This Dream Vacation Hotspot Is Spiraling Into a Deadly Cartel Battlefield

·5 min read

Two foreign female tourists were caught in a crossfire between rival crime groups and shot to death last Thursday in the high-end resort town of Tulum, Mexico. Three other people were also wounded when the firefight broke out in the popular restaurant, La Malquerida, not far from the beach. Of the two women who were killed, one was from Germany and the other India.

“They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got caught in an exchange of gunfire between competing drug traffickers,” said a high-ranking Mexican police commander, who agreed to speak with The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s a sad mistake for the victims, but such cases are not rare or unusual anymore [in and around Tulum]. When a firefight breaks out no one is safe,” the commander said.

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A playground for celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Tulum is famous for its Mayan-era ruins and pristine beaches. But Tulum and the rest of the Riviera Maya are increasingly becoming inundated by cartel violence. An American firefighter was kidnapped and murdered from an all-inclusive resort in July. In June, another American was wounded in a shooting that killed two other people when gunmen opened fire from jet skis. A man was executed outside a law office in Cancun this August, prompting additional headlines about how violence “continues to take over” in the region.

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A report by Mexican news outlet La Reforma, from earlier this year, indicated that at least five cartels are now operating in the Riviera Maya and reports of violent crime in Tulum alone had gone up 783 percent since 2019.

Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, told The Daily Beast that the Riviera “has become a highly coveted area by the cartels, even more so recently because it is in the Yucatán Peninsula, which has a long coastline with little control by Mexico’s security forces.”

“Logically in the struggle for power and drug trafficking routes the cartels desire tourist zones. There are many people all around, so it’s easier to disguise and move contraband and to launder money in the hotels and other businesses,” said the police commander.

He added that narcotics are brought into the coastal region from Central and South America using “airports, hidden landing strips, and by sea via go-fast boats that can elude the Mexican navy.”

Dr. Robert J. Bunker, director of research and analysis at the security firm C/O Futures LLC, said Tulum has become “a cartel snake pit.”

Bunker named the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel as the two biggest players in the region. Smaller gangs such as the Pelones, Bonfil, and fragments of the once-mighty Zetas cartel also compete for revenue streams from a variety of underworld activities. The rackets include extortion, prostitution, local drug sales, and kidnapping, as well as “using ATM skimmers to rip off unsuspecting tourists,” Bunker said.

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One of the most blatant smuggling strategies the cartels have adopted in the region is that of landing illicit planes bringing cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela. In at least one case, a jet laden with white gold even landed on a public highway to be unloaded.

“The closing of land borders because of COVID-19—and the pressure from the U.S. to crack down on migrant caravans—have caused Mexico to divert thousands of troops to its southern border,” said the DEA’s Vigil. “The increased presence of security forces on the border with Central America has created a significant shift to Quintana Roo [the state in which the Riviera Maya is located] using jet aircraft.”

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Security analyst Bunker said that cartel violence in major tourist centers in Mexico can be self-perpetuating, especially if international tourism begins to dry up because of it.

“This negatively impacts the local economies which cater to the tourists, which in turns lower the available pool of money local gangs are extorting from the businesses, which then raises violence levels, which furthers the downward cycle,” Bunker said. “Remember, once upon a time Acapulco was the go-to resort spot in Mexico—now it’s a nightmare of cartel violence. The danger is other tourist regions, such as the Mayan Riviera, now being on the same trajectory.”

This also echoes what has happened in Baja California—which is home to the high-end resorts around Los Cabos, often frequented by celebs like George Clooney—as it too has become a popular corridor for drug trafficking into the U.S. This has led to Los Cabos becoming one of the most violent cities in the world.

Although one man was apprehended near the Malquerida restaurant in Tulum after last Thursday’s deadly shootout, the other hitmen involved in the gun battle escaped. According to the police commander, it’s unlikely any further arrests will be made.

“The criminals will just move their operations to another part of town and the violence will go on. It will not stop. Tulum will continue to be targeted because the trafficking is very easy there for the cartels,” the commander said.

“It’s one of the best places in all of Mexico for sending drugs overland to the U.S.”

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