, so it doesn’t appear to be a big deal.”
But violence involving foreign visitors threatens a major local industry: tourism accounts for 8% of Mexico’s GDP. The governor of Quintana Roo, Carlos Joaquín, told Mexican media that the attack on the beach “seriously jeopardized the image of the state”.
Local officials have long insisted that Cancun is safe for tourists – and have invested heavily in areas visited by foreigners – in contrast to the neglect of neighborhoods with armies of poorly paid hotel workers. .
“There is a genuine concern on the part of the government to protect more tourist areas than popular areas,” Carrera said. “But this strategy no longer works: they can no longer guarantee the safety of tourists. “