Mexico: Increasing violence in celebrity retreat of Los Cabos shows criminal influence spreading to previously unaffected tourist areas
Three men were shot dead on 6 August during a daylight attack by five gunmen at a beach in Los Cabos, a high-end resort corridor frequented by George Clooney and other Hollywood celebrities in the Pacific coast state of Baja California Sur. The shootout, which apparently targeted a rival gang, sent tourists fleeing in panic before police evacuated the beach. Previously, on 9 July, three people were found shot dead in a car abandoned in a hotel car park in the town of Cabo San Lucas. In addition, in June a forensics team disinterred sixteen bodies from scrubland behind a beach in Los Cabos.
Baja California Sur – a state which has historically had one of the country’s lowest crime rates – has seen a dramatic rise in murders during the last year. For instance, 252 murders were recorded in January-June, a 342 percent increase on the same period of last year. Police believe that these incidents reflect increased competition between rival gangs attempting to establish dominance over a new drugs trafficking route from other parts of the country to the US through Baja California Sur. The two groups vying for control of the route appear to be the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and one of the rival factions of the Sinaloa cartel.
This crime surge in Baja California Sur follows a similar phenomenon in Riviera Maya, the more popular resort corridor in the Caribbean coastal state of Quintana Roo. Since the start of this year dozens of people have been killed – including several foreigners – in the towns of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, as a result of shootouts among rival gang members, also linked to the CJNG and the Sinaloa cartel, and between these and police. Quintana Roo recorded 134 murders in January-June, up 106 percent on last year.
Both sets of figures are part of a broader trend of rising violent crime which has progressively affected most of the country’s 32 states over the past two years. Nationwide, 2,234 murders were recorded in June, a 36 percent increase on last year and the highest monthly total since data began to be collated countrywide in 1997. The June figure brought the first-half total to 12,155. Most analysts attribute the increase to a more pronounced fracturing of previously dominant crime groups, inadequate public security policies, and failings in the criminal justice system.
Despite the rising trend however, and the high level of violence in certain states such as Guerrero and Sinaloa, the national figure still leaves Mexico’s annualised murder rate below those of Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. However, the trends in Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo show that, within the country, inter-gang turf wars are spreading geographically, including into tourism-dependent areas once considered off-limits. This has already happened, for example, in Guerrero State’s Acapulco, whose tourism sector has been decimated since 2011 by gang violence.
Therefore, if crime in Baja California Sur evolves similarly to that in Quintana Roo, which seems likely, businesses in towns such as Cabo San Lucas are likely to increasingly become the targets of related crimes, such as extortion, in the coming months. The Government of President Enrique Pena Nieto is acutely aware of the economic impact if rising crime in such areas begins to deter tourists, and this is likely to prompt it to despatch Federal Police and military reinforcements to Baja California Sur over the next few weeks. However, similar policies have so far had only a very limited impact in the Riviera Maya, meaning that foreign visitors to Los Cabos, along with any businesses there, will likely be increasingly exposed to direct and collateral security risks over the coming few months.