Inside the BPM Shooting: Drug Cartels and Corruption Threaten Mexico's Festival Scene
As authorities search for the motive behind a shootout that left 5 people dead, locals call for a ban on festivals in the hopes it will stem more gun violence.
Photo of BPM Festival by aLIVE Coverage/BPM
The future of Mexico's dance music festivals is in limbo after the BPM festival, one of Mexico's preeminent electronic music events, ended in a bloody shootout that left five people dead and 15 others injured on Monday. The incident took place at a nightclub in Playa Del Carmen, a top tourist destination on Mexico's Caribbean coast. In response to increased organized crime-related violence in the iconic Riviera Maya region, local authorities are now calling for a ban on upcoming festivals until further notice.
Almost two days after the incident, authorities have yet to shed light on what exactly happened at the Blue Parrot night club at around 2:30 AM on Monday, when a gunman entered the establishment on closing night of the festival's tenth edition. Yesterday, Quintana Roo state attorney Miguel Angel Pech Cen said that local law enforcement are pursuing three different lines of investigation pertaining to extortion, drug dealing, or a targeted execution. But while authorities work on determining the motive, Monday's deadly shooting is already threatening the future of the area's live music scene. Local officials and businesses are now voicing their opposition to BPM's return next year, bringing to light some of the complex tensions between a burgeoning musical tourism industry, organized crime, and public safety.
"We want [...] to generate jobs, but in a cordial and healthy environment, where families, [those of] us who live here, can live in peace," said Maria Elena Mata, president of a local union representing business owners in the region, at a press conference on Monday. "We also ask, and we're having a positive response, that these kinds of events go away from here, that we do not allow one more. We don't want more BPM, nor any other events like it." Mata added that the area was hoping to attract a different, "healthier" kind of clientele.
Authorities' sudden clamp-down on dance music festivals, an industry that has been gaining momentum in the state of Quintana Roo over the past decade, follows the death of three foreigners and two Mexicans. Two of the deceased were confirmed as being part of the festival staff. Kirk Wilson, from Canada, was head of security at the BPM-hosted event at the Blue Parrot that night; Daniel Pessina, from Italy, was on BPM's organizing team; Geovanni Francisco Ruiz Murillo, from the state of Veracruz, Mexico, is also believed to have worked for the festival. Festival-goer Rafael Antonio Peñaloza Pega, also from Veracruz, died after being transferred to a nearby hospital, and US citizen Alejandra Margarita Villanueva Ibarra, died in the stampede as people fled the club.
Gunshots were first reported at 2:28 AM, on Avenida 12, a few blocks away from the club, state attorney Pech said Tuesday on local television. An armed man then tried to enter the Blue Parrot, Pech said; as security staff mobilized to stop him, gunfire ensued. In addition to the dead, 15 people were injured, mostly as a result of the subsequent stampede. A few, caught in the crossfire, suffered gunshot wounds. The gunman fled the scene and has not yet been captured.
During Monday's press conference, local mayor Cristina Torres said there had been tensions in the lead-up to the festival between the city and the festival's organizers, who she said had struggled to comply with new, stricter security protocols established by the municipality. BPM did not return THUMP's request for comment on the alleged security concerns. Torres also regretted that state and federal authorities had not addressed the problem of drug trafficking in Playa del Carmen sooner, including widespread cocaine dealing, a local newswire reported.
Local news outlet Noticaribe has linked the shooting to a local organized crime group known as the Gulf Cartel. Citing unofficial sources, the outlet attributed the shooting to drug traffickers who had not been allowed to operate at the event and who had retaliated by sending a hit man after the organizer. Other local media connected the shooting to Los Zetas, a cartel that has been described by the US government as one of the most dangerous in the country. THUMP has not been able to confirm this information, but investigators appear to be taking it into consideration.
A quick internet search reveals several comments posted in online forums in which self-identified BPM festival-goers mention "rampant" drug dealing in the different establishments booked up for the festival, mainly happening out of venue bathrooms. "BPM is seen as a festival specifically for druggies," a hotel owner in nearby Tulum, who asked to remain anonymous told THUMP. "With this many drugs coming in and tourists, this was bound to happen."
Pressure from cartels to allow drug sales at events is a something of an open secret among nightlife organizers in Mexico. A promoter from the Yucatan Peninsula told Reuters this week he had let armed men enter one of his events recently to sell drugs in order to maintain the peace.
BPM was launched ten years ago by two Canadians, Craig Pettigrew and Philip Pulitano, and has since become a global gathering with more than 70,000 visitors. Over the years, the festival has billed top international headliners such as Guy Gerber, Maceo Plex, and Seth Troxler. (Full disclosure: THUMP has previously worked with the festival as a media partner). Other festivals, such as the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival, had already been in the area for some years when the BPM team arrived, but the festival is credited as having laid the groundwork for the area's thriving dance music scene.
Over the past decade, Mexico's alluring Yucatan peninsula, which includes major tourist hubs like Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Tulum, has slowly become a destination for festival-goers in search of electronic music, drenched in mezcal cocktails and turquoise waters. Organizers—one after another—have set up shop on the famous Riviera Maya, taking advantage of the nearby Cancun International Airport, the second largest transport hub in the country, and of a growing network of holiday resorts that attracted more than seven million reservations in 2015, according to Mexico's tourism ministry.
Now, local festivals large and small are being threatened by a potential ban on such events. In January 2016, XLR8R magazine launched its first-ever "boutique festival" in Tulum, featuring artists like Mike Shannon, Dauwd, Clovis, Dewalta, Roam, and Rob Garza. Playa del Carmen-based Arena, which describes itself as Mexico's "biggest gay and lesbian dance music festival," was supposed to kick off this year's celebrations on February 1, while Mayan Madness, a spring break destination boasting "white sand beaches, with pristine water," was scheduled to begin on April 15. Arena organizers expressed their concern on a Facebook post on Monday, but did not tell anxious ticket-holders whether the festival was cancelled or not.
Aside from drug trafficking, another line of investigation into the shooting is focused on one of the two Mexican victims, state attorney Pech said yesterday. Caught on the club's security video, the gunman's attack resembled an execution-style killing. "The person entered to directly shoot and execute the Mexican citizen, native to the state of Veracruz," Pech said on television. The politician added that the victim's family members had told local authorities that the deceased was related to "somebody important"—a civil servant in Veracruz, a state known for its high levels of corruption and drug-related crimes.
Authorities are also probing whether or not the attack was extortion-related. Pech said that organizers and local organized crime groups had perhaps not agreed on the derecho de piso, a tariff sometimes charged to local business owners enabling them to operate without further interference from the cartels.
Quintana Roo state has one of the lowest homicide rates in Mexico, ranking 25 out of 32 states, with 159 cases reported between October 2015 and September 2016. Organized crime groups are active in tourist spots like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, but they tend to keep a low profile. Tourism in the state is also a major source of income for the government, and authorities are keen to play down any crime in the area. "It's very important for the government to keep [the place] safe," said an employee at the same Tulum hotel, also speaking to THUMP on condition of anonymity.
But a recent uptick in violence—homicide is up 13.2 percent from to 2015—and a string of high-profile incidents in the Riviera Maya have rocked Mexico's flagship destinations and thriving tourism industry. Just yesterday, a second shootout involving a group of armed men broke out outside Quintana Roo's state attorney office in Cancun, killing four, including a 25 year-old police officer. Authorities believe the attack was related to organized crime, but did not say whether it was linked to the BPM shooting, the AP reported.
"If the media picks up the Cancun shooting, and if there are other incidents in the next few days, I'm sure it's going to have an effect on tourism," said the owner of the Tulum hotel. "We don't know if it's linked to what happened, but we've already had two cancellations for future bookings," he said.
A hotel employee at the same establishment added that the election of a new governor in the state of Quintana Roo in June of last year had led to political instability and a particularly tense atmosphere. Elections in Mexico tend to cause spikes in violence, as new politicians and authorities try to establish themselves. "The new governor is going against many things that were in place under the previous administration," the hotel employee said. "I think all this [uptick in violence] is a part of that."
Mexico's rampant impunity—the census bureau, known as INEGI, says that less than 7% of crimes are reported to authorities, out of fear for retaliation from corrupt officers—combined with the lack of a strong judicial system in the country, means that the status quo can be very fragile.
Even in "jet-set" Tulum, the hotel owner said, owners of clubs have no choice but to allow organized crime to meddle in their businesses to a certain extent, be it by letting the cartels sell drugs on an establishment's premises, or paying them an extortion fee. "Because if you don't, he said, "what happened in Playa del Carmen is going to happen again."