The long night of Acapulco: ‘I am powerful with a gun, unarmed I am nobody’

The lack of electricity and security after hurricane ‘Otis’ has created neighborhood patrols that watch the streets to prevent further looting, but also attract violent characters who are suspicious of any stranger

afectados por el huracan otis
Residents of Pie de la Cuesta stand guard outside their homes to prevent looting on November 1.Gladys Serrano
Alejandro Santos Cid

Acapulco is afraid of the dark. Hurricane Otis turned off all the lights more than a week ago and, this Saturday, the vast majority of neighborhoods in the city continue to survive in darkness. The inhabitants have had to learn to live in the uncertainty of the shadows and adapt their clocks to the sun. The first nights, driven by necessity, groups of people looted every last store. There are no supermarkets or pharmacies with stock, and only a few gas stations are beginning to recover their supply. Everything is lacking. Since then, the Army has been guarding all the establishments that were raided with rifles in plain sight; now, when there is nothing left. In the poorest neighborhoods, rumors and paranoia have spread. At night, dozens of groups of citizens patrol the streets — some armed with machetes and handguns — terrified at the risk of losing the little that the storm left them, illuminated by lanterns, torches and pyres of burning garbage.

The nights are endless and the neighbors sleep with one eye open. Barking dogs, motorcycles whirring in the early hours of the morning, the rustling of the wind in the rubble: any noise sets off alarms. Paranoia grows every day that the electricity supply is not restored - and restoring power to an entire city and its surroundings is a slow process. For the vigilante groups, kinds of improvised self-defense groups, any stranger is guilty until proven innocent. They are easily unnerved if they see an unfamiliar face, so easily confused in the dark.

The problem is the same as always: people are afraid of losing what little they have; the government is not capable of guaranteeing security in a completely collapsed city - the official number of victims, which has barely moved for days, is 47 dead and 56 missing -; and, although most of the patrols have been formed as a support system between neighbors to prevent looting, an armed group in the middle of a city plunged in darkness operates under the same logic as a fireworks barrage with a raging fire. The civilian commandos, furthermore, have the ease of attracting a certain profile of person: violent, megalomaniacal, authoritarian, trigger-happy.

—I am powerful with a gun, unarmed I am nobody.

Gustavo (48 years old) blurts out the phrase and with a very serious face states that he is hiding a gun, although the journalists do not see any weapons anywhere. Although it is not as if he is asked to show it. The man is not wearing a T-shirt, just shorts and flip-flops, and is sitting with a dozen people on a dirt road, blocked at one of its entrances by a mountain of debris. He is illuminated by the light of a single long candle. There is no moon and the night is so dark that from 10 meters away, if the flame is out, no one can see them. The San Nicolas neighborhood, in Pie de la Cuesta, on one side of Acapulco, only has light in the street lamps at some points of the main avenue. The rest of the town is pitch black. Gustavo is not from here, but from Tres Palos, on the other side of the bay, but he has come to see his relatives. His story as a vigilante began after Otis:

—The boss gave me a mission: he gave me a gun registered in his name because I know about weapons. Four luxury cars arrived, people who had no needs, and they wanted to break into the Fix [a chain of hardware stores], so I started shooting at them. They fled and from then on I became known in the neighborhood. I think my neighbors are grateful because at night, as I have experience, I would hide and see the cars that wanted to park and open the stores. I ran them off at gunpoint and I did well economically, I am not complaining, I took advantage of the situation a little bit. Of course, I was always in favor of the citizen, of my friends, I tried to never go overboard with anyone.

Imelda, a neighbor of Pie de la Cuesta, lights the street with a candle due to the lack of electricity in the area.
Imelda, a neighbor of Pie de la Cuesta, lights the street with a candle due to the lack of electricity in the area.Gladys Serrano

Next to him, all the faces remain somber except for Imelda’s (37), who offers a slightly gentler account: “As in all places, there is organized crime here. We have to look out for each other. They have already looted Bodega Aurrera [a large supermarket chain], shopping centers, pharmacies, obviously people are now looking for household appliances, although I don’t know what they will be good for because everything got wet, everything is under water,” she says. “You wake up all the time, you hear a noise, you hear dogs barking desperately, and that’s the moment you get up to see what’s going on. You hear a lot of motorcycles in the early morning. We have no choice but to take care of each other, feed each other and lend each other a hand, there will be no other way. Most of us here are family, we are a small community, we all know each other, and when someone strange comes in, that’s when we stand up for each other,” she says.

“There is a lot of looting, unnecessarily, I say, because they depleted the stores where we could stock up on food: beans, rice, the most basic things, and today we are suffering the consequences a little bit. We are here more than anything else to look after: we realized that some neighbors broke into our houses, we are going to keep watch until sunrise and, then, to rest,” Gustavo adds. Imelda defines it as “the pillage of the small rat”: “The poor fucker who fucks over the other poor fucker, the one who didn’t manage to steal anything is going to start looking in houses of those that did.”

“We are all needy, we are all hungry”

Life is not easy these days for Acapulco’s most humble neighbors. Most of them eat thanks to the food distributed by the government while they try to rebuild their homes. Many used to survive on tourism working in a city that, after the devastation of the hurricane, will take years to fully recover its main source of income. “We are now going back to the old days: walking under the sun to fetch the water that the Sedena [Ministry of Defense] is giving us; looking for food and ice for sustenance; the lagoon is not giving us the catch we would like right now, yesterday we went fishing and caught four mini fish. We do have firewood because the trees were felled. We are all in need, we are all hungry. We don’t ask for more than the roofs right now. Our mattresses, look, we dried them, there is no problem, but we want a roof because we are sleeping outdoors.”

The fear of looting encompasses different and complex stories, faces that do not fit into a single logic, people who have lost everything. Bertha Nazario (35 years old) starts crying almost as soon as the camera is turned on. Her feelings are on edge: during the day she doesn’t allow herself a moment of weakness, but the moment someone asks her how she is, it’s as if a dam burst. She and her eight-month-old baby, her 14-year-old son and her husband have taken refuge in the hotel where she works. Their house was flooded by the hurricane. “It took us a long time to get what we had,” she laments. What they had: a wooden hut with a palm leaf roof and a few appliances; a precarious, miserable home, but a home nonetheless. “Imagine what it’s going to cost us now.”

The family is camped out in the tourist villa complex where Nazario works and they are busy protecting it from hypothetical thieves and making it ready for the tourists of the future. Her job is practically the only thing she can hold on to. “The day is very fast, the night is very slow. No one prepared us for this kind of circumstance, we never imagined it. We are in the hotel for three things: one, because of the job, because we have to keep going, we have no support from anyone but ourselves. Second, fear of looting: it has been several days since people have had no support and they are looking for food and a way to sustain themselves, to take shelter. The third: as support, the lady [the owner] is lending us a little roof to stay in until all this is settled and we can start to get back on our feet.”

There are those who find the sight of soldiers protecting supermarkets with not even a can of food left on the shelves a bad joke, especially when the garbage piles up on the streets and decomposes more and more every day without anyone picking it up, threatening to become a serious public health risk in the form of disease. Among the rubble of a ransacked Oxxo [the largest convenience store chain in Mexico], a woman mumbles curses as she tries to clean up the family business. On the other side of the street soldiers patrol the area. “When they looted everything they were there and did nothing,” she mutters. After pulling out a few cardboard boxes, the only thing left in the store, she gives up her efforts. It would take an industrial hose to remove the crust of mud on the floor and the rotten smell. Instead, she lights a cigarette, sits on a bench by the door, pulls out a pocket Bible, recites a psalm.

A woman guards a looted Oxxo store in Pie de la Cuesta, Guerrero State.
A woman guards a looted Oxxo store in Pie de la Cuesta, Guerrero State.Gladys Serrano

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