Cancun, Quintana Roo, has long been a world-class beach city thanks to its vibrant culture, mouthwatering food, and pristine water. 2023 has been a record-setting year for tourism thus far, but there are reasons to worry about the future of Mexico’s number-one tourist destination.
While tourism is booming, violence associated with organized crime spreads to areas previously considered safe. In 2023, there were two separate instances of fatal shootings within the Cancun hotel zone, and on one occasion, an American teenager on vacation was approached and shot in the leg. Most gruesomely, officials discovered three human heads and a written warning outside a Mexican military building this May.
While tourism rates remain high, the Mexican government’s drastic response to the violence highlights the severity of the situation.
Ahead of Easter, Mexico deployed more than 8,000 members of the National Guard to beach cities across the country. Of these troops, 1,125 were sent to Cancun. The National Guard is under civilian control, but only because the Supreme Court struck down legislation to make it a department of the Army.
Regardless of its classification, the National Guard functions as a “defacto branch of the armed forces,” according to Human Rights Watch. Army and Navy members on temporary deployment make up 80% of the National Guard, and military-grade helicopters, trucks, and boats currently patrol tourist areas under its command.
Military intervention in Mexican domestic security began in 2006, but militarizing tourist areas is a desperate move by the government, which has been downplaying the insecurity in Mexico. Heavily armed military personnel patrolling scenic beaches and bustling plazas do not fit the narrative pushed by the Mexican government. Weeks before sending the National Guard to Cancun, President Lopez Obrador bragged that Mexico was safer than the United States. Quintana Roo Governor Mara Lezama accused the U.S. government and media of waging a “dirty war” against tourism in Mexico.
The claim that Cancun is safe for tourists is valid to an extent. The United States Department of State currently rates the state of Quintana Roo as a “level 2” safety destination, the same designation given to France and the United Kingdom. Although there are exceptions, violence against tourists is uncommon compared to violence against locals.
Violence against foreigners is rare for the same reason that violence is generally rising in Cancun. Foreign tourists bring a lot of money to beach towns. Organized crime must compete for the territory to extort the people and businesses that profit from tourism. However, if tourists themselves are affected, they will vacation elsewhere. Organized crime delicately balances violence against rivals with maintaining peace for tourists. This balancing act is likely behind the rare apology issued by the Gulf Cartel for killing Americans this Spring.
In Cancun, organized crime, the tourism industry, and the Mexican government are trying to avoid the fate of Mexico’s last great tourist destination, Acapulco. Once the playground of the rich and famous, Acapulco now has the second-highest murder rate in the world. In the 2000s, the arrival of the Zeta Cartel led to turf wars with the Sinaloa Cartel. As the violence scared away tourists, criminal organizations lost revenue from drug trafficking and turned to extortion. With new fees imposed by gangs and less income from tourism, thousands of businesses closed down. Thus a feedback loop began as criminal organizations pushed remaining businesses even harder, causing even more economic hardship for all involved.
We may be watching the same loop begin in Cancun. As tourism booms, criminal organizations continue to compete for territory. While cartels wish to keep violence away from tourists, Acapulco is a dangerous example of how violence can spread despite everyone’s best interests. The Mexican government is betting that military intervention can stop the loop before it is too late.
There are serious reasons to question whether the military can restore order in Cancun. Human rights groups allege cases of abuse by the Mexican military, including the arbitrary detainment of citizens, torture, and extrajudicial execution. In an extreme case earlier this year, members of the National Guard killed a 15-year-old pregnant woman after firing upon an SUV full of civilians. Such actions in Cancun could further destabilize the security situation.
Corruption is another cause of skepticism towards using the military to fight organized crime. In 2020, the United States arrested former Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos for protecting cartel operations. After President Lopez Obrador expressed outrage over the arrest, charges were dropped, and Gen. Cienfuegos was exonerated in Mexico. The incident undermined confidence in the Mexican military as President Lopez Obrador was increasing its role in domestic affairs and created doubt over the accountability of high-ranking officials.
Ultimately, force is not a sustainable solution to violence in a state where 80 cents of every dollar generated ends up in the hands of investors. The United Nations finds high inequality rates in Latin America are associated with high levels of violence, and Quintana Roo is a prime example. Despite massive foreign investments in the state ($226 billion in 2022), more than 35% of Cancun residents live in poverty, and over 8% lack clean water. Women and indigenous people, in particular, are often relegated to low-paying jobs, while men from other regions of the country work high-paying managerial positions.
If the Cancun tourism industry wants to avoid the fate of Acapulco, it must take action to alleviate inequality and improve the quality of life in the region. While increased security measures may be part of a short-term solution, the situation will eventually crumble unless the foundational issues are addressed.
[Photo by Safa in la, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
James Chabin covers security and tourism for the Cancun Sun and is a Graduate Student at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Nagoya, Japan.