Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mexico's Caribbean Riviera Maya in the hands of drug cartels and extortionists

Quintana Roo businessmen and citizens call for Mexican army to replace local police

*Updates below*
In recent months I've written about the deteriorating security situation on Mexico's Caribbean coast, the famed Rivera Maya. The area consists of such well-known resort communities as Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Isla de Mujeres and others, all of which are in Quintana Roo state, just east of Yucatán.

In October 2011 I posted a brief report entitled Los Zetas Taking over Rivera Maya. Readers have devoured that story. It probably opened the eyes of many who had no idea that this lush region on Mexico's southeast coast is quietly being taken over by the same elements which have wreaked havoc in other parts of Mexico, including the prime west coast resort of Acapulco.

On Dec. 24, I reported that over 300 Quintana Roo establishments closed their doors last year, primarily due to extortion and organized crime threats. In 2009 the number was 70 and in 2010 it was 120, according to local sources. The situation plainly is getting worse.

In an interview yesterday, Quintana Roo's chief prosecutor Armando García Torres said that business extortion and "express kidnappings," as they're called, are getting so out of hand that "drastic action" is required. An express kidnapping, by the way, works better than a stolen ATM card in the hands of a criminal. A victim - usually someone who appears to be prosperous, but at times just anyone - is nabbed off the street and a ransom demand is promptly conveyed to family, friends or business associates. If cash (a little or a lot) is delivered to a designated location, the victim may be released within a few hours. If not, he may be released anyway, or he may be found in multiple pieces. It all depends on how generous the kidnappers were feeling, or how drugged-up they were.

According to D.A. García Torres, extortionists have begun targeting even the most unlikely of victims. In addition to restaurants, bars, and nightclubs (many of which have always quietly paid extortion demands, considering them to be just another cost of doing business), mom and pop enterprises, such as little taco shops and petty vendors (Cancún Zetas extort even street vendors), are now being hit up for "floor charges," as they're called in Mexico. Extortion hurts the little guy the most.

The problem is said to be particularly serious along Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen. García Torres says the popular tourist strip is entirely controlled by the Los Zetas drug cartel. In the nearby resort of Isla de Mujeres, two women, drug peddlers, were executed in a hotel room in October. On Sept. 11, Playa del Carmen's chief of Tourist Police was shot to death in his patrol car, and a deputy with him was gravely wounded.

García Torres says that the situation is so out of hand that many business owners are demanding that Mexican armed forces intervene to police Quintana Roo, just as they have been doing in Veracruz since last December. He says that most businessmen have no confidence in local police, who they believe are often on the cartel payroll. Perhaps those who have argued for removing the military from the drug war - and there are a bunch who have - should think about what those on the front lines of the situation want.

Not surprisingly, most of this information never finds its way into the English press. For obvious reasons, the tourist and expat-focused industries don't want you to see it. That's why 2011 was a banner year throughout Q.R., and especially in Cancún (links below). Here in Mérida there is a large expatriate community, mostly from Canada and the United States. Some are full time residents, while others are snow birds. If you're in the business of selling such folks homes, furniture, cars, health care, insurance, immigration and legal services, Spanish lessons and 1,001 other things - and not a few in this city make their living from those and related businesses - the last thing you want your clients talking about is Los Zetas.

Cartel-style extortion is also now up and running north of the border. The DEA says the dreaded Mexican derecho de piso has arrived in the United States.

Dec. 31 - Quintana Roo will end 2012 with an award of dubious distinction - first place in extortion. The state had risen to sixth place in 2010 and fourth place in 2011, but a federal security agency reported last week that it now leads Mexico's 31 other jurisdictions. Extortion in the Riviera Maya is typically of the commercial type, directed against business owners, but individuals and families are also frequently targeted. In the case of the latter, the extortionist's primary weapon is nothing more than a telephone. He'll call his victim and demand that a certain amount of money be delivered to a particular location within hours, under threat of executing the victim or loved ones. Not surprisingly, given the security climate here together with rampant police corruption (story below), most people pay what they can. Extortion is most common in areas of dense population - Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Chetumal. Those places also happen to be prime tourist destinations. Authorities say that through Aug. 31, they received almost 4,000 complaints of attempted extortion. How many more went unreported is anybody's guess.

Oct. 27 - Cancún police department infiltrated by narcotics traffickers and organized crime

Aug. 27: Zeta extortionist arrested after demanding 40,000 pesos ($3,100) a month from "Pushy Cats," a Playa del Carmen nightclub
Aug. 5 - On Playa del Carmen's Fifth Avenue, drug market flourishes and "anarchy prevails"
Aug. 1 - A wave of extortion in Playa del Carmen affects every business.
July 20 - Extortion an increasing problem for business owners in Puerto Morelos
July 16 - Los Zetas are recruiting new young members all over Mexico, training them in firearms use, military tactics and drug sales, and putting them on the street in places like Cancún and Playa del Carmen. Renovación Zeta.
July 14 - Cozumel island, six miles off the Quintana Roo coast, is having a bad year security-wise according to a local news report today. Business owners are upset and are demanding greater law enforcement presence, but authorities say it's not in the budget. Exigen empresarios frenar la inseguridad en Cozumel. The island recorded 450 robberies in the first six months of 2012.
June 29 - Some want the army to patrol Cancún streets: Que el Ejército retome sus operativos en las calles.
June 16 - Riviera Maya hotel owner refuses to pay the "rent" is executed
Everybody knows about Q.R. extortion, but few report it: Todos saben, pero nadie denuncia

Will Los Zetas destroy the economy of Mexico's Riviera Maya?
2012 Spring Breakers cancel Cancún travel plans: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/03/spring-break-nears-but-us-students-are.html#more.
Drugs float ashore at Playa del Carmen: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/02/drugs-float-ashore-on-playa-del-carmen.html.
American tourist, 15, sexually assaulted in five-star Cancún hotel: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/01/american-tourist-15-sexually-assaulted.html.
Who's running Quintana Roo, anyway? http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2011/10/los-zetas-are-taking-over-cancun-playa.html.
300 Q.R. businesses fold in 2011, facing ubiquitous extortion: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2011/12/300-businesses-close-in-cancun-riviera.html.
Can promotion of gay wedding industry check rising Los Zetas effect? http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2011/12/can-quintana-roo-state-save-itself-from.html.

Business is booming in Quintana Roo: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/01/despite-drug-violence-quintana-roo.html.
Cancun #1 choice of U.S. travelers: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/01/cancun-easily-1-choice-of-us-travelers.html.

How safe is Yucatán?
Yucatán and half of Mexico belong to Los Zetas: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2012/01/yucatan-and-half-of-mexico-belong-to.html.
U.S. greatly concerned by Mérida decapitations in 2008: http://mexicogulfreporter.blogspot.com/2011/11/us-greatly-disturbed-by-yucatan.html.

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