Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists travel to the white sand and aqua blue water of Cancún – but with increasing gang violence scaring locals and tourists alike, will people stop going?
It’s 6 o’clock, just before sunset on the main beach in Cancun. But amid the tourists, something terrible has happened. Right by the sunbeds outside a luxury hotel, in what’s supposed to be one of the safest places in Mexico, a man has been gunned down in the sand.
POLICE OFFICER (Translation): Get back behind the cordon.
Four men came in through this hotel and attacked one person, who was severely injured but not killed. Now I have to say, there is very little police presence on this beach, and this is right in the heart of tourist central. These are all luxury, five star hotels.
REPORTER: Hi there, do you speak English?
TOURIST: We do.
REPORTER: Are you aware that there’s been a shooting here on the beach?
TOURIST: No. A shooting? No!
REPORTER: Yeah, just right there.
REPORTER: Just now, about an hour ago, yeah.
TOURIST: What? I wouldn’t have expected something like that here.
It’s as if the police don’t want anyone to notice. There’s minimum fuss and hardly any officers here. This is the third shooting on the beach in Cancun this year. But if as a prospective tourist you try and find news about that on the internet you will struggle. And we’ve been told that local politicians here have put the press under pressure not to report violence in this area because if the tourists are scared away from here it’ll be an economic disaster not just for Cancun, but for Mexico.
The victim is Bruno Gonzalez, a local man in his 20s, working as a beach vendor. He’s been shot in the head and is in a critical condition. Later that night, we hear he has died. The party-goers in Cancun’s bars may not realise, but the murder rate has doubled in a year, and most of the killings go unsolved. There’s a thriving drug trade here and the beach vendor’s death could be related to it. But people are telling me there’s another likely explanation. I’ve arranged to meet one of the city’s leading businessmen.
REPORTER: Hello… Krishnan Guru-Murthy.
HERNAN CORDERO, LOCAL BUSINESSMAN: Hello, Nice to meet you.
REPORTER: Nice to meet you.
HERNAN CORDERO: Hernan Cordero.
REPORTER: And so this is your development?
HERNAN CORDERO: Yes, I am a developer. I construct and I made all this.
Hernan says everyone working in tourism here is now a target for extortion. He’s been threatened himself.
HERNAN CORDERO (Translation): They said they were a drug trafficking gang called Los Zetas who are very violent. They told me they were watching me and that I had to pay them money.
Hernan says extortion threats have tripled in Cancun in a year, as criminals try to bleed the multi-billion dollar tourism industry. He says he hasn’t paid, but many others do.
HERNAN CORDERO (Translation): Restaurants, clothing shops and furniture shops, clubs…
REPORTER: All these people tell you that they are being targeted?
HERNAN CORDERO (Translation): Yes. For example, the big clubs have been negotiating with the cartels for years. Often they get a discount depending on whether it’s high or low season, as if they were a business partner.
This is the best ocean view that we have here.
Hernan now thinks Cancun is on the brink of ruin, just like other famous Mexican resorts.
HERNAN CORDERO (Translation): Acapulco had the same problem a few years ago and it wasn’t stopped.
REPORTER: What do you feel will happen here?
HERNAN CORDERO (Translation): We could turn into another ghost town, just like Acapulco.
I decide to head to Acapulco, once one of the most glamorous places in the world, it’s now the murder capital of Mexico. The city is a short drive from the airport on a major drug transport route. We’ve just landed in Acapulco, but within five minutes of getting in the car we got a tip-off that four bodies have been found quite close to here, so we’re heading straight there.
This is cartel land. 45% of the heroin sold in America comes from opium poppies grown in these mountains. We were heading towards a disturbing scene. This is far too gruesome and shocking to really show you on television, but what I can see is three boys and maybe one adult man, just teenagers really, and they’ve been shot to death and possibly dumped here. They’re essentially children.
The victims are from the same family - Isaac, Ernesto, Pablo and their father, Jorge. They were mountain farmers. Around here, many have little choice but to grow opium poppies for the cartels.
REPORTER: So they will have been brought here and killed?
MAN (Translation): Yes, they sat them down and killed them.
There’s a lot of fear here about what was behind this. We’ve literally just stepped off a plane and driven straight here to this horrible scene of what seems to have been children walked down here in the middle of nowhere, sat on the ground under a bridge and shot in the head. And it makes you wonder what kind of person does this.
The ultra-violence here has investigators overwhelmed. Sometimes they visit ten murder scenes a day. The police have taken the bodies now, there’s no more forensic work going on and they’re going to leave, and as soon as they leave we’ve got to get out of here too, because the cartels have lookouts here and it won’t be safe for us to stay.
This is what Acapulco used to be famous for - the cliff divers at La Quebrada - seen from the terrace of the Mirador Hotel, where everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley once came to stay. I’m here to meet Laura Caballero, a local restaurateur who’s lived here since she was a girl.
REPORTER: Are these all the stars?
LAURA CABALLERO, LOCAL RESTAURANTEUR (Translation): This is a place all the stars used to visit, look at the photos… For example, Frank Sinatra came here.
REPORTER: Do you remember what this place was like?
LAURA CABALLERO (Translation): Of course. It was full of visitors. You couldn’t get into this hotel without a reservation.
REPORTER: This is one of the most beautiful views in the world and we are the only people here.
LAURA CABALLERO (Translation): This is Acapulco now, not a single tourist. There are big hotels that have only one room occupied.
The city is so dangerous now that troops patrol the streets and beaches. Since arriving I haven’t seen any foreign tourists here. Laura used to have eight businesses along Acapulco’s main strip. This one was the last to close.
LAURA CABALLERO (Translation): This was my business. We were here for 40 years serving tourists and we shut down about 2 years ago.
REPORTER: So why did you have to close?
LAURA CABALLERO (Translation): Because of extortion. They arrived one day and were asking for 15,000 to 20,000 pesos per month.
REPORTER: What percentage of your money did they want?
LAURA CABALLERO (Translation): Probably around 30 to 40% of our turnover.
REPORTER: Weren’t you afraid?
LAURA CABALLERO (Translation): Yes, we were all afraid. Yes, I was afraid.
Laura has seen two murders in Acapulco with her own eyes.
LAURA CABALLERO (Translation): It’s not nice to walk in the street and find someone’s head. It’s really sad to know that your friends have even executed, medics, taxi drivers, doctors, business people, no social class is exempt.
That night, the violence of the city strikes close to us. We’ve just heard three gunshots right outside our hotel.
WOMAN (Translation): Don’t film, don’t film!
It’s too dangerous to film openly, the gunman might still be here, so we use our phones. A taxi driver is lying in the street where the cabs normally wait. It’s very tense at the moment. The police aren’t here yet. It’s too dangerous to openly film now because there will still be scouts here waiting, and that man is alive.
The police arrive and start to secure the area. But it’s too late, the man is dead.
FRANCISCO (Translation): Here’s the family.
WIFE (Translation): Why him? Why? Don’t go, don’t leave me. I need you, I need you my love.
The relatives have just arrived and this has just turned into an extraordinarily distressing scene.
WIFE (Translation): You’re all cowards.
One of the relatives approaches us.
RELATIVE (Translation): They sent him to collect protection money from that taxi rank. They wanted him to collect the money by force. This to go unpunished, I want justice. It’s not right that so many are paying extortion.
Taxi drivers are often victims of extortion, but the gangs also force them to collect money from others too. This is the main tourist strip. In Acapulco it’s supposed to be the safest part of the city, and this is why Acapulco is now a no-go zone.
The family won’t let the police take the body away. There’s so little trust in the authorities. Instead they put him in the back of a taxi and take him home. Within minutes, you’d never know anything had happened here.
I want to know more about the taxi driver’s murder, so I’ve come to meet a colleague whose identity we have to protect.
REPORTER: That man’s relative said he was being forced to collect money from other drivers and that he’d said no. Does that sound plausible to you?
DRIVER (Translation): Yes, it can happen. But the truth is…Acapulco is very dangerous.
REPORTER: Why do you do this then if it’s so dangerous?
DRIVER (Translation): Because all my life since I was 18 I’ve been a taxi driver. It’s dangerous, but working in a hotel is dangerous. Working in a restaurant is dangerous. Everything is dangerous.
Acapulco has been called the most dangerous city in the world for taxi drivers. Extortion isn’t just happening in the city. In nearby coastal villages where the police rarely go, people have even less protection. I’m heading to the fishing village of Barra Vieja. It was popular with visiting tourists until the gangs moved in, but I’ve heard the community here is fighting back. People have become so fed up with the violence that in places they’ve organised themselves into groups of vigilantes. They call themselves the community police and I’ve come here to meet the man who inspired people in this area to rise up against the extortion gangs.
Renee Ozuna has been a fisherman here all his life. It’s a simple existence, making just enough money to live. But he watched with horror as his friends in this poor community fell into the grip of extortion gangs.
RENEE OZUNA, FISHERMAN (Translation): They used to come and say give me a fish. They’d want to take them all. If you said no they’d kill you.
REPORTER: That’s intolerable. They’d kill you for a fish?
RENEE OZUNA (Translation): They’d kill you for a fish because you wouldn’t give them one.
After fishing, it’s time to hunt criminals. Tonight they’re searching for a man they say is a gang leader known as El Huicho.
RENEE OZUNA (Translation): He’s made a lot of threatening calls to restaurants demanding money. He doesn’t go back to his house, he’s in hiding. But we’re looking for him to eliminate him. A dead dog can’t give you rabies.
REPORTER: How many people have you killed?
RENEE OZUNA (Translation): We’ve killed about 6 or 7 people, but just criminals, extortionists, criminals that have cut people into pieces. In civilian life, I’m a good person.
This time there’s no sign of El Huicho, but Renee’s group will keep looking because they believe the police won’t stop him. The police say Renee’s group is operating outside the law. But Renee and his men claim they’ve made the area safe again in just over a year.
REPORTER: Krish. Do you give any support to the community police? Do you give them money or food or anything like that?
BUSINESSMAN (Translation): They go house to house and you give them what you can.
There’s no doubt people here say the vigilantes have made a real difference to their security, but there is also a certain irony in the fact that this businessman said that he was never being extorted before, but now he pays a contribution to the costs of the community police. You could describe it as protection money.
Having seen the way Acapulco has been wrecked by extortion I’m heading back to Cancun. There’s been another shocking murder, a well-known police commander and his wife - also in the force - have been shot dead. Their 8 month old baby nephew was also hit and died later in hospital.
No wonder the US State Department has just warned tourists about travelling here. Even in such a high profile case, nobody’s been charged or arrested. To find out why, I’m going to see the State Prosecutor. The Prosecutor’s office here has become a big target for the criminal gangs. Earlier this year it was attacked by men on motorcycles who open fired with assault weapons. There are bullet holes all the way across the front of this building. Armed guards protect the Chief Prosecutor - Miguel Angel Pech Sen.
REPORTER: People have said to us that impunity is the big problem here. Why are so few cases taken to prosecution?
MIGUEL ANGEL PECH SEN, CHIEF PROSECUTOR (Translation): We can’t put pressure on people who are scared that if they speak out a member of their family or the informant themselves could die. That is often why we haven’t continued with an investigation.
REPORTER: And what do you think of the American judgement that Cancun is now dangerous for tourists to come to?
MIGUEL ANGEL PECH SEN (Translation): That is not a definitive prohibition against coming to Cancun. Rather it says ‘in Cancun there are problems, be careful.’
In the face of this growing wave of violence, I’m meeting Theresa Carmona, whose son was murdered, but is trying a different approach to dealing with it.
REPORTER: Theresa. I’m Krishnan.
THERESA CARMONA: Hi Krishnan.
REPORTER: Very nice to meet you. You started doing this because you lost your own son. Can you tell me what happened there?
THERESA CARMONA, MOTHER: Like many mothers in this country, one day I received a phone call, it was a Saturday morning, and from a friend and he told me “they killed Joaquin, they killed Joaquin”. Joaquin was 21 years old, and he was the joy of my life. He was my first born. So that was - well, everything changed from that moment and I’ve been trying to make visible the violence in the country.
Theresa does that in a unique and powerful way. For every new killing in Cancun she embroiders a cloth telling the story of the victim. So far, she’s made over 80.
THERESA CARMONA: Embroidering, it’s a loving thing we do. Our mothers and grandmothers used to embroider their loved one’s name on the handkerchiefs or on the sheets of the beds.
Her latest handkerchief is for the murdered police couple and their baby nephew.
THERESA CARMONA: We are keeping their memory alive. Without memory we cannot have truth and without truth we cannot have justice. The cancer of this country is impunity, because what happens if you go into a shopping mall and kill a family? Nothing happens, so why not do it?
Every Sunday, Theresa hangs her murder embroidery in the park. The first one she made was for her own son. He was shot dead in his apartment seven years ago. The murder has never been solved.
THERESA CARMONA: This is Joaquin’s handkerchief.
REPORTER: It’s very pretty.
THERESA CARMONA: It is. And I’m always thinking of adding some more stitches.
As the park fills up, people notice Theresa’s work and come to see it. She always invites the passers-by to join her and do some embroidery themselves, a moment of peaceful resistance to the normalisation of killing.
REPORTER: What do you think people get from doing this when they join you?
THERESA CARMONA: It’s a creative way to say ah, we resist. In this little corner of the world humanity has not succumbed.
When you talk to officials here it’s hard not to feel that they are either in denial or desperately trying not to scare the outside world. In five days we’ve covered three shootings, two of them fatal, one on this very beach. Cancun isn’t yet as dangerous as Acapulco, but all the conditions are here for it too to be destroyed by drugs, violence and extortion.
director + camera
13th March 2018