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Tuesday, June 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Violence on Mexico’s Caribbean coast hasn’t spiked, only become ‘more visible’

Recent attacks in Mexico’s star tourist destinations have unnerved foreign visitors, but experts say the violence hasn’t necessarily increased, only transformed in troubling ways for the region’s most vulnerable populations.

CANCÚN, Mexico (CN) — An India-born travel blogger from California and a German tourist caught in the crossfire of a gang shootout in a restaurant in October. Two suspected drug dealers dead after a shooting at a Hyatt hotel in November. Another at seaside Mayan ruins in January. Two Canadian tourists gunned down in a family-friendly resort later that month. A manager of a beach club murdered in his place of business in February by hitmen who escaped in motorboats. 

Such acts of violence have stood out in the Mexican press in recent months, provoking headlines like “Blood in the Riviera” and prompting foreign embassies to emit travel advisories for the state of Quintana Roo, home to Mexico’s star tourist destinations Cancún, Tulum and the Riviera Maya. 

But while visitors may express shock at the violence usually associated with other areas of the country encroaching upon the turquoise waters and white sand beaches they had considered insulated from it, residents of the state have had to learn to live with it. 

“Violence has moved to more visible areas of Quintana Roo — tourist areas — and via crimes of high impact to society,” said Angélcia Canjura Luna, a researcher with the Mexico City-based nonprofit Cause En Común (Common Cause), which monitors matters of public security in the country.

“Executions are more visible when they happen from a boat in an exclusive tourist beach or to the manager of a popular tourist bar, so this is really what has created the perception that violence is on the rise in Quintana Roo and the Riviera Maya,” she said.

But the parts of the state that lie behind the glossy veil presented to foreign tourists have been dealing with elevated levels of violence for years.

“These are high-visibility events, but the underlying violence has been there in Quintana Roo for quite some time,” said security analyst Alejandro Hope in a phone interview with Courthouse News. 

Several factors have converged to create this environment of violence, which both Canjura and Hope described as unique from other parts of Mexico. But it all begins with tourism.

Cancún began to be developed as a tourist destination in the 1970s, and its popularity with foreign visitors has driven migration to the state from elsewhere in Mexico and abroad. However, public services haven’t kept pace, creating large sectors of the population without capital, social support or protection from the violent criminal groups who vie to extort or recruit them. 

Downtown Cancún is littered with abandoned businesses that local sources told Courthouse News were brimming with tourists less than a decade ago. Extortion is the likely cause of most of these closures. (Alejandro Castro via Courthouse News)

In Quintana Roo, the rivalries of local criminal groups and the entry of what experts call Mexico’s current most powerful cartel, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), have increased competition for territories for both extortion and drug dealing. Underpaid and poorly resourced police forces can do little to stem the resulting violence, and many officers succumb to the temptation of corruption.

The rise of the CJNG in Mexico has driven violence to record-high levels in recent years. Although it initially billed itself as against kidnapping and extortion, it has since come to be Mexico’s biggest perpetrator of such crimes. Its entry into Quintana Roo upset the relative calm agreed upon by local drug-trafficking groups.

“Tourism is the primary motor of the retail drug market in Quintana Roo, and a large part of the dispute in the territory is for control of this market,” said Hope.

The homicide rate in Quintana Roo only rose by around 2% in recent years, while crimes like kidnappings and femicides, which affect the local population but go largely unnoticed by tourists, have indeed risen in that time.

Women were hit particularly hard by the pandemic restrictions over the past two years, and with even fewer government services available to them than usual, they have become the most vulnerable sector in the state.

In 2021, Quintana Roo became the state with the highest rate of violence against women in the country. 

But gender-based violence isn’t only increasing here, it has also become more gruesome, said Silvia Chuc of the women’s rights group Gobernanza MX.

“Before you’d see bodies left in public spaces with signs of physical abuse, but now we’re seeing that they’re also mutilated, they’re burned, bitten and showing other characteristics of torture,” said Chuc, who attributed the macabre tendency to the sky-high levels of impunity in the state.

There has only been one femicide conviction since the state was put on the federal gender-based violence alert in 2016.

“This impunity sends a clear message from the state to aggressors: you can kill a woman, and even if you’re reported and arrested, nothing is going to happen to you,” said Chuc.

Those who face the greatest risk of being victims of this type of violence are primarily young women, teenagers and girls. Thus, organizations like Gobernanza MX have expanded their list of issues from political and economic rights like fair pay and abortion to include matters of mere survival.

“The emergency facing the youngest women in this moment is going out into the streets and returning home alive,” said Chuc.

But she and others will not be deterred. With a march planned for next week, they will continue to advocate for the right to stay alive. 

“Despite everything, women continue to organize in the streets to protest,” said Chuc. “Because it has become impossible to say nothing."

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Categories / Criminal, International

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