Tourists warned of popular Mexico destinations with violent cartels


  • The growing threats of violence gripping Mexico have made their way to popular tourist spots.
  • State Department officials have issued a warning about an increased risk of violence toward Americans.
  • Analysts say tourists are an easy target for drug cartels, especially if they come to sample the drug scene.

TULUM, Mexico — With its turquoise waters, white sands and ancient ruins, this town has become an increasingly popular spot for tourists looking for a getaway along the Caribbean coast.

Its raves, nightclubs, and exclusive resorts and restaurants offer a quieter getaway than Cancun, its better-known neighbor 81 miles to the north.

But the growing threats of violence gripping Mexico have made their way here, as well as in the surrounding state of Quintana Roo. State Department officials issued a warning Aug. 17 about an increased risk of violence for Americans traveling there.

While the U.S. government places no travel restrictions on its employees in Quintana Roo tourist spots, such as Cancun, Cozumel and Tulum, it warns Americans to “be extra careful due to crimes and kidnappings.”

Tourists are being warned to ‘stay in well-lit pedestrian streets and tourist areas’ following shootouts between rival drug cartels that injured bystanders.

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In October, two tourists were killed while dining at an outdoor restaurant in Tulum. A month later, guests at a resort in Puerto Morelos were forced into hiding as gunmen arrived in a boat and killed two.

And in January, two Canadian tourists were killed in a luxury hotel in Playa del Carmen. In the same month, the manager of a popular beach club was murdered in the bathroom by two men who got away on a jet ski.

The cartels’ influence in the region grew as “tourism started to grow and as thousands of tourists started coming to this area, a drug trafficking market was created for them,” David said. Saucedo, a security analyst based in Mexico.

The prevalence of the cartels was evident when reporters working on this story were confronted by cartel members at two popular restaurants in Tulum.

As one of the reporters went to the restrooms of the first restaurant, he was approached by armed men who checked his pockets and ID card, repeatedly asking him what he was doing there and for what cartel. he was working before finally letting him go.

When the reporters went to another location, the same thing happened again.

They left Tulum the next morning.

Analysts say tourists are an easy target for drug cartels, especially if they come to sample the drug scene.

“Many tourists have found the possibility of using drugs while on vacation,” Saucedo said. “While in other destinations in Mexico low-cost drugs such as marijuana and cocaine were sold, (and) in the Caribbean there were hard drugs on the market, so foreign tourists sought to live this experience not only of tourism but also of consumption.”

More than 160 people have been arrested since January for drug trafficking, Tulum Police Chief Oscar Aparicio said.

“It’s quite a large number; we have raids every day,” he said. “As long as there is supply or demand, this crime will continue.”

Danger in the toilet

Two Tulum-based business owners who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from cartels said tourism in the town has flourished after the worst of the pandemic ended.

“It’s become a very fashionable place,” said one.

But with the additional cases came the growing threat of cartel violence, they said.

“Last year they (the cartels) put a person selling drugs in the toilet,” one said. “It’s extortion because you can’t say no to them.”

The story continues below.

He described how he was visited by a trio of armed men who told him a man was going to be selling drugs from his toilet for the next three days.

“At that point, I didn’t know what to answer,” he said. “I told them, ‘Yes, I only work here.'”

But going to the police isn’t an option, he said, because business owners can’t be sure authorities aren’t working with cartels, “and you never know what’s going to happen to you. to arrive”.

Chief Aparicio said the police were aware of the sale of drugs in the toilets and had taken action to try to limit the trade.

“Unfortunately, many tourists who come to Tulum come precisely to do drugs and try things they haven’t tried in their country,” he said. “As long as people come in who want to consume, it will continue to happen, and we can’t avoid it, even if we have 100,000 police at the beach.”

A police vehicle is parked outside the restaurant the day after a fatal shooting in Tulum, Mexico in October 2021. Two foreigners were killed and three injured in a shooting in the Mexican Caribbean resort of Tulum.

But security analyst Erubiel Tirado said pinning the problem on tourists misses the larger issue.

“Blaming tourists and saying their actions lead to more crime seems like an irresponsible oversimplification to me,” Tirado said. “It’s very easy to blame them when, in most cases, some only come to visit the ruins of Tulum.

“They’re talking about a drug trafficking problem, and the reality is that organized crime wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t complicity at all levels of government.”

Cartel hawks are always on the prowl

Aparicio acknowledged the ubiquity of cartel hawks or halcones who constantly monitor areas – be it the juice vendor or the waiter in a restaurant – to gather information and keep drug dealers from getting caught.

“The National Guard is patrolling all the time, but these people have hawks everywhere that immediately inform their dealers, so they hide or stop selling,” Tulum’s police chief said.

But Aparicio disputed the claim that the cartels were extorting businesses, saying “it has been eradicated”.

“There are indeed drug cartels in operation, local cartels that have been around for a long time, but we have not allowed other cartels access to Tulum,” he said.

Conrad Tulum terrace with sea view

David Ortiz-Mena, president of the Tulum Hotel Association, agrees with the police chief’s assessment, saying there is no hotel extortion.

“If there was an attempt – kidnapping, hotel extortion – this was adequately resolved by the state’s response,” he said.

But the two anonymous restaurateurs from Tulum said it would be naive to underestimate the influence of cartels in the area. This became clear after being so openly approached by a cartel member.

“I started to realize that the reality is that it’s normal,” he said. “Even though I was shocked at first, and suddenly I was a bit paranoid, the truth is, it’s becoming business as usual.”

Before traveling

Get travel advice broken down by city and state on the US State Department website.

State Department officials are encouraging Americans to “take 90 seconds for safer travel,” by enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, STEP, which sends updates on travel alerts and allows U.S. officials help travelers more easily in the event of an emergency.

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