Violence in Mexico’s resort areas demonstrates not only the risks faced by personnel in the country, but also the fragility of the tourism sector throughout the region.
Death at the Blue Parrot
In the early morning hours of 16 January, a gunman carried out a mass shooting in Playa del Carmen, a resort city in the Mexican state Quintana Roo, located on the Yucatán peninsula. The shooting occurred in the Blue Parrot, a well-known nightclub that was hosting a music festival that is geared toward foreign citizens and known as BPM. While the exact circumstances of the shooting remain unclear – the perpetrator has not been arrested, and several of the people who were shot likely were caught in the crossfire between the perpetrator and close protection guards present in the club – six people were killed, two of whom were from Mexico, two from Italy, one from the United States, and one from Canada. At least fourteen others were are injured, some of whom were also foreign nationals.
Since then, evidence has emerged indicating that the shooting was not an isolated incident but was instead the result of a long-running dispute over extortion payments demanded by the Zetas, a feared, ultra-violent drug trafficking organisation based on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Although the Zetas are known for publicly displaying the decapitated bodies of their victims elsewhere in Mexico, until recently the group operated relatively quietly in Quintana Roo, likely on the understanding that while extorting businesses within the state’s large tourism sector in the state is profitable, backing up its demands with extreme violence would be self-defeating, since it would drive away tourists and thus cause there to be less money to extort.
The day after the shooting, however, five narcomantas – banners used by drug traffickers to communicate with the public – were discovered along highways in the region. The narcomantas bore identical messages written in the ungrammatical and slangy Spanish typical of death threats made by drug cartels, reading, ‘This is a demonstration that we are already here it was for not falling in line Phillip BPM. This is the beginning we are going to cut the heads off the Golfos, Pelones, and grasshoppers.’
The statement ‘it was for not falling in line Philip BPM’ is a reference it Philip Pulitano, the Canadian co-founder of the BPM music festival. Press reports indicate that Pulitano had long agreed to pay ‘protection’ fees extorted from the annual festival by drug traffickers, but this year balked when the Zetas decided to change their demand, telling Pulitano that he had to pay an additional fee on top of what had already been taken from him. Pulitano has since gone into hiding, making him unavailable to respond to the allegations. ‘Golfos’ is a reference to the Gulf Cartel, which along with the Pelones are rivals to the Zetas, and ‘grasshoppers’ is a slang phrase used by cartels to describe traffickers who change their loyalties, ‘hopping’ from one cartel to another. All five of the banners were signed by ‘El Fayo old school Z’, likely a reference to Rafael del Ángel Vélez Morales, a long-time leader of the Zetas who goes by the nickname El Fayo.
The violence spreads
The day after the shooting, two police officers were killed when approximately ten heavily armed men opened fire on the office of the state prosecutor in Cancún, which is one of the country’s most important resort cities, and is located in Quintana Roo approximately one hour north of Playa del Carmen. The prosecutor’s office is found near a heavily fortified police base, and witnesses say the attackers threw hand grenades and larger explosive devices over the base’s walls before retreating while engaged in a wild shootout that included gunmen throwing grenades at pursing police and soldiers. Like Playa del Carmen, Cancún had long enjoyed relative peace compared to elsewhere on the eastern coast of Mexico, and the attack came as a shock to local residents.
The recent killings in Mexico serve as a stark reminder that risk mitigation must take into account not that which is certain, or even that which is likely, but that which is possible
On 21 January, violence similarly affected yet another popular tourist location in Mexico, this time on the Pacific coast. Seven headless and badly mutilated bodies were discovered stuffed in a taxi near Manzanillo, a beach city in Colima state that is known for recreational fishing. Scrawled on the taxi was a message from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a group that produces methamphetamine and carries out gruesome executions, sometimes recording victims being blown up with explosives. The very next day five additional bodies, all baring signs of torture, were found in a wooded area in the city.
The spate of killings in resort areas demonstrates that drug trafficking organisations have little regard for keeping the peace in locations frequented for foreign travellers, even when it is in their own self-interest to do so, as is the case when the groups generate funds by extorting firms within the tourism industry. Both the Zetas and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel have clearly decided that using shocking brutality in order to terrorise their enemies as well as the civilian population is worth the effort, even if it reduces tourism.