A shootout at a popular outdoor restaurant in the trendy resort of Tulum that killed two foreign tourists and wounded three more ripped through the Caribbean town’s laid-back vibe and shocked many who’d considered the region an oasis immune to Mexico’s insecurity.
But the October 20 killings revealed the dark underbelly of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, one that tourism officials along the vacation corridor have struggled to hide. Over the past decade criminal organizations—including some of the country’s most notorious drug cartels—have established lucrative extortion and local drug peddling rackets that are leading to open conflict.
Tulum’s white sand beaches and crystalline waters, framed by the ruins of a Mayan fort, have turned it into a fast-growing hipster destination, attracting tourists seeking a New Age veneer to their beach holiday.
But experts told VICE World News that the money pouring through hotels, restaurants and bars makes those establishments prime targets for extortion, and the demand for drugs by tourists is so lucrative that it attracts cartels that are otherwise uninterested in local retail markets.
And as competition heats up for control over the extortion and drug markets, the violence is spiking.
“We were still able to get away with the imagery that the beauty of that part of Mexico can be thought of as apart from the more nasty underpinnings of criminal markets and dynamics,” said Dr. Falko Ernst, a senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. “But it essentially was a matter of time before that illusion broke down and that we had foreigners being affected as well.”
The homicide rate in Quintana Roo, the Yucatan Peninsula state where Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun are located along a strip known as the Riviera Maya, is low compared to other parts of Mexico. But there were signs before last week’s killings that the security situation is worsening.
In June, assassins on jet-skis killed two in a brazen attack on a popular Cancun beach and wounded an American tourist with a stray bullet. That same month, two unidentified men were murdered on a beach in Tulum. Last month, a severed head was found in Tulum resting on a sombrero with a threatening message, reportedly from drug traffickers.
The late-night attack on a restaurant called La Malquerida in the center of Tulum last week is believed to be related to a dispute over territory, or la plaza. It isn’t clear whether the tourists were targeted or simply bystanders in the path of the bullets. Two women were killed: Anjali Ryot was an Indian-born 25-year-old travel blogger who lived in California and Jennifer Henzold was a 35-year-old tourist from Germany.
The following day, a sign taking responsibility for the attack appeared in the local market by a group called Los Pelones, or roughly “the Bald Ones,” according to a post shared by the Citizen Observatory of Tulum. Addressed to businesspeople in Tulum and along the coast, the sign said the attack was a warning. The group threatened to shut down more businesses and target more managers and owners if they “don’t fall in line.” “La plaza has an owner,” the sign ends, using red lettering for emphasis.
Los Pelones have terrorized the Maya Riviera since at least 2017 and are allegedly linked to the Gulf Cartel. They’re an example of the kind of local gangs that have increased their power in recent years by forming alliances with drug trafficking organizations, including the New Generation Jalisco Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel.
“You have the larger groups striking deals and teaming up with them and thus accentuating the conflict by pouring on violent expertise from the outside: They send trained men, sicarios, basically, to light up a conflict,” said Ernst.
Mexicans have long been victimized by these groups, but attacks on foreigners are counterproductive, as they have a disproportionate effect on the revenues that all enterprises, criminal or legitimate, depend on. “I don't think anyone has an interest in actually going against what's bringing money to the region, which is tourism and especially international tourism,” said Romain Le Cour, coordinator of the security and violence reduction program for the think tank Mexico Evalua.
Mindful of the region’s economic importance, as well as a travel warning issued by the German government, Mexican authorities announced that they were sending in 300 troops from the National Guard to reinforce security following the tourist killings this month. While the move might increase safety in the short term, it presents an image problem of its own.
“It's hard for the postcard to have Tulum beach and yoga classes on the beach and avocado toast and the federal guards patrolling the beach,” said Le Cour. “So you will have to find a way to protect the postcard and at the same time reinstall security.”
Experts agree that must involve tackling the root problems of the violence, including the corruption and collusion of local authorities that permits criminal organizations to operate. And there is a clear example of what could happen if criminal groups grow stronger. Acapulco, on the Pacific Coast, was once a top destination for the rich and famous but is now mired in crime and violence.
“I can't say that Quintana Roo and the Riviera Maya are going to go that way, but we should be warned at the very least at this point,” said Ernst.