By Tim Johnson
Rival criminal gangs have hijacked this glitzy-but-faded Pacific resort, where the Hollywood Rat Pack once sipped martinis, Elvis filmed a musical comedy, Elizabeth Taylor wed (again) and starlets danced the night away.
Acapulco's newest arrivals are drug lords, and residents now cower from shootouts and keep a watch out for severed heads. Some visitors to the city simply vanish. Gunmen seized 20 Mexican men in broad daylight on Sept. 30. They haven't been seen since.
Occupancy rates have plummeted along the ghostly boulevard of beachfront hotels. Restaurants sit empty — or shuttered.
The mayhem hasn't dulled the beauty of Acapulco, set on a semicircular bay flanked by mountains alive with bougainvillea, a stunning backdrop that made it the nation's oldest and best-known resort, "the pearl of the Pacific."
Violence has cast a dark cloud on many of the city's 800,000 residents, however.
"Everybody seems to be armed," said Areli Garcia Santana, a 22-year-old orthodontics student. "There are gunfights all over."
Even residents accustomed to the growing violence are spooked.
"Acapulco is on its back. People see the security situation as very bad. After 10 at night, there's fear," said Victor Diaz Juarez, a social scientist at the National Autonomous University of Guerrero.
During winter, cruise ships still call in Acapulco, arriving from San Francisco and beyond. In recent years, Acapulco has revived in March as a favored spring-break destination.
At other times of the year, though, foreign tourists keep their distance, wary of the deteriorating public safety.
Rather than blame drug-related violence for Acapulco's woes, hotel owners frequently accuse the media and citizenry of failing to protect the port's image, even denying that security is a problem.
"Why satanize a destination like Acapulco, where we live exclusively from tourism?" asked Javier Saldivar, the head of the National Chamber of Commerce in Acapulco. "If you walk along the Miguel Aleman Coastline (Boulevard) or along the beach, there are plenty of law enforcement officers."
Diaz, the university professor, said the presence of police only obscured the deepening corruption in Acapulco's social fabric. Many of the cops are on the take from the cartels, he said.
"You see a lot of police cruisers pass along, designed so that tourists don't get scared, but the truth is there is no control," Diaz said.
At least three narcotics bands dispute power over Acapulco's strategic port: remnants of the Beltran Leyva cartel, Los Zetas and the Familia Michoacana.
In a brazen broad-daylight shootout on April 14, gunmen killed six people and wounded five others along the landscaped main boulevard in the tourist district, shattering hotel windows and triggering a chain of auto accidents with the blaze of automatic weapons fire. Among the victims were a woman and her 8-year-old daughter, the apparent targets.
Drug gang henchmen frequently use police or military uniforms, heightening a sense of insecurity. On Sept. 25, drug enforcers dressed in camouflage uniforms typical of marines threw grenades at a safe house that belonged to a rival group, then entered and executed seven men.
The same week, henchmen killed two nephews of the deputy city transit director, severing their heads and displaying them on a street. A sign accused the city official of being in the pocket of the Beltran Leyva cartel.
It was the daylight abduction, though, of a group of 20 men near a church on Sept. 30 that truly laid bare some of the crosscurrents of violence that rack the city.
The men, ranging in age from 17 to 47, were from the state of Michoacan, where drug lords' influence is vast. Many locals dismissed the vehement claims of family members that the victims were tourists, suggesting instead that they were hit men deployed for the battles raging in the city. The underlying message: Good riddance.
"Acapulco society does not believe that they were tourists," Saldivar said.
While it may offer consolation that tourists aren't vanishing, the arrival of vehicles filled with cartel hit men can't help Acapulco burnish a faded image as the former glamour resort of Mexico.
It takes only a stroll around the walkways and lobbies of hotels such as Los Flamingos and Villa Vera to discern how far Acapulco has fallen.
If the sweet bungalows of the Villa Vera could whisper their secrets, Frank Sinatra probably would be singing in the background. After all, it was here that The Voice romanced Ava Gardner. Regular visitors included Gina Lollobrigida, Rita Hayworth and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, who gazed into the eyes of producer Mike Todd, making him the third of her eight marital conquests.
John F. Kennedy brought Jacqueline to honeymoon in Acapulco in 1953, landing in a villa with a panoramic oceanfront view.
These days, the villa sits on the market with no takers. Asking price: $950,000. The owner, who lives in Florida, gave a hint of why he left the city.
"The biggest problem for me is that they were kidnapping people for any sum of money. It could be $2,000 or it could be millions. And they never make any arrests," he said, asking that his name not be used out of fears for his safety.
Around a bluff from which famous cliff divers plunge into the Pacific, Adolfo Santiago, the general manager of Los Flamingos Hotel, stood on the veranda, surveying the empty parking lot. Behind him, photos of Hollywood stars, including former owners Johnny Weissmuller and John Wayne, covered the walls. A ghostly quiet pervaded the hallways, restaurant and bar.
Asked how many, if any, guests were at the hotel, Santiago said: "Very few."
11 Killed in Drug-Related Violence in Mexican Pacific Resort City
At least 11 people were killed in separate incidents blamed on drug traffickers in Acapulco, a resort city on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast, officials said.
The series of killings started Sunday night, when unidentified individuals dumped the bodies of six men who had been blindfolded and bound in El 30, a community at the entrance to Acapulco.
A message left with the bodies said the killings were a settling of scores by the Beltran Leyva drug cartel with members of the organization led by Edgar Valdez Villarreal, who was recently arrested.
The bodies of three other men were found Monday morning in Pie de la Cuesta, a community in southeast Acapulco, along with a message signed by Valdez Villarreal’s gunmen.
A man who was shot and left for dead by the gunmen was found at the crime scene.
Other bodies were found in different parts of Acapulco along with messages highlighting the rivalry between the gunmen working for the Beltran Leyva cartel and those employed by Valdez Villarreal’s organization.
The Beltran Leyva cartel was led by Arturo Beltran Leyva, who died in a shootout with marines at a luxury condo in Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state, on Dec. 16.
Hector Beltran Leyva took over control of the cartel after Arturo’s death, but he had to battle a rival faction led by Valdez Villarreal for control of the organization.
The 37-year-old Valdez Villarreal, known as “La Barbie,” was arrested by Federal Police on Aug. 30.
The Texas-born Valdez Villarreal was the chief enforcer for Beltran Leyva and decided to follow Arturo and his brothers when they left the Sinaloa cartel in 2008 to set up their own organization.
The organization created by brothers Arturo, Mario Alberto, Carlos, Alfredo and Hector Beltran Leyva smuggles cocaine, marijuana and heroin and has lucrative sidelines in people trafficking, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, contract killings and arms smuggling.
Two weeks after Arturo was killed, Carlos Beltran Leyva was arrested on Dec. 30 in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, leaving Hector in nominal charge of the cartel.
The arrests of drug kingpins, however, have not stemmed the violence in Mexico, where more than 28,000 people have died in gangland killings since President Felipe Calderon launched his war on the cartels in December 2006.
More than 7,000 gangland killings have occurred so far this year in Mexico, according to officials, while the death toll for all of 2009 was 7,724.