By By Joshua Partlow and Gabriela Martinez.
ACAPULCO, Mexico — From the beachfront boulevard, the predominant view here is of tourists throwing themselves into the sunset off bungee platforms above techno-blasting beer bars, as paragliders drift along under billowing Dos Equis chutes.
But closer up, you can’t miss the guns. There are state police with black masks in trucks with gun mounts. Roving pods of armed federal gendarmerie on souped-up three-wheelers. Assault-rifle-toting Mexican marines on foot patrols with armbands that read “Tourist Protection.”
Once the most famous and glamorous beach spot in Mexico, Acapulco has long struggled with drug violence and gang warfare that have sullied the sun-and-sand image. Over the past several months, teachers strikes and street protests have clogged the city. Military and federal forces took control from the ousted municipal police. Mexico’s worst tragedy of the past year, the disappearance and likely murder of 43 students at a teachers college, took place up the road in the same state, Guerrero.
“In the city of Acapulco, we definitely have security problems,” said Luis Walton, the former mayor and current gubernatorial candidate. “We hardly have any international tourism now.”
But despite the image problems, domestic tourism has been inching up. Droves of tourists are arriving — most are Mexicans leaving the capital during the Easter holiday. The city’s tourism department estimates that 350,000 people will visit Acapulco over the next two weeks — and occupancy rates in the city’s 18,500 hotel rooms will surpass 80 percent. Boosters say there have been no violent incidents targeting tourists in more than two years — since a group of six Spanish vacationers were raped by gunmen.
To attract tourists, there are cheap flights and discount hotel rooms. This spring, Acapulco has held an international banking conference, a professional tennis event and a big tourism conference. Expedia, the online travel company, said that demand for trips to Acapulco grew by 50 percent last year. But billy-club wielding marines and patrolling police trucks can be seen everywhere.
“The tourist area is ‘bullet-proof,’ ” said Netzah Peralta Radilla, the city’s tourism secretary, in a new government center to help tourists. And it needs to be. “We don’t have anything else. We live off of tourism. That’s why it’s so important.”
Grecia Falcon, a 22-year-old veterinary student from León, in central Mexico, was worried about spending her holiday in this “gangsters’ paradise,” but agreed to come with her friend who grew up in Acapulco.
“I’m kind of afraid,” she said, sitting on a beach blanket one evening next to tourists who had set up tents in the sand. Now that the local police have been replaced, “people do whatever they want.”
“We smoke and drink and fly kites,” she said. “They say the city’s more peaceful now that the cops are far away.”
For many Mexicans, the springtime rites of beach debauchery surpass any lingering fears of violence.
“I’m very happy to be here,” said Luis Alberto, wearing little more than his Mahalo Beach hotel wristband and holding a can of Modelo beer in the sweltering sun. “The problems are somewhere on the outskirts, not here.”
The 37-year-old real estate worker in Mexico City said visiting Acapulco is a “national phenomenon,” one he’s participated in more than a dozen times. He likes the happy hour deals, hotel specials and the toll-road discounts during holidays. “Everything’s cheaper here.”
Acapulco once symbolized luxury and glamour. A post-World War II haven for Hollywood stars such as Errol Flynn and John Wayne, it was known as the Mexican Riviera and a place where people like the Nixons would celebrate their anniversaries.
The gradual transformation from international hot spot to domestic weekend getaway has been accelerated by the city’s drug wars.
Walton, the former mayor, last year asked the federal government to send reinforcements after more than half of the city’s 1,500 local police failed the vetting to root out ties to organized crime. The city has been one of the early tests of the gendarmerie, a federal police force created by President Enrique Peña Nieto to be deployed to crisis spots.
Some business owners feel that the city’s war zone look is overkill.
“When they carry weapons of that caliber, the only thing it looks like is that they’re the ones who are afraid,” said Fernando Alvarez Aguilar, a restaurant owner and local historian. “The perception remains that the problems are enormous.”
But when the nights get going, and the salsa beats blast from the dance halls, security seems far from anyone’s mind.
On Thursday night outside the Baby Os nightclub, posh young Mexicans crowded the sidewalks and pressed themselves several deep against the velvet rope, calling out, “Martin! Martin!” trying to catch the bouncer’s attention. Inside, where you can watch AC/DC videos on a giant screen and drink a $1,000 bottle of tequila amid the cavern and jungle theme, the partiers pressed into every available nook.
“We’ve recovered some, without a doubt. We’re getting better, but we haven’t fully recovered,” said Carlos Hernandez, the club’s manager. “We haven’t yet become the business we should be.”
The abduction and disappearance of the 43 students from Iguala last fall is one of the reasons. The reaction to the tragedy grew into a national protest movement, with marches that drew tens of thousands in Mexico City and near daily demonstrations across Guerrero, including in Acapulco. Among the common protest tactics: blocking the highway connecting the beach town to the capital, which made potential tourists question running the gantlet of angry villagers just to visit the Señor Frog’s gift shop.
“Our tourists, many of them come from Mexico City, and they don’t want to deal with what they deal with every day there, with traffic and protests,” Hernandez said. “Many decide not to come because they’re afraid of a roadblock, that they’ll be stuck for hours on the highway.”
Tourism took a nose dive in the late fall. But the swell of visitors surged back for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, when many people head for beach towns across the country. During the peak days, hotel occupancy rates reached 98 percent, according to tourism officials.
“It’s the closest beach to Mexico City,” said Oscar Gomez, a 36-year-old bodyguard for a wealthy family in the capital who has already visited three times this year. During his January visit, to be safe, “I brought my gun.”
But Americans and other foreign tourists, so ubiquitous in other Mexican beach towns such as Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, seem far more scarce in Acapulco.
“The internationals have dropped off, but the Mexicans are still here,” said Alejandro Hidalgo, a 45-year-old school administrator from Toluca, as he sipped a piña colada. “I get afraid when I go to parts of Las Vegas. I’m afraid of Detroit. It’s always bad in cities where you’re unfamiliar.”
“Here, we feel safe with ourselves,” he said.