A Gang Rape Reinforces Acapulco’s Decline, but What of Mexico’s Other Resorts?

The once iconic tourist mecca no longer attracts the huge numbers it once did, but tourism is till booming in the rest of Mexico

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Jesus Espinosa / ZUMA PRESS

This Feb. 5, 2013 photo shows a general view of the place where six Spanish tourists were raped while on vacation

The onetime tourist mecca of Acapulco is still reeling from the horrific details of a Feb. 4 attack as the alleged details continue to filter into the Mexican and Spanish press. According to the reports, at 2 a.m. on that Monday morning, five masked gunmen stormed a holiday bungalow where a dozen Spanish tourists were staying; they tied up six Spanish men with phone cables and bathing shorts, robbed them of their money and drank their mescal, then they gang-raped six Spanish women; they allegedly spared one Mexican woman who was with them because of her nationality; throughout the three-hour ordeal — filled with screaming and shouting — no neighbors called the police.

In the aftermath of the incident, Mexican officials struggled to limit the fallout on Mexico’s image and tourist industry. Acapulco Mayor Luis Walton initially made the mistake of saying that such things happen “everywhere in the world” and had to apologize for it the next day, weeping on television as he tried to look penitent for trying to minimize the atrocity. Mexico’s Congress approved a special commission to look into the crime as Senator Mariana Gómez accused the mayor of shedding crocodile tears. State prosecutors promised arrests the day after the attack but still had none three days later. President Enrique Peña Nieto finally stepped in Thursday calling for a federal response to what would normally be a state-level crime. “It is inadmissible what happened recently in Acapulco, where six women of our sister nation of Spain were raped,” Peña Nieto said.

(MORE: Mexico Seeks Culprits in Rape of Six Spaniards)

To add to the Pacific resort’s woes, a Mexican think thank released a report Thursday that classified Acapulco as the second most murderous city on the planet. There were 143 homicides per 100,000 residents there last year, just behind San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with 169 per 100,000, according to the Citizens’ Council for Public Security. The government of Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located, lashed back, challenging the numbers as a “distortion of reality,” while Mayor Walton waded in again, saying the report “hurts me.”

It is yet to be seen how much damage the gang rape could do to Mexico’s wider tourist industry, which is expecting its annual influx of American spring breakers. U.S.-based tour operators are quick to point out that Acapulco is now rarely visited by Americans and Europeans anyway, with most going to the cleaner and safer resorts of Cabo, Cancún and others. John Hecht, a travel writer who treks far afield in Mexico, agrees that one cannot generalize about violence in Mexico’s vast 760,000 sq. mi. of turf. “It definitely shouldn’t reflect on Mexico as a whole. The stuff that is going on is happening in pockets of the country, and most tourists are not affected by its violence,” Hecht says. “You have to let people know that things are not as bad as they think they are.”

Homicide figures support the argument that all of Mexico shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush. Yucatán, the country’s safest state, has the same murder rate per capita as Belgium, and even the seething capital, Mexico City, has a homicide rate of nine per 100,000, similar to Boston and much lower than Detroit or New Orleans. During the past five years of intense Mexican drug violence, foreign tourists generally seemed to have recognized this distinction. While visits plummeted to border cities such as Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juárez, the white Caribbean beaches south of Cancún remained packed. Mexico had its best tourism year on record in 2011, with 22.7 million foreign holidaymakers.

(MORE: Return of the Zapatista: Are Mexico’s Rebels Still Relevant?)

Still, Acapulco has always garnered special attention as the granddaddy of Mexican tourist resorts. It was around its bay that Elvis Presley and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller sipped margaritas out of coconut shells back in the 1960s. As the city mushroomed into a sprawling metropolis, gangsters used it is as a Pacific trafficking point, local drug market and a place to buy real estate. Turf wars between rival cartels left severed heads on the beaches and firefights on downtown streets. When Mexican security forces shot or arrested the kingpins who controlled Acapulco crime, such as Arturo “The Beard” Beltrán Leyva and Edgar “The Barbie” Valdez, it left many trained hit men without leaders. Squads of gunmen only loosely linked to cartels now operate in the city extorting money, kidnapping people and carrying out atrocities.

The gang rape has also drawn attention to sexual violence in Mexico, where police have been overwhelmed with cartel mass murders and massacres. Mexico has certainly not suffered the same levels of these crimes as South Africa, where another gang-rape case gained international attention this week. Police data shows that Mexico had 13 reported rapes per 100,000 in 2010, much lower than many countries around the world. But figures on sexual violence are very murky. Sweden has one of the highest number of reported rapes, but it is also has a culture that encourages people to denounce such crimes.

Whatever the total numbers, there have been various high-profile incidents of sexual violence in Mexico. Hundreds of rapes and murders in Ciudad Juárez over the past two decades have garnered global concern. Sandra Ramírez, a Juárez social worker, says the proliferation of armed groups linked to drug cartels has exacerbated a problem of sexual violence that was already latent. “They can use rape to sow terror and send territorial messages. Women have always been victims of war,” Ramírez says. In an earlier shocking case, a group of gunmen raped seven young Mexican women at a church retreat in Mexico state in July 2012. “The case of Acapulco illustrates the combination of impunity and underlying sexual aggression in Mexico,” Ramírez says. “They carried out this attack openly without any fear of the consequences.”

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