Earlier this month, an important arrest was made by the state police of Quintana Roo. It’s hardly a rare occurrence in the state, but this one in particular induced a sigh of relief from law enforcement across the southeast. They had finally caught one of the perpetrators involved in the kidnapping, torture and execution of police commander Archi Yamá.
In September of 2019, Yamá had been arriving home in Cancún when several men captured and transported him by van to an unknown location. Four days later his body was found by the side of the road wrapped in plastic bags. His head was also discovered nearby.
The killing was just another in a long and unrelenting line of violent encounters that the city of Cancún, and surrounding Quintana Roo, had been learning to accept as the new normal. In very recent memory, Cancún had been known simply enough for its global attraction to tourists: pristine white beaches, hotel resorts brimming with all-inclusives and the only real crime to be wary of a pinched purse or sleight of hand on the casino floor.
In the last three years however, Cancún has adopted a far more sinister reputation, and with the rate of murders there doubling from 2017 to 2018, it has become more difficult for the city to fix its eyes on the beaches and ignore the danger on the streets: a lifeguard shot dead in a five-star resort; seven dead in a cartel firefight; five mowed down the following month in a popular local bar. However you frame it, the situation is spiraling.
The stakes are high for the state of Quintana Roo. The year 2017 saw an all-time high of 13 million tourists welcomed to the region, but tales of lawlessness have taken their toll on its prestige and, increasingly, visitor numbers. What is currently a modest slump in tourism feels like a brick wall to an area that has worn the crown of getaway favorite since the 1980s, so understandably — even if just for appearances — the authorities have been mobilized to attack this new threat head on.
All 11 local police forces now take instruction from the central government as an attempt to bypass local channels of corruption, and armed patrols are constant, conflict now readily expected.
But the instability of the region may in part lie with these militarized solutions themselves. A constant campaign to target cartel leaders has created vacuum after vacuum of power, into which conflict for territory has flooded. Since 2017, the emergence of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (JNGC) has only been encouraged by the chaotic power struggles between police and gangs, both of whom have practiced a tormented restraint so as not to disrupt the tourism industry.
The unwritten code in the area has always been to limit conflict around tourists, not because militarized cartel factions have any great sympathy for incoming holiday-makers, but because the fallout of violence involving tourists turns their local conflicts into global news. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel has no such code, a fact that security forces naturally intuit but of course are institutionally slow to realize, which has worked to the advantage of the new kids on the block, who have effectively seized the area from the historic Los Zetas.
As if this weren’t enough, collusion between high ranking politicians and the violent criminal groups in question has been rife. Roberto Borge, governor of Quintana Roo from 2010-2016, is currently awaiting trial after accusations that he hired armed groups to force landowners from their properties.
The court will hear evidence about forged documents, stolen deeds and excessive force used by authorities in a trial expected to expose just some of the corruption ingrained in the local political system. It’s no surprise that a unified front has been so elusive to local government when confronting the cartels means also confronting their own colleagues.
The authorities are struggling for an answer and beginning to learn the lesson that some of the more volatile states have been coming to terms with since the war on drugs began; how do you fight an enemy when the warfare is more damaging than compliance? The more they struggle, the greater the chances of collateral damage, toppling dominoes large enough to potentially sink the tourism economy altogether.
This is far from hypothetical, as a cursory look west to the historically champion coastal resort of Acapulco lays bare — a story of a city seized by the cartels, a tourism economy dismantled, and fractured criminal networks holding almost all sectors of the city to the proverbial ransom. Brutality is ever present, bodies appear daily on the streets, in the ocean or outside the house of a disagreeable political figure.
This is no longer the place that the Kennedys came to vacation or where John Wayne famously basked in the sun, no matter how much the tourism board may want you to believe otherwise. The capital of paradise is not teetering on an edge, it’s long since tipped, the gruesome overtaking the glamorous.
Notwithstanding, we mustn’t confuse the threat to tourism with the threat to tourists. Visitors have been relatively safe in this whole equation and would continue to be so in any eventuality. The violence in Cancún is isolated mainly to the city streets, not the hotels and their allotted portion of paradise. The victims of street warfare would be the residents, families who arrived for employment in a low-paying but secure tourism industry and occupy the fringes of the city.
As violence tears the area apart, residents are caught in the crossfire, and if and when tourism stalls and contracts as a result, it will be those who rely on arriving visitors who end up negotiating the Darwinian landscape of the failing local economy.
The various possible outcomes from the conflict in and around Cancún don’t immediately inspire hope. Of course, the wave of violence needs countering as a matter of urgency, but the authorities must recognize who has the most to lose. As is often the case, the civilians in the epicenter are most at risk, from stray bullets and shrapnel, but also from the wavering industry on which they have not only built their living but their lives.
As the security forces fight a war on two fronts, it’s important for them to realize they’re not the only ones doing so.
Writer Jack Gooderidge is based in Campeche.