Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Big Business

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 8 2018 --  

Drug violence on the Mexican Caribbean threatens to send resorts down Acapulco's ruinous path.

Wen an explosion shattered the side of a Mexican tourist ferry last month, 25 people were injured including five Americans.1 While none of the injuries were life-threatening, the incident brings dark clouds over the future of the region's tourism.

Last week, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for the ferry route between the tourist resorts of Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel, banning U.S. employees from using the ferries.2 The ban comes after reports that the explosion was caused by a pipe bomb and that a second pipe bomb was found on another ferry before it detonated.3 A drug gang called El Cartel del Pumba y Tata claimed responsibility,4 but the lack of a motive to target tourists is of little comfort to those who might be collateral damage in the dispute.

Mexico's drug violence has already decimated tourism in the country's oldest resort of Acapulco. The entire state of Guerrero that houses the Pacific city was categorized as a Level 4 risk by the State Department in a separate warning issued in January5. This is a level of risk normally reserved for areas of civil war and failed states like Afghanistan and Somalia. Just as they are not allowed to ride the ferries to Cozumel, U.S. Government employees are not allowed to travel to Acapulco or the surrounding areas, and American citizens are also urged not to do so. The same warning goes for several other nearby Pacific coast Mexican states including Colima, Sinaloa, Michoacan as well as the border state of Tamaulipas just south of Texas.

For Acapulco, it has been a steep fall for what was once the primo destination for Jet setters in the 1950s and 1960s. Eclipsed by Cancun's new construction in the 1970s, by the 2000s Acapulco's skyrocketing crime had frightened away foreign visitors. The past decade has seen gunfire on the seafront, and bodies being dumped in the sand. Relatively few American and Canadian tourists go there anymore, leaving tourist hotels to the lower-end Mexican domestic travelers.6

The relative quiet on the Caribbean coast began to slip away in 2017 as rival drug gangs began fighting for control of the area. Five people killed including three foreign tourists at a shooting at the Blue Parrot beach club in Playa del Carmen in January 2017 with the Zetas drug cartel claiming responsibility.7 Two more shootings hit the tourist town in July and August. In the July incident at la Vaquita nightclub on the tourist strip, one Mexican was killed and two wounded.8 A banner that appeared the next morning claimed responsibility by a drug gang known as Jalisco Cartel Nueva Generación, and accused the mayor of protecting a rival group.9

An hour north in Cancun, where tourists tend to be segregated from locals in all-inclusive resorts, similar violence has been plaguing the Mexican city of 750,000 people. Just yesterday, gunmen burst into a Cancun hospital and killed a suspected drug lord and his wife.10 This follows a year of rising gang violence which saw a shootouts on the downtown shopping district and in front of the prosecutor's office.11 The number of murders in Quintana Roo state that includes both Cancun and Playa del Carmen more than doubled over the past year to a record 359 in 2017 compared with 165 in 2016.12 This is still far less than the 2318 murders recorded in Acapulco's Guererro state in 2017.

There is no indication the violence in Quintana Roo has put a dent in the tourist arrivals. But if if there is anything that can scare away tourists, it's narcotraffickers blowing up their ferry as they ride from one idyllic resort town to another. Clearly, the stakes are high. The 35 million tourists that visited Mexico in 2016 brought the country $19.6 billion in income, according to the World Tourism Organization.13

But drugs are big business, too. There's no World Drug Organization crunching the numbers of the illicit trade, but a 2014 RAND study estimated that the size of the U.S. illicit drug market has been relatively steady at $100 billion per year.14 And with Mexico acting as the primary supplier of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration15, it would only take a 20 percent cut of the American market for the illicit drug industry in Mexico to earn the $20 billion needed to edge out the country's tourism industry for financial heft.

Given that the value of drug trafficking in Mexico is so huge, and the willingness of the players to resort to violence is so ready, the tourism industry simply doesn't have the power to keep the narcos from ruining their business. If Cancun and Playa del Carmen are going to avoid the fate of Acapulco, then don't count on the tourism industry to prevent their downfall.


1. Business Insider, US Issues Travel Alert in Mexico After Explosives Were Found on a Ferry in a Tourist hHtspot. March 2, 2018

2. U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico, Security Alert -- U. S. Embassy Mexico City, Mexico, March 1, 2018

3. Ibid.

4. Business Insider, Ibid.

5. U.S. Department of State, Mexico Travel Advisory, as posted March 8, 2018

6. CBC News, As Gangs Fight in the Street, Violence-Plagued Acapulco Battles to Lure Back Tourists, March 13, 2017

7. Fox News, Zetas Cartel Claims to be Behind the Playa del Carmen Shooting, January 17, 2017

8. Processo, Balacera en Zona Turística de Playa del Carmen Deja un Muerto y Dos Heridos, July 2, 2017

9. Ibid.

10. Daily Mail, Four Gunmen Burst into Cancun Hospital and Kill Suspected Drug Lord and his Wife in 'Possible Settling of Accounts Between Gangs', March 5, 2018

11. Ibid.

12. Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, Cifras de Homicidio Doloso, Secuestro, Extorsión y Robo de Vehículos 1997-2017, January 20, 2018

13. Deutsche Welles, Mexico Marks Record Number of Foreign Tourist Visits, Revenue in Early 2017, December 5, 2017

14. Bloomberg News, More Pot, Less Cocaine: Sizing Up America’s Illicit Drug Market, March 10, 2014

15. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA Releases 2016 Drug Threat Assessment: Fentanyl-Related Overdose Deaths Rising at an Alarming Rate, December 6, 2016