World

Once spring break haven, Acapulco's appeal drying up amid record cartel violence

The Acapulco of the 21st century is a far cry from its glamorous past of the 1960s and 1970s. Hugging Guerrero's coastal mountains overlooking a gorgeous natural bay, the then still relatively small town, which wasn't even connected to Mexico City by a real road until 1932, was one of the Western Hemisphere's most exclusive holiday resorts.

Hollywood stars like Johnny Weismuller bought villas on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. U.S. president John F. Kennedy came here on his honeymoon. Mexican cultural icons like actress Maria Félix and singer José Alfredo Jiménez grasped every opportunity they could get to be seen there. It was a city of glamorous hotels and casinos, the backdrop to an Elvis Presley picture.

Corruption allows developers free reign, placing tremendous pressure on what little space there is left, ruining the environment in the process. It causes the general quality of life to go down more and more.

- Real estate developer Julia A. Carbajal

That city no longer exists. Over the course of a half century, corruption, uncontrolled construction, an absence of any kind of urban planning and a steady stream of immigrants from the countryside of Guerrero, one of the country's poorest and most violent states, has transformed Acapulco from a swanky resort into a chaotic, polluted and congested metropolis of more than one million people.

Enormous and often poorly maintained hotels cast shadows over the famous coastal boulevard, catering to mass tourism along with bars and fast food chains. Its three main traffic arteries are almost permanently congested.

And while Acapulco's old center and marina and the area around the coastal boulevard retain some of its former glory, further up the mainland, behind the mountains, massive, sprawling slums stretch as far as the eyes can see.

To crime reporter Francisco Robles, trips to the slums are now a daily occurrence. “It's been years since we've had a day without at least one or two murders,” he told Fox News Latino. “Safety has really gone down in recent years.”

When FNL joined Robles Tuesday recently for a day on the crime beat, his day started early, with a body dropped in front of a beachfront restaurant at the coastal boulevard. Five more people would be killed that day, mostly in working class neighborhoods.

Acapulco has taken over from the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez to become ground zero of Mexico's bloody drug war. The city suffers from being a strategically located drug trafficking hub on Guerrero's Pacific coastal highway, while mass tourism simultaneously provides gangs with a profitable local market for drugs.

It is also unfortunate to be the largest city in Guerrero state, Mexico's prime location for opium production and one of the most violent regions in the country, notorious for the disappearance of 43 students in 2014 and a seemingly incessant wave of violence and social unrest.

Acapulco magnifies many of the problems of Guerrero.

Until around 2009, Acapulco's plaza was controlled by the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel, but after a series of takedowns of its leaders, the cartel fractured and splinter groups plunged the city in bloody gangland warfare.

The violence has been disastrous for the local economy. Local businesses say they are being extorted to such a degree that, earlier this month, one business association even asked the municipal government to be exempted from paying taxes, as they are already paying more than they can handle to organized crime.

Acapulco's reputation abroad has suffered greatly. Already stripped of most of its former glamour, the city still attracted as many as 30,000 American spring breakers in 2009. By 2011, that number had dropped to barely 500. The arrival of cruise ships, traditionally the icing on the cake of local tourism, has slowed to a trickle; only four have anchored in the bay this year until last week.

Tourists still come to Acapulco, however; last week's hotel occupancy rate was a healthy 80 percent. But the vast majority of visitors are now domestic, injecting the local economy with far less funds than American, Canadian or European tourists would.

Local politicians and businesses tend to blame violent crime as the cause for a 'temporary' drop in international tourism. Even though the federal government moved the annual Tianguis Turístico, the country's principal tourism trade show, out of Acapulco in 2012 (last year's edition did return to Acapulco), Mayor Evodio Velázquez has worked hard to win back favor abroad.

Before stepping into office in October, the mayor, whose office did not respond to an interview request, travelled to the United States several times to entice cruise corporations. And early this year his administration set up a new tourist police to give security a more friendly face -- as opposed to the hundreds of heavily armed federal policemen and soldiers patrolling the tourist areas.

But critics say Acapulco's problems are more fundamental. They blame successive governments for lacking a long-term vision and allowing the city to sprawl unchecked.

“Development is completely out of control. Anyone can build anything anywhere, there are virtually no restrictions,” Julia Alonso Carbajal, a real estate developer and human rights activist tells FNL. “Corruption allows developers free reign, placing tremendous pressure on what little space there is left, ruining the environment in the process. It causes the general quality of life to go down more and more.”

“It has ruined Acapulco”, she adds. “I don't think the city will ever go back to its glory years of the 1970s. Foreign tourists might still return at some point, but the government will need to provide security first.”

But social activists like Walter Añorve, who leads the local chapter of the leftist CETEG teachers' union, believes even that will be impossible under current circumstances.

“There have been no social policies in Acapulco's poor neighborhoods for many decades. No matter who's in charge, the slums are neglected. Services are bad, there are very few jobs,” he told FNL. “Those neighborhoods are hotbed for crime. There will be no safety in Acapulco if the government won't address poverty in the city. I don't see any political will to change things for the better." 

Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen