White sand beaches, turquoise water, designer bikinis, cold drinks, sun-tanned bodies, and a parade of machine guns and camouflage uniforms. There’s something dystopian about this picture, but it’s a reality these days on Mexico’s coasts. The contrast was stark in several pictures shared by Quintana Roo Governor Mara Lezama: two armed soldiers patrol a Cancún beach while in the background, a tourist in a black swimsuit and sun hat stands in the surf.
Mexico has militarized its beaches. Over 8,000 National Guard, Marine and Army soldiers have been deployed to the country’s major tourist centers. The measure is the federal government’s attempt to save Easter Week after at least eight murders on April 3 tarnished the idyllic postcard image of two major vacation destinations: Acapulco (Guerrero) and Cancun (Quintana Roo). The government quickly dispatched 4,724 soldiers to both cities, Tulum, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán and Veracruz. Another 3,800 soldiers are guarding the country’s highways.
Defense Minister Luís Cresencio Sandoval announced that six helicopters, 755 patrol cars, 377 pickup trucks, 10 speedboats and 45 all-terrain vehicles will support the troops. The Armed Forces will also provide security at 14 airports and 42 bus stations. The military presence is expected to last until April 16 during a peak vacation time for Mexicans and foreign tourists. Mexico is in the top 10 most visited countries in the world and expects to earn almost $9 billion in tourist revenue during Easter Week, according to Spanish news agency EFE.
Acapulco: oysters, beer and bullets
“How’s everyone – having fun? Well, we’re here to welcome you and say you can count on us for anything,” said a soldier to a table of vacationers enjoying oysters and beer in Acapulco’s La Angosta Beach. But the thousands of soldiers guarding Mexico’s vacationers still could not stop the violence.
A shootout on April 3 at La Cabaña Restaurant on Acapulco’s popular Caleta Beach left three men and a woman dead, and four others wounded, according to local news reports. At nearby Dominguillo Beach, a boat crew worker was wounded, and a body was found in a black plastic bag on the streets. Another badly decomposed body was found a few days earlier, floating in the water off the private beach of the high-end Las Brisas Hotel.
The violence and death hasn’t scared many people away. Acapulco beaches like Caleta are very popular with people escaping the city heat. Locals and even vacationers from Mexico City seem willing to take the risk, hoping “it won’t be my turn next.” But the risk is steadily rising. Given all the shootings and armed troops on patrol, a stray bullet could hit anyone, anytime.
The locals say organized crime runs things there. They own businesses and know all about the extortion of people trying to make a living selling candy, seafood, clothes, hammocks or taking people for rides on a yellow inflatable torpedo called the Banana.
Violence and safety concerns have hardly affected the influx of Acapulco tourists. Hotel occupancy was above 73%, according to the state tourism agency. But people are clearly playing it safe – most businesses close by 8.00pm and only the most daring stay open for another hour. When the sun has fallen and young partiers are drinking at surf’s edge, soldiers are still walking on the sand. It’s not a normal day at the beach, no matter what anyone says. Long guns are guarding the waves.
Cancun: luxury hotels and score settling
On the other side of the country – Mexico’s east coast – Easter week began with local drug traffickers settling scores in a never-ending turf battle. The violence produced four bodies dumped on one of Cancun’s idyllic beaches in front of the luxurious Fiesta Americana Condesa Hotel. In the past, stray bullets have killed tourists in Tulum, Playa de Carmen and Cancún, prompting countries like the United States to issue travel warnings for the area. Despite the concern, Cancún hotel occupancy exceeded 80% as Easter Week started.
Following the murders in Cancún and Acapulco, Mexico’s National Tourism Business Council (CNET) demanded that the government take action to “ensure safety for people and property in the country’s tourist destinations… which should not have to endure an environment of violence and insecurity.”
In response, the Quintana Roo state government flooded social media with photos of heavily armed soldiers in spotless uniforms patrolling its coastline. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has previously ordered similar military deployments to quell violence in airports and Mexico City’s subway. The operations had mixed results and were roundly criticized by opposition politicians and civil organizations. Now troops have landed on Mexico’s beaches once again.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition