ACAPULCO, Mexico – After nightfall in Acapulco, a once-celebrated Pacific coast vacation destination that is better known today for being one of Mexico’s most violent cities, Juan Alvarado, the wide-shouldered 39-year-old director of the city’s police division focusing on protecting tourists, peered out of the window from the front seat passenger seat of his police pick-up truck. He gazed toward a row of shuttered storefronts. His assault rifle jiggled on his lap. Two other police officers sat in the back of the truck, also carrying machine guns.
Although Mexico’s Federal Police and army have reduced the presence of organized crime groups, violent thugs continue to operate in Acapulco. During the course of the week leading up to Alvarado’s interview with Fox News Latino, the corpse of a taxi driver was found showing signs of torture. Much of his face had been sliced away. El Sol de Acapulco, one of the local newspapers, reported that the city’s tortilla makers had launched a tax boycott until the police helped them confront the city’s extortionists. In the same week, a man was found with his arms and legs cut off inside his home and several armed attacks ― on the street and one inside a taco restaurant ― ended up with fatalities.
Gesturing out through the police truck’s windshield, Alvarado pointed up at a large hotel on a cliff in the distance, a remnant of an earlier and more peaceful chapter in the city’s history. Back in the 1950s, “it was known as the hotel of the Hollywood Gang,” he said. He pointed to another hotel. “That’s the Hotel Mirador, it’s the oldest one here,” he said.
Once a hideaway for the clique of Hollywood stars led by John Wayne, Cary Grant and Liz Taylor, Acapulco has more recently become home to a different type of gang.
Security has improved over the last few years, but gunmen from local criminal groups continue to battle in the city’s poorer mountainside neighborhoods. Although the police have worked to create a sort of Green Zone in the city’s tourist havens, residents in poorer residential areas continue to complain about extortion, robbery, and other criminal activity. As the truck rumbled toward La Quebrada, one of the city’s historic hotel areas, Alvarado explained, “it’s changed a lot in five years. There’s an increase in security. In the coastal areas you can walk at any time,” he said.
“But,” he acknowledged, “there are places [in the city] where it’s more complicated.”
Three years ago, at the height of the cartel battle in Acapulco, Alvarado needed an escort of five armed officers to pick him up and drop him off at his house. Now he drives himself to and from work. “Before there were shoot-outs in the street but now it’s more ordinary crime.”
“The violent acts happen in the colonias,” higher up on the hills, Alvarado said.
Although many cruise lines still refuse to dock in Acapulco, at least for some residents life on the coast is returning to normal.
On a recent afternoon, young men sipped beers on the beach while a middle-aged man used his iPhone to snap a photo of three children standing nearby.
“Two years ago there were fewer people here,” Alvarado explained.
In 2011, there were 1,008 homicides in Acapulco and in 2012 there were 1,170, an average rate of nearly 100 per month ― nearly double the count reported in Ciudad Juárez, a border town dubbed Murder City after it had the highest murder rate in the world in 2010.
Now the violent trend seems to be subsiding, but barely.
Between December 1 and July 31, the first eight months of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s in office, Acapulco reported 625 murders, the highest rate of any city in Mexico, more than Mexico City, an urban hub with a population that is more than ten times larger than Acapulco’s. Overall, Guerrero, the state where Acapulco is located, bares the unwelcome distinction of being the home to the highest number of organized crime-related murders of any state in the country.
As the cartel conflict burns on, in Acapulco the municipal, state and federal governments are coordinating to improve security in the tourist areas along the beach.
“All three levels of government are coordinating together,” Alvarado explained. They are also working to bolster Acapulco’s image, encourage tourists to return, and help renovate and rebuild the city’s historic hotel districts.
“These guys don’t fight with words, they’re well armed,” said Jesus Cortez Jimenez, the city’s 34-year-old Secretary of Public Security who previously worked as the leader of an anti-drug Federal Police task force in neighboring Michoacan. “We’re watching over traditional Acapulco. We have 40 federal police, 60 state police, and 25 city police in that [coastal] area.”
According to Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City-based security analyst, drug smugglers have shifted away from ocean shipment routes that might pass through Acapulco’s port in favor of land routes that crosses through Guatemala.
“The value of Acapulco has diminished for the drug cartels,” he said. “It’s no longer cartel vs. cartel. It’s small gangs fighting for small revenue streams, the retail drug market and extortion.”
Although crime continues to affect many aspects of life in Acapulco, the local government is intent on renovating the older areas and promoting the resort city’s historic past.
“Traditional Acapulco, Acapulco Viejo, had its time. The 50s, 60s, 70s, that’s when Acapulco really flowered on the global stage. Diego Rivera, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Juan Gabriel, they bought houses here,” said Elsa Masina, a friendly 52-year-old owner of Bella Italia restaurant.
In the 1980s, Acapulco fell out of favor with international tourists, who prefer to visit beaches on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast or isolated bays on the oceanfront south of Acapulco in the state of Oaxaca.
Now local politicians are confident that Acapulco will bounce back, and they point at some encouraging signs: Jennifer Lopez picked Acapulco Viejo to film the video for her duet with reggaeton stars Wisin and Yandel; Miami-based rapper Flo Rida filmed the video for his hit song “Whistle” in Acapulco; Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim chose the city as the site for his new Telmex call center and is investing in the hotel district. He also chairs the city’s Consultative Board for the Restoration of Traditional Acapulco.
Down the street from Bella Italia, workers smoothed the cement in front of the new bus stops for the Mexico City-style rapid bus transit system. The new system will replace the garishly decorated school buses that carry residents up and down the city’s coastline. Unlike the city’s current ad hoc system of kitschy spray-painted buses, the new urban transport system won’t feature a bass-booming reggaeton soundtrack.
Other aspects of the city’s somewhat seedy underbelly may be harder to erase.
A 28-year-old taxi driver who requested anonymity over concerns about his safety said “extortion still happens.”
“Tortillerias and even some taxi owners pay protection money, but if a ratero [thief] comes and causes a problem… [click],” he made the motion of a pistol’s hammer clicking with his thumb while holding out his index finger like a gun barrel.
Matthew Silverman, a 29-year-old lawyer from Manhattan visiting Acapulco Viejo during a recent vacation, said he doesn’t let the headlines faze him.
“Although the newspaper headlines and armed guards are a bit disconcerting, since I arrived here I’ve felt mostly safe,” he said.
As his police truck rolled toward the famously tranquil La Caleta beachfront near the recently renovated Boca Chica Hotel, Alvarado said Acapulco has come a long way.
“Acapulco was dying of hunger, but now it’s improving. There’s a lot more tourism,” he said. “Three or four years ago you didn’t see people [at night] and now at one in the morning it’s full of people here.”
Nathan Parish Flannery is a freelance reporter based out of Mexico City who has worked on projects in Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, India, China and Chile. Follow him on Twitter: @LatAmLENS.