Shootout in Cancun: Narcos Take Their War Into Hot Beach Resorts

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Carlos Mimenza won’t say whether the 200-man team he’s assembled carry guns. “I’ll have to leave it to your imagination. My lawyers don’t let me talk about it.”

But they fly drones. They wear masks. Some are skilled hackers, hired from the Anonymous collective. They operate out of a luxury cabin in the woods, its entrance screened by a waterfall. And they claim to have the local governor, along with senior officials and cops, under surveillance 24 hours a day. Because Mimenza, a real-estate developer, says Mexico’s authorities are responsible for the spread of violence and extortion, colluding with the country’s drug cartels instead of protecting entrepreneurs like him.

A team of computer experts and hackers work in a cabin in Playa del Carmen.

Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

He’s hardly the first Mexican to say “no mas.” Vigilante justice has been a feature of the drug-war decade, when Mexico turned into one of the world’s more dangerous places. What’s troubling is where Mimenza’s private army is waging its campaign: Not among the meth labs of Michoacan, or the border badlands of Ciudad Juarez, but in the Riviera resort of Playa del Carmen — just down the coast from Cancun, and right in the heart of a tourism industry that brings in $20 billion a year.

The narco-traffickers already hold sway over swaths of Mexico, either co-opting state officials or openly defying them. Now they’re encroaching on the country’s spring-break meccas like never before, leaving bodies in suitcases outside exclusive condos, or shooting up nightclubs. The bubble that’s protected international beachgoers is threatening to burst.

Police officers at the scene of a shooting in Puerto Morelos, on July 11.

Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

The Chapo Factor

“This could drastically undermine the economy” if the drift isn’t halted, said Alejandro Schtulmann, who runs the political-risk consultancy Empra in Mexico City. “People who have never visited Mexico are going to be much more reluctant to come here.”

Nationwide, 2017 is shaping up to be Mexico’s most murderous year ever. There were more than 12,000 homicides in the first six months, including 2,234 in June, the highest monthly total on record, the Interior Ministry said Friday. Some of that may be down to the arrest and extradition of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

The high-profile capture did little to boost President Enrique Pena Nieto’s dismal poll ratings. Crime got worse, and Pena Nieto’s Interior Minister Miguel Osorio — initially seen as a frontrunner to succeed his boss in next year’s presidential election — found himself on the defensive and struggling to deflect the blame.

That’s because Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel had been weakened, and its upstart rival, the Jalisco Nueva Generacion gang, emboldened. Their turf war intensified and spread to previously peaceful oases like Cancun and Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean, as well as west-coast destinations like Los Cabos. In Quintana Roo state, which includes the former two resorts, the murder rate has doubled this year; in Baja California Sur on the Pacific, it’s almost quadrupled.

Authorities in Los Cabos dug up 14 bodies near a marine preserve in June. They also found a suitcase full of human remains on the road that leads to its hotel zone. Cancun’s 14-mile hotel strip is self-contained and cut off from the town; still, three men were shot dead at a nightclub there in November.

Last week, Mary Farmer, a 52-year-old pet sitter from Wisconsin, was enjoying the turquoise waves right outside that same club. She hadn’t heard about the deaths — “it’s scary and kind of puts you on edge, because you can be at the wrong place at the wrong time” — but said she’d been to Cancun four times, and would come back.

It’s not surprising that many tourists aren’t aware of the killings going on around them. Recent murders haven’t always made the front pages of the local papers left in hotel lobbies. That’s no accident.

Federal Police officers patrol a beach in Cancun on July 12, 2017.

Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

Cancun’s authorities have urged local media to tone down the coverage, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. The cartels, meanwhile, have different methods but a similar agenda. “They don’t want to sabotage themselves, because the moment it’s in the news then tourism, the goose that lays the golden egg, dries up,” said Schtulmann.

Reporters at Novedades Quintana Roo, a Cancun newspaper, received five death threats this year, including a Facebook message to one photographer showing pictures of his wife and home, according to editor Cesar Munoz.

‘Grab My Things’

If the plan is to project an image of business as usual, then Mimenza and his crew aren’t helping. On the news website he founded, and on YouTube, the businessman rants about officials he says are in bed with the cartels, and offers free iPhones to members of the public who manage to capture corruption on camera.

Carlos Mimenza

Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

The chief target of his wrath, Governor Carlos Joaquin Gonzalez, shrugs off Mimenza’s attentions. Citizens have a right to monitor officials as long as it’s done legally, but “none of his accusations have been found to be true by any authority,” said the head of the governor’s press office, Felipe Ornelas. Mimenza didn’t subject the previous governor, who was arrested in June on money-laundering charges, to the same degree of scrutiny, Ornelas said.

Primarily a real-estate developer, Mimenza also has interests in tourism: he owns an animal sanctuary and an ATV touring company. In an interview at his secluded cabin, as masked men pore over surveillance footage on laptops and a security guard roams through the forest with binoculars, the 43-year-old explains how his vigilante venture got started.

A computer expert works in a cabin in Playa del Carmen.

Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

One of his companies was robbed in November, Mimenza says; the thieves held a gun to his sister’s head, tied up his employees — many of whom quit afterwards — and stole 800,000 pesos ($46,000) from his safe. He says he resisted the urge to “grab my things and leave the country” and chose to train his fire on corruption instead. He figured that cartel violence “is a problem that the government itself has permitted, and the same government is the only one that can resolve it.”

Not Alarming

Cancun’s authorities aren’t sitting on their hands. Julian Leyzaola, a former police chief famous for cleaning up the mean streets of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, has been brought on board by the mayor as an adviser. Leyzaola has been compared to Rudy Giuliani, and accused of similar strong-arm tactics.

The city has fired 150 officers since May for failing a vetting process. It’s pulling cops off desk duty to patrol the streets, according to Darwin Puc Acosta, an army lieutenant-colonel who took over as Cancun’s police chief in June. “Events are happening that weren’t common in this city,” he said. “I sincerely don’t consider them alarming. They’re situations that can be resolved if they’re attended to properly. And that’s what we’re doing.”

There’s a lot at stake. Tourism contributes almost 9 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product, more than oil; it’s Latin America’s most visited country by far.

The state of Quintana Roo gets 10 million tourists a year, a third of the national total. In the first quarter of this year, as the violence was picking up, occupancy rates in its flagship resort of Cancun held pretty steady around 85 percent. In Playa del Carmen, they were even up a couple of percentage points from 2016.

‘The Debacle’

Local businesses say that doesn’t tell the whole story. Tourists might still be in their rooms and on the beach, but fewer are coming into town. Sales at Victoria’s Secret on Quinta Avenida, Playa del Carmen’s main drag, have tumbled 50 percent. They’re down 24 percent at the Swatch store next door. Martin Perez, who waits tables at a nearby restaurant, said he makes a quarter of the tips he used to.

Many locals can pinpoint when things started to go wrong. In January, right off Quinta Avenida, five people were gunned down during an electronic music festival at the Blue Parrot. Perez’s voice trails off as he looks over at the now boarded-up nightclub.

“This is where the debacle of my people began,” he said.

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