By Tristan Reed
Many people who visit Mexican resort areas during North America’s spring break season ignore travel warnings, meaning they may not be aware of the threat posed by transnational criminal organizations, more commonly known as cartels. Since 2012, cartel violence has spread from the northern border regions of Mexico south into Mexican states hosting popular destinations for spring break travelers. Nothing in the behavior of Mexican cartels indicates that they would consciously keep tourists out of the line of fire.
While most of the approximately 150,000 U.S. citizens who travel to Mexico each year do so without incident, tourists are by no means immune to cartel violence or even common crime. Mexico’s criminal cartels are more than just drug traffickers — they participate in extortion, robbery, kidnapping and carjacking. And where cartels are fighting each other violently, local gangs are able to take advantage of law enforcement’s resulting distraction to commit crimes of their own. We will explore the nature of the risk from cartel and ordinary violence before giving an in-depth review of select major tourist destinations.
For more than two decades, Mexico’s criminal cartels have fought each another for control of drug trafficking operations in various parts of Mexico. Cartel turf wars typically focus on specific drug trafficking routes, ports of entries into the United States along Mexico’s northern border towns and areas where illicit drug production and cultivation are concentrated. Mexico’s cartels increasingly have turned to other criminal activities to fund the defense of their territories from potential rivals. Such operations include human smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting goods and hydrocarbon theft. This diversification has seen turf wars break out in resorts.
While cartels typically direct their violence toward rival groups, outside parties often wind up in the crossfire. In one instance, gunmen belonging to a faction of the Gulf cartel opened fire on a bar in Cancun, Quintana Roo state, on March 14, 2013, killing seven people and wounding five others. Though the gunmen were targeting three leaders of a taxi union in Cancun, they were clearly unconcerned by the presence of bystanders. Similarly, five students in Reynosa, Tamaulipas state, were killed Dec. 19, 2013, after a vehicle carrying cartel gunmen fleeing the Mexican army struck the group. And in probably the most extreme example, Los Zetas set fire to the Casino Royale in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state, on Aug. 25, 2011, allegedly in an effort to send a message to the casino’s owner. More than 50 patrons and staff died in the blaze.
In the past decade, violence in Mexico escalated nearly every year, from 25,133 overall homicides in 2007 to 38,052 in 2012, according to the National System of Public Safety, though 2013 saw a drop to 34,648. Years of law enforcement and military efforts to contain cartel violence have allowed already-high levels of other crimes, many of which could affect tourists, to persist or even rise. For example, 1,407 kidnappings were reported in 2012 versus 1,702 in 2013, the highest level since at least 1997, according to the National System of Public Safety. Since most kidnappings in Mexico go unreported, the true number is likely much higher.
Much of the reduction in homicides in 2013 can be attributed to the continued decline of turf wars in what were once among Mexico’s most violent states — places such as Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. At the same time, however, cartel turf wars intensified in states farther south, including Guanajuato, Michoacan and Jalisco. These southern states contain several towns and areas popular with tourists. These conflicts are likely to continue in 2014, and they could even spread due to increased challenges to the Sinaloa Federation, whose top leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera was arrested Feb. 22.
Ongoing conflicts between Mexico’s most powerful crime bosses and their diversifying criminal activities have resulted in growing ties between previously unaffiliated street gangs and the cartels. Cartels often hire street gangs as foot soldiers, something seen with Los Aztecas, Los Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos in Ciudad Juarez. Los Aztecas, a Juarez cartel ally, fought against Los Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos, which in turn were helping the Sinaloa Federation take over the Juarez plaza. As cartels continue to expand into other criminal activities, their contact with local street gangs already engaged in such crimes expands, creating alliances and, at times, new turf wars. An example of the latter is Los Pelones’ turf war with Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel in Cancun. While cartels may not specifically target foreigners, more localized criminal actors often see tourists as potential targets. In any case, the dividing lines between cartel and local gang activity have become increasingly blurred.
Common criminals belonging to a local gang or acting alone are more likely than cartel enforcers to target foreigners in Mexico. But the presence of cartels, especially in areas where multiple cartels are engaged in competition, causes a deterioration of security conditions that lends itself to the formation of local gangs. These local gangs may not be affiliated with the cartels, but still present many of the same security concerns: Like the cartels, they may be involved in killings, extortion, carjacking, sexual assaults and kidnappings, and they may cause collateral damage.
According to a Jan. 9, 2014, travel warning update by the U.S. Department of State, Tamaulipas state witnessed a 75 percent increase in kidnappings of U.S. citizens in 2013. (The actual number of incidents was not reported). The same travel warning stated that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City received reports of 90 U.S. citizens kidnapped throughout Mexico between April and November 2013.
Citizens of many countries have fallen victim to such crime. For example, a gang targeted Spanish tourists in a bungalow on Feb. 4, 2013, in Acapulco, Guerrero state, binding and robbing the males before sexually assaulting the females. In the same part of Acapulco, a gunman shot and killed a Belgian national in a parking lot in the Diamante tourist zone on Feb. 23, 2013. Authorities discovered the victim’s body next to his vehicle with a gunshot wound to the chest and a spent .45-caliber casing nearby. And sometime after Jan. 25, 2014, a U.S. citizen who had been traveling through the southwestern states of Michoacan and Guerrero was reported missing. The missing person had been headed to Zihuatanejo, Guerrero state, a popular spot with foreign travelers for fishing and surfing close to some of the most violent, and underreported, criminal turf wars in Mexico.
Kidnappings do not always follow the same pattern. They could involve anything from classic high-value target abductions to express kidnappings in which the victim can spend a week in the trunk of a vehicle as the kidnappers go from one ATM to the next withdrawing all the money in the victim’s account. They even include so-called virtual kidnappings, a technique by which perpetrators falsely claim to have kidnapped someone to extract a ransom from a friend or relative of the victim. Reports of virtual kidnappings in Mexico have become more frequent, even in popular resort destinations such as Cancun.
While there are examples of groups such as the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas participating in kidnappings throughout the country, localized kidnapping rings that operate independently from the drug trade have flourished due to the lack of security in Mexican cities. There is little uniformity with kidnapping rings in terms of resources, targets and tactics. Though the vast majority of reported kidnapping victims have been Mexican nationals, the risk to tourists remains, especially for tourists perceived as being wealthy. The gangs’ victims range from wealthy businessmen to poor farmers, so assumptions should not be made regarding their typical target set.
Visitors to Mexico should not expect law enforcement officers to behave in the same way as their North American counterparts. As mentioned, law enforcement efforts in many areas of Mexico primarily are aimed at combating drug trafficking. In some cases, law enforcement officers have been found to be on the cartel payroll, forcing the Mexican military to assume law enforcement responsibilities in some areas. For example, Tamaulipas state’s municipal and state police were effectively disarmed over corruption concerns, which required the military to assume the role of the state police.
As previously mentioned, the country’s security services sometimes pose security risks, too. When driving, it is important to pay attention to highway roadblocks manned by military personnel and to checkpoints established to screen vehicles for drugs and cartel operatives. Police officers and soldiers have opened fire on vehicles driven by innocent people who failed to obey instructions at such checkpoints, which often are poorly marked.
Many popular spring break locations foreigners perceive as having “acceptable” levels of crime have experienced violence related to the drug wars raging in Mexico. Firefights between federal police or soldiers and gunmen armed with assault rifles have erupted without warning throughout Mexico, affecting mountain villages, large cities like Monterrey, and resort towns like Acapulco and Cancun. While the cartels have not often intentionally targeted tourists, their violence increasingly has been on public display in popular tourist districts.
While there are important differences among the security environments in Mexico’s various resort areas and other parts of Mexico, the country’s overall reputation for crime and kidnapping is deserved. Locals and foreigners alike often become victims of assault, express kidnappings, high-value target kidnappings, sexual assaults, carjackings and other crimes.
Far more dangerous to tourists and others than government roadblocks are instances of cartel gunmen operating mobile or stationary roadblocks disguised as government troops, a well-documented phenomenon. We have not confirmed whether these have been encountered in popular resort areas, but there is the strong possibility they will be eventually, given the increased violence in major port cities. An encounter with a checkpoint or roadblock operated by gunmen disguised as federal police or military personnel can be deadly. Driving city streets in resort towns or roads in the surrounding countryside is also becoming increasingly dangerous because of such roadblocks.
Many Mexican coastal resort areas better known for their beautiful beaches also depend on their port facilities, and these have come to play a strategic role in the country’s drug trade. Drug trafficking organizations use legitimate commercial ships as well as fishing boats and other small surface vessels to carry cocaine from South America to Mexico, and many cartels often rely on hotels and resorts to launder drug proceeds. Because of the importance of these facilities, the assumption has been that drug trafficking organizations seek to limit violence in such areas not only to protect existing infrastructure but also to avoid the attention that violence affecting wealthy foreign tourists would draw.
This is no longer a safe assumption. The profound escalation of cartel-related conflict in Mexico has created an environment in which deadly violence can occur anywhere, with cartels displaying complete disregard for bystanders whatever their nationality or status. As violence escalates near Mexico’s resort towns, Stratfor anticipates that the cartels will not hesitate to use all tools at their disposal to defeat their opponents. Moreover, the threat to vacationing foreigners is not just the potential of being caught in the crossfire but also of inadvertently drawing the attention and anger of cartel gunmen.
Acapulco has become one of the most violent cities in Mexico, with 143 murders per 100,000 residents during 2012. Homicides per capita dropped in 2013, but nonetheless remain high. According to Mexican nongovernmental organization the Citizen Council for Public Safety, Acapulco ranked third in the world for homicides per capita in 2013, with 113 per 100,000. Most violence related to organized crime in the city resulted from the collapse of the Beltran Leyva Organization in 2010, which spawned a set of competing organizations. In addition to conflicts between the Beltran Leyva Organization’s remnant groups, such as the Independent Cartel of Acapulco and Cartel Pacifico Sur, other rival organizations such as the Sinaloa Federation, Gulf cartel and Los Zetas have competed for control of the city.
The frequent conflicts among Mexican cartels, including conflicts with authorities, have taxed authorities’ ability to protect against more localized crime. Additionally, criminal actors actively seek to recruit or collude with law enforcement members. During October 2013, authorities arrested 13 federal police officers in Acapulco for working with a kidnapping gang.
Cancun’s port remains an important transshipment point for maritime drug trafficking routes from the Caribbean basin. The high volume of tourism in Cancun makes the area a lucrative draw for localized crime such as drug dealing and theft. Until 2013, Los Zetas maintained the greatest presence in the area, occasionally fighting a local street gang, Los Pelones, for control of retail drug sales throughout Cancun, including popular resorts.
When Ivan “El Taliban” Velazquez Caballero, who oversaw Los Zetas operations in Cancun among other areas, split with Los Zetas and then rebranded his own criminal network as a faction of the Gulf cartel, he triggered more frequent organized crime-related violence in the city. This included executions, dismemberments and the targeting of law enforcement officers. After a number of arrests of the Velazquez faction of the Gulf cartel in Quintana Roo, Los Pelones in 2014 have thus far managed to take control over retail drug sales in Cancun, including the resort areas along Kukulcan Boulevard. The Gulf cartel, or even Los Zetas, could once again vie for control, which would further elevate the levels of violence in Cancun.
Recent examples of violence in the city include the killing of Gumersindo Martinez Gomez, the night operations coordinator for the Cancun police, by two gunmen early Aug. 14, 2013, outside his home on the western edge of the city. And on April 12, 2013, authorities discovered a dismembered body in three black plastic bags in the Cancun suburb of Puerto Juarez, Quintana Roo. Such incidents emphasize that cartel-related violence is not absent just because a town draws substantial tourism.
Several of Mexico’s largest and most powerful cartels maintain a trafficking presence in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco state. Though violence related to organized crime is much less frequent than in other areas beset by criminal turf wars, it is still present in Puerto Vallarta and thus presents risks to bystanders.
Gunmen opened fire on a vehicle carrying three passengers, killing two and critically wounding the third, early Oct. 17, 2013, in the Romantic Zone in Puerto Vallarta. Gunmen in two trucks cut off the victims’ vehicle at the intersection of Emiliano Zapata and Venustiano Carranza streets before opening fire. At least 35 rounds struck the victims’ vehicle, killing two occupants, who were brothers. The tactics and the number of rounds fired suggest the killing was a targeted hit by an unidentified organized criminal group.
As stated, unrelated crime tends to appear wherever criminal organizations compete for turf, and Puerto Vallarta is no exception. Thus, in August 2013 burglars killed a U.S. citizen living in Puerto Vallarta. His body was discovered after his maid, who was tied up during the robbery, managed to escape and alert authorities.
Threats from kidnapping gangs or other criminal groups also are said to be lower in this resort city than in the rest of the country. Still, a February 2012 incident illustrated why caution and situational awareness should always be exercised: A group of 22 tourists ventured off their cruise ship to tour El Nogalito, an area near Puerto Vallarta, where they were held at gunpoint and robbed.
Cabo San Lucas
Located on the southern tip of the Baja California Peninsula, Cabo San Lucas and the Greater Los Cabos region have remained relatively insulated from the country’s drug-related violence, and so are considered among the safer places in Mexico for foreign tourists. Although historically a stop on drug trafficking routes, Cabo San Lucas’ strategic importance has not spawned violent competition among drug traffickers. Over the past five years, organized crime-related violence in the area has accordingly been limited.
Mazatlan, located about 450 kilometers (280 miles) north of Puerto Vallarta, had been perhaps the most consistently violent of Mexico’s resort cities during the past year, although 2012 and 2013 saw a substantial drop in violence. It is located in Sinaloa state, home of the country’s largest cartel, the Sinaloa Federation, as well as of the rival crime group Los Mazatlecos.
Even with decreasing violence in Mazatlan, the surrounding areas have experienced notable levels of violence as a result of incursions by Los Zetas and Los Mazatlecos into southern Sinaloa state. Such violence may increase in frequency as rivals of the Sinaloa Federation attempt to capitalize on perceived Sinaloa weaknesses after the Feb. 22 arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera in a condominium in Mazatlan.
Though Matamoros is no longer a common spring break destination, we address it because of its proximity to South Padre Island, Texas. Adventurous vacationers to South Padre Island often cross the nearby border, mainly to Matamoros and the surrounding towns clustered along the south side of the Rio Grande.
The area sees constant drug- and human-smuggling activities vital to Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel, which are ruthlessly carried out. Since the Zetas’ offensive against the Gulf cartel of Matamoros in 2011, Matamoros has experienced significant violence among competing organizations and between such organizations and the military. In addition to cartel-related violence, Matamoros has experienced a surge in local crimes such as robberies and kidnappings. The U.S. Consulate in Matamoros posted a travel advisory regarding escalated kidnapping threats on Dec. 14, 2012, and on Feb. 21, 2013. For these reasons, visitors are strongly advised not to venture south into Mexico from South Padre Island.