Hell in paradise

Acapulco, hell in paradise

In the crystal-clear waters of a bay in the Pacific Ocean, Elizabeth Taylor smiled ecstatically at the beauty of a city whose name to her and many other Hollywood celebrities was synonymous with Paradise: Acapulco.

Today Acapulco, the most important city in the State of Guerrero, is the theatre of an ongoing war between criminal gangs and the Mexican government. The consequences are poverty, violence, and as a result the demise of wealthy tourism, especially from the Unites States and Canada.

Despite operation “Guerrero Seguro”, the massive coordination mission between all armed forces and the police launched by the Guerrero government, results have been poor.  Acapulco is still one of the most violent cities in all of Central and South America. Together with Los Cabos and Tijuana, for years Acapulco’s numbers have been those of a country involved in conflict. Forty-two murders were registered in December 2019 alone.
Acapulco’s newly elected mayor, Adela Ocampo, promised a fight to crush crime, boost tourism and bring the great cruise ships back. However, with the political campaign over, violence escalated and resumed its course. There can be up to five killings in just one day, and many occur in the outskirt areas such as Colonia Zapata or El Coloso.

Mexico, Guerrero, Acapulco, 2018. The stabbed back of a 17-year-old boy found dead with his head and limbs detached. He is just one of the countless innocent victims found in Acapulco who are violently murdered to spread terror among the local population

But the dismembered bodies of victims not involved in criminal activities can also be found along the coast. “Things worsen over the weekend. We get more tourists, but we also receive more reports on shootings,” declares Paco, a photographer who has been witnessing this weekly massacre for years.
Justice is unable take its course, coming up against a wall of silence. It is extremely rare to find witnesses, even when a victim is found during afternoon hours in the middle of a crowded market. Local reporters themselves put themselves at great risk, rarely do they move autonomously and prefer to travel in groups. They fear trick calls and traps orchestrated by the city’s criminals. “We are constantly in danger, in July they fired at my car, it’s a miracle I’m alive,” Nelson Matus tells his colleagues after having suffered an attack in the neighbourhood he lives in.

Mexico, Guerrero, Acapulco, 2019. Crime scene in Acapulco. Acapulco had a rate of 106.63 murders per 100,000 inhabitants

Tourists come to Acapulco on holiday from all over the Country, and at weekends mainly from the capital Mexico City, only a four-hour drive away. However, numbers have decreased because the government’s “visible “response, with the army constantly patrolling even the busiest areas, does not provide a sense of safety but rather reminds everybody of the state of war the country has been living in for years now. Along the beaches armed patrolling units walk past tourists, who rather than having a sense of protection feel uneasy.  The real problem however is that when authorities decide to loosen controls, the criminals’ response is ferocious and immediate.

Mexico, Guerrero, Acapulco, 2019. Crime scene in Acapulco. After being kidnapped in the afternoon, the victim suffered the loss of several fingers, an eye and part of the tongue. The man was brought to the hospital but died a few hours later

Between 2017 and 2018, Mexico sustained a record number of victims due to the war on drug trafficking and criminal gangs. In the State of Guerrero alone there were over 2500 victims in 2018. However, the first months of 2020 appear to be more positive, possibly also thanks to the decision of Obrador’s government to establish a National Guard.  The president of Mexico’s aim was to send a strong signal and he obtained the absolute majority for the institution of a new security body, whose powers will surpass those of the police or the army. According to some, this could be a dangerous game: a democracy with an armed force which can operate through special laws could lead to the violation of human rights.  However president Obrador strongly rejects such accusations.
The ferociousness of the cartels and other groups is atrocious. They do not limit themselves to killing but go so far as to implement what is known as “necropolitics”: the use of power to induce fear in people and taking on the role of judge to decide who lives and who dies in their territory. Dismembered and mutilated bodies, cruel letters to relatives of the victims even going so far as to mock them.

Mexico, Guerrero, Acapulco, 2019. Cliff divers at the sunset in Acapulco. Over the last few years the city witnessed a terrible escalation in violence. Victims of AcapulcoÕs violence come in many forms: those caught in feuds between criminal groups, businessmen who donÕt pay extortion, or those who cross the invisible boundaries of the cartels are a few examples.

Recently, on the bridges along the highway winding up from Acapulco to Tierra Colorada posters have appeared with threats to Efren Cantù and Antonio Ruiz, the commanders in chief of Acapulco’s security. Obviously nobody knows who put up the numerous signs along the road. In Acapulco and in the State of Guerrero anybody could be a victim: affiliates to a different criminal gang or anyone with debts.