A dozen Mexican marines wielding machine guns zigzagged between partiers sipping cocktails at a posh beachfront hotel in Tulum. A few minutes later the marines found their target and dragged a man in handcuffs onto the sand. Behind them, a bride posed for her wedding pictures.
It’s a new routine in Mexico’s hipster paradise: Security forces patrolling its picture-perfect beaches and hotels to confront an unprecedented rise in killings. Much of the violence can be traced to increased demand for drugs from an exploding number of tourists, many of whom are now wondering if they’re risking their lives to party.
Despite its reputation as a peaceful oasis, violence has been building for years in Tulum. It spilled into public view in October, when a shootout at a popular restaurant killed two foreign tourists — a travel blogger from California and a German citizen — and wounded three more.
It wasn’t a fluke. The number of murders in Tulum has skyrocketed from just nine in all of 2015 to 70 in the first 10 months of this year. With 42,000 residents and an estimated 30,000 tourists a day, according to Tulum’s hotel association, the city now has a homicide rate that surpasses those of its much larger neighbors along Mexico’s Caribbean coast: Cancún and Playa del Carmen.
It also had the highest rate of extortion and street drug sales in the first six months of the year, according to the Observatory of Security and Gender of Quintana Roo, which analyzes crime data.
Tulum’s most immediate problem is political. A recent change in municipal government upset the agreements that typically exist in Mexico between organized crime and politicians. But local business leaders say there is a more deep-rooted cause driving the violence. Policing simply cannot keep up with the resort’s explosive growth.
"Tulum has had a great lack of vision of where we are and where we want to be as a tourist destination," said David Ortiz Mena, president of the Hotel Tulum Association. "When you start promoting Tulum as a party scene, there is a lot of baggage that goes with it." In other words, demand for party drugs.
Unlike Cancun, Tulum was never a government-planned tourist destination. In 1995, there were fewer than 5,000 residents. But that changed dramatically over the last decade, as Tulum’s pristine beaches and laid-back reputation attracted everyone from Hollywood celebrities to hippies and wealthy tourists seeking a New Age experience.
"Tulum has very little infrastructure and has been unable to keep up with growth and sustainability,” Ortiz said. “Not just waste management or other aspects but we can also see it in the police force.”
Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst at Lantia Consultores in Mexico City, pointed to recent changes in local political power that have detonated the simmering power struggles among the criminal gangs operating along the Mayan Riviera corridor, which runs from Cancun 85 miles south to Tulum.
New mayors took office across the state of Quintana Roo in September. Every new administration builds new pacts with the organized crime groups that operate in the area, Guerrero said, hashing out where and when they can sell drugs, for example.
“The new mayors are appointing new police chiefs,” Guerrero said. “That generates instability and can cause violence.”
The murder rate began to climb in Tulum in 2018, when a candidate from a left-wing party ended ten years of control by the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Then, Morena, the political party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, won the mayor’s office this year. (Although the party was new, the mayor wasn’t. Marciano Dzul served as mayor for the PRI between 2009 and 2011.)
When Dzul took office, he sought to renegotiate security budgets so that more money would go to the municipality and less to the state government, which is governed by a rival political party. It was in the midst of the negotiations — when police presence was low — that the two tourists were killed in the shootout.
Even before the tourist killings, the signs that criminal gangs operated freely were evident. In October, VICE World News saw drug dealers openly selling cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana and other drugs in some of the city’s fanciest restaurants. At one of them, four men lingering around the bathroom peddled the drugs under their breath — even though a security guard made customers entering the restaurant throw out bottles of water because they might contain ecstasy. The implication was clear: Drugs were permitted, but only if the customers bought them from the right people.
In a brazen display of violence a few weeks later, a group of 15 gunmen arrived by boat at a Puerto Morelos beach and began shooting. The incident led hundreds of vacationers at a Hyatt Hotel to run for cover. Shortly after the shootout, López Obrador deployed at least 1,500 National Guard troops to Cancun and the surrounding areas to try and stem the growing violence.
Óscar Montes de Oca, the head prosecutor of Quintana Roo state, told local media that the gunmen were seeking to assassinate rivals who showed up at the beach claiming to be the new dealers.
The situation is even more chaotic in Tulum, he said, where 10 drug gangs are operating. But the prosecutor too has faced corruption charges, with a recent lawsuit claiming Montes de Oca helped shield two hoteliers from having to pay a $120 million debt. The prosecutor has denied the allegations.
Money is fueling the corruption and violence. And in Tulum, there’s lots of it. A dinner of tacos and a few margaritas along the main strip can easily cost $100 per person. With so much money at stake, criminals from as far away as Eastern Europe have tried to stake a claim, including an alleged Romanian crime boss.
The boss, Florian Tudor, is accused of stealing more than a billion dollars by rigging ATMs in Tulum and other tourist destinations across Mexico. According to authorities, Tudor and his associates, who included former Quintana Roo crime boss Leticia Rodríguez Lara, equipped the machines to steal customers’ debit card information and PIN numbers. Rodríguez was a former officer of the Federal Judicial Police, which was shut down in 2002 because of rampant corruption. Mexican authorities arrested Rodríguez in 2017 and Tudor in May.
The violence in Tulum echoes a surge in murders in 2017 in the popular resort town Los Cabos, along the Pacific coast. The U.S. State Department went so far as to issue a travel warning urging tourists to think twice about visiting there. Experts attributed the homicides to warring cartels fighting for control of the lucrative drug market.
But by the end of 2018, homicides in Los Cabos had fallen by more than 50 percent, thanks in part to a beefed up police and military presence. The decrease may also have to do with the fact that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel beat out rivals and gained control of the market, according to local news coverage.
But if the violence of gang turf wars isn’t quickly put down, the beach resort of Acapulco offers a lesson in how they can bring a tourist destination to the edge of collapse. A former vacation spot for A-list celebrities, the Pacific Coast resort turned into one of Mexico’s most murderous cities starting in the mid 2000s as a rotating cast of drug gangs fought for control. Criminals also increasingly turned to crimes not related to drugs, like kidnapping and extortion, as a source of revenue.
For now, Tulum is still a favorite among Americans. This week, the luxury and lifestyle magazine Condé Nast Traveler published a spread on the city’s best hotels. No matter which hotel you choose, the magazine boasted, “expect to feel at once sedated and mesmerized by the balmy conditions, tropical foliage, and white sand beaches of this Yucatán Peninsula hotspot.”
There was no mention of corruption, drugs or murders.