Mexico's Paradise, Lost

PHOTO:   A Mexican federal policeman stands guard near the beach on March 4, 2012 in Acapulco, Mexico.

John Moore/Getty

How to promote tourism in a place where visitors have been robbed, raped, killed and kidnapped? That's what Angel Aguirre, governor of the Mexican state of Guerrero, is trying to do. The answer: It may not be possible.

It's true that Mexico is a geographically blessed country, famed for its pristine beaches, magnificent mountains and canyons, and stunning desert vistas. Some of the most beautiful spots in the world, the basis of the nation's huge tourism industry, are found within its borders. But it is also one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas. The average number of drug-related deaths per month, an unofficial number that currently stands around 1,000, hasn't changed significantly since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012.

There has been some great news lately, about the recent capture of the leader of the Zetas drug cartel, Miguel Ángel Treviño, aka Z-40, which shows clear coordination and communication between the different law enforcement agencies and the army. He was one of the most sought-after drug traffickers in Mexico, second only to Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka Chapo Guzman, who is still at large. But Treviño's capture does not suggest any change in strategy on the war on drugs. Peña Nieto hasn't done anything different from his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, regarding public security matters, except to stop talking about the violence.

But although Mexico has a new president and a different political party is in power, Mexicans and tourists are just seeing more of the same. Though Treviño is in jail, others just as terrifying will take his place. People in Mexico will continue to be subject to violence, as usual.

During a recent interview in Miami, Aguirre pointed out that, despite the violence, Mexico is a beautiful country, with a lot to offer to visitors."You came here on an impossible mission," I said. He smiled and told me about his administration's plans: to build a tunnel in the port of Acapulco to reduce traffic congestion; to offer "vaporetto" ferry service, like in Venice, to transport tourists across the bay; to provide "sun insurance" to visitors ("If the sun doesn't shine at least three hours on a given day, we'll make it up to you with an extra hotel night"); and even to launch an advertising campaign featuring the singer Luis Miguel.

But Guerrero was the most violent state in Mexico in 2012, tallying the highest number of rapes, abductions and murders, according to Mexico's Center for Research Development. And Acapulco was the most dangerous municipality in the country, according to the Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice."You want visitors to come visit the most dangerous city and the most violent state in Mexico," I said to the governor.

"I wouldn't put it that way," he answered. "I can also produce numbers showing that criminality has decreased by 40 percent in Acapulco. We haven't had major incidents or crime in recent months, and the tourism sector is perfectly secured."

I pointed out that in February, six Spanish women who were vacationing together in the Acapulco area were raped by masked gunmen who broke into their bungalow. In May, 11 people were found murdered in Guerrero. The same month some police cars were stolen from Acapulco's police department. The media is full of stories about similar cases.

"I do recognize we have a very serious problem, linked to the poverty and misery in many state municipalities," he said. "Unfortunately, the public security issue was grossly neglected." Then he explained that the men who raped the Spanish tourists were captured within a week, that the car-theft rate has decreased and that the Mexican army now handles security operations in Guerrero. "Acapulco is entering a new phase, " he added.

The governor, who was on tour to promote tourism in his state, reminded me that many Mexicans have fallen in love, had their first kiss, have partied and were even conceived in Acapulco. He's right. I too have many pleasant memories of great vacations there. But I also remember that during my last trip to Acapulco two years ago, a head without ears was found in the front seat of a car on Acapulco's main street, and the beheaded body was in the back seat. The killers left a note threatening the governor. "I don't recall that case precisely," Aguirre said. "What can I say? That's terrible!"

Two drug cartels are fighting for control of Acapulco, and that is perhaps the root of the violence. But Aguirre says that his government won't negotiate with drug traffickers. "The worst thing a politician can have is a link with the organized crime."

To his credit, few politicians would have met with me as Aguirre did. He knew it would not be an easy interview, and even so, he went ahead with it. He is indeed a man on a mission.

But no advertising campaign can direct attention away from the violence that is taking place in Acapulco. Peña Nieto's non-communicative strategy seems to be his only strategy regarding drug-related violence, but keeping quiet won't change the body count.

Does his administration want more tourists to visit Mexico? If so, we and his team need to start making changes that will prevent drug-related deaths in the country. If they succeed, the tourism industry in Acapulco and the rest of Mexico may recover, but not before.

Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the senior news anchor for Univision Network. Mexican-born Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, "A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto."

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