By Jude Webber.

The gangs first came looking for Israel at one of his bars in the Mexican seaside resort of Acapulco last September. 

Once they had found him, the demands for cash began. He paid up, 40,000 pesos ($2,270) a month. It has been such a financial strain in a town where the local economy is already stifled by crime, with tourists and locals often not daring to go out, that he expects to close one of his bars soon. His mistake was to report the extortion to the authorities. “Don’t look for intermediaries again,” came back the message. “Just pay what you have to pay.” 

To ram home the point, gunmen recently pumped seven shots into one of his unarmed bouncers and three into another. They survived, but failure to pay up is usually fatal. Another Acapulco restaurant owner was shot dead on his premises in broad daylight three weeks ago and Israel — not his real name — is taking his family’s advice to shut up, and pay up. 

An estimated 150 business owners have been killed in Acapulco since January 2016 and about 1,800 to 2,000 local businesses have closed in the past two to three years, according to local leaders of the Chamber of Commerce. The tropical surf paradise, once a glitzy getaway for Hollywood starlets, is riding a brutal Mexican wave of violent crime. “I feel completely unprotected. I’m at their mercy,” says Israel of the gangs extorting him. “They call the shots here in Acapulco.” Related article Mexico’s worsening violence dogs Peña Nieto Wave of murders invites comparisons to darkest days of country’s drug wars.

But it is not just this emblematic seaside resort that has been blighted by violence, although a prison riot this month when 28 died and several were decapitated has ensured Acapulco has remained in the spotlight. Interior ministry statistics show that nationally, Mexico suffered 11,155 murders in the first five months of this year — nearly 74 a day — a rise of 31 per cent in murders on the same period in 2016.  But experts say the murder tally by the national statistics office, Inegi, tends to be higher and say that if the current rate keeps up, 2017 is on course for a total of 30,000 murders. That eclipses the 27,213 recorded by Inegi in 2011 at the height of the then government’s failed crackdown on drug cartels and is a far cry from the declining murder rate that Enrique Peña Nieto inherited when he took office in 2012.  That is despite the government sending in troops to flashpoint areas and capturing a host of drug lords, including Mexico’s most wanted, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. 

His extradition sparked a violent turf war. The rise of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and fragmentation of traditional cartels have also triggered bloody battles with rivals and security forces in different parts of the country. Clashes have intensified as petrol theft has emerged as big business for organised crime and different gangs have sought to muscle in on, or keep rivals out of, the lucrative trade. “I see the situation as out of control in some places,” says Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst. 

Killings of journalists have spiralled with seven murders so far this year, and while the government recognises a problem with violence, it says the Mexican murder rate is well below that of other countries in the region such as Honduras, Belize, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. Crime and corruption are big voter concerns as Mexico heads into presidential elections next July in which the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party looks set to be punished for its poor record in tackling the two most urgent problems. 

“The situation is getting worse . . . I don’t see any hope,” says Israel. He deposits his monthly “quota”, as the extortion money is called, in a bank account for people purporting to be from the Beltrán Leyva cartel — although he doesn’t know for sure that they are. He says they took over the patch from the Independent Acapulco Cartel. Other groups are also active — evidence of what some security analysts call Mexico’s descent into disorganised crime. 

From Eduardo Wichtendahl’s luxurious hilltop restaurant, Zibu, overlooking the turquoise bay of Puerto Marqués, Acapulco looks like a peaceful slice of paradise. But Mr. Wichtendahl used the inauguration of a new tunnel in the city earlier this month to deliver some uncomfortable home truths to Mr Peña Nieto’s face. “Here in Acapulco is where tourism in our country began . . . help us, Mr President, to end crime once and for all,” he said at the event. “We don’t want Acapulco on any lists of dangerous cities any more, we want to recover Acapulco . . . what tourists want, what we all want is to feel safe.” He smiles. “I don’t think the president expected it.” 

But he is more upbeat than many, highlighting a 20 per cent drop in murders in Acapulco in the first five months of this year and he welcomes the government’s efforts to rein in violence. 

But there remains a long way to go. “Violence has become normal,” says Roberto Jacinto de la Cruz, head of the National Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism in Acapulco. “We’re used to it.» 

Source Financial Times