Pulling away from the front entrance of the Princess hotel in the Diamante area of Acapulco, Officer Miguel Ayala, a stocky seven-year veteran of Mexico’s Federal Police, accelerated past rows of palm trees and approached the police officers manning the gate at the property’s edge.
Although it’s been years since cartel gunmen have staged shootouts in the city’s downtown area, gang violence is still common in the hills, and that's where we we're headed. Ayala kept his R-15 assault rifle wedged firmly next to the seat beside him. His patrol-mate, Ronaldo, cradled his rifle in his lap and peered out through the truck’s windshield.
Acapulco, Mexico’s most famous Pacific coast beach town, is like Rio de Janiero in that it's a coastal city built into picturesque mountains. Acapulco is like Rio in one other respect as well.
“It has favelas,” Ronaldo told me.
Driving away from the coast, Ayala passed a series of humble cement residences, dilapidated mechanic shops, and open-air fruit markets before easing the truck up the steep incline into one of the city’s better-known low-income neighborhoods.
“This is Colosio. It’s one of the more conflictive neighborhoods,” Ronaldo said.
Life is different here than in the touristy stretches of hotel-lined beachfront highway in Acapulco. In these hills, crime is still a major concern for residents. On Dec. 22, for instance, five men were murdered in separate shootings, including one man in Colosio who was shot four times. In another incident, a taxi driver was shot execution-style. His killers left a threatening note.
“Here the terrain is more difficult, it’s harder to access and harder to patrol,” Ayala said.
Enrique Galindo Zavalos, the chief of Mexico’s Federal Police, is leading an effort to bring the crime in the outlying neighborhoods under control and help convince potential visitors that Acapulco’s coastline is safe. A lot is riding on his success.
For decades, tourism has been one of Acapulco's most important industries, but in the wake of the disappearance of 43 students in the town of Iguala, tourism to Acapulco has plummeted. During the long weekend of November 20, nearly half of Acapulco’s hotel rooms sat empty.
It's not just the case of the missing students, either. Acapulco has earned a reputation for violence. Its homicide rate was the highest of any major city in Mexico in 2013.
Zavalos is sending in more men to help quell the problem. On Dec. 3, 500 agents from the Gendarmeria, the new highly specialized division of the Federal Police, arrived in the city to reinforce the 1,300 Federal Police already patrolling Acapulco.
"They’ll focus on hotels, malls, and nightclubs—the touristy places—but also on the colonias,” the neighborhoods in the hills,” Galindo said.
Galindo echoes the analysis of many residents when he says Mexico’s federal police, marines, and army “have taken apart the [major organized crime] groups but at a lower level the structures are still there and they are committing crimes such as robbery, extortion, and kidnapping.”
For small business owners, the main threat is now local gangs: Acapulco has one of the highest incidences of extortion in Mexico.
Despite the arrival of the Gendarmeria, Galindo faces an uphill battle when it comes to restoring Acapulco’s image. Two days after Galindo’s interview with Fusion, a local newspaper, El Sol de Acapulco, published a front-page story announcing new night-time patrols by the Gendarmeria. The story, however, was overshadowed by articles announcing “Panic caused by masked men,” “[Hotel] Occupancy Down to 50.5%,” and “Acapulco is losing its competitiveness because of violence.” Confrontations between Federal Police and protesting students and teachers in Guerrero’s capital, Chilpancingo, have generated further controversy.
Acapulco’s mayor, Luis Walton, has said the disturbances “won’t help bring the peace the state needs.”
Although the era of cartel violence may be over, Acapulco’s reputation continues to suffer, mainly from the crime that occurs in the colonias.
Dulce Viviana, a 32-year-old financial professional visiting Acapulco during a weekend vacation from Mexico City, said, “Acapulco had a boom a few years ago. It was so cool. Cancun is nice, but Acapulco’s parties were better. Now, I wouldn’t feel safe going to nightclubs here.”
Enrique Diaz Clavel, an 81-year-old historian who has written about Acapulco since 1953, recently visited the Boca Chica Hotel in the city’s historic district. “From the '40s to the '70s, that was the Golden Age of Acapulco” he explained. The modern era of tourism started in the 1920s after the first highway to Mexico City opened. The tourism trade expanded after a small airport was built and “Acapulco started growing up into the hills up from the beach,” Diaz said. Acapulco quickly became a getaway for Hollywood stars such as John Wayne and even hosted Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding. “In this era more and more hotels came. As a boy I remember seeing American planes coming and landing in the water,” Diaz recalled.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Acapulco continued to expand, but also lost some of its sheen. Stately hotels in the Acapulco Viejo district fell into disrepair and seedy clubs and bars sprung up along the beachfront, even as investors built new luxury resorts outside of the city and residents expanded slums on the periphery further up into the hills. “Acapulco grew, but with problems,” Diaz said.
As tourism falls, residents wonder what will happen if the main engine of their state’s economy sputters to a stop. Guerrero already has Mexico’s third highest rate of poverty and the highest rate of people working "off the books" in the informal economy. Tourist revenues are one of few connections Guerrero has to the global economy.
One positive sign is that hotel reservations for the Christmas and New Year's vacation period, though lower than last year, have increased slightly from lows reported in November.
Looking out at the glimmering water swelling gently below the Boca Chica Hotel restaurant’s balcony, Diaz said he’s confident that the Acapulco of his youth will make a comeback.
“Right now it’s going through a crisis, but it will pass,” he said.