A bright yellow police tape fluttered in the breeze outside a restaurant just off the main drag in the Mexican resort town of Tulum, as the lights of a nearby police truck flashed blue and red.
Camouflage-clad troops stood guard outside the deserted late-night restaurant La Malquerida, “The Unloved” – the site of a gang shootout that killed two female tourists and injured three other vacationers.
Anjali Ryot, an Indian travel blogger who lived in California and was on vacation to celebrate her birthday, and German tourist Jennifer Henzold, died in the October 20 attack allegedly launched by one of several crime groups locals in an attempt to assert control of drug trafficking and extortion in the region.
The attack made headlines around the world. But within days, the Centaura Sur street scene returned to normal: on a recent evening, restaurants were packed and the aromatic smell of copal incense burnt by street traders filled the room. ‘air.
Most tourists who flock to the Riviera Maya don’t know they’re vacationing on a battlefield, a local worker said. “They are scary, but they are in the midst of a war,” he said.
The violence is not limited to Tulum. Last month, guests at a resort 100km from the coast near Cancun rushed to safety after masked gunmen stormed a hotel beach by boat and opened fire, killing two suspected rivals.
The two attacks are just the latest in a string of high-profile incidents along the Riviera Maya that have put the crown jewel of the country’s tourism industry on edge.
Tourists still flock to Tulum, drawn to its yoga retreats, Instagram-friendly white sand beaches, and ancient Mayan ruins. The city, which in 2017 declared itself the yoga capital of the world, is also part of the world DJ circuit.
But the violence has raised fears that it will follow the path of Acapulco – a once glamorous resort town now overwhelmed by drug-related violence.
“Tulum quickly becomes very dangerous and could become another Mexican monster city”, warns Dr. Rafael Barajas, president of the citizen observatory of Tulum. “Everyone is extremely upset by the violence. We watch this, scared, and wonder if this is going to end.
Between January and September, Tulum recorded 65 murders, an 80% increase from the same period last year.
An American firefighter was kidnapped at a seaside resort and killed in July, while two Mexicans were killed and an American woman was injured in June when gunmen opened fire from jet skis. Visitors from Spain, Belize and Uruguay were also killed.
On a recent afternoon, two gunshots rang out in the city center, but few people blinked – and a group of traditional musicians began performing nearby almost immediately.
Tourists mostly seem oblivious to the rise in conflict, as they often don’t stay long, but locals describe an atmosphere of fear and mistrust.
In April, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as Amlo, called the local police “rotten” and they were replaced by state agents after a series of abuses, including death in detention of a Salvadoran refugee.
The Mexican government has announced plans to deploy a National Guard battalion to the area and build a base in Tulum.
But Amlo’s anti-crime strategy has failed to stop the bloodshed, and murder rates remain stubbornly high. The president has been criticized for his reliance on the military rather than police reform, which is often overtaken by warring criminal factions.
Local officials say a dozen rival groups are fighting to control Tulum’s extortion rackets and the lucrative local drug market. “We are facing a problem of drug supply and demand,” Prosecutor Oscar Montes de Oca told local radio.
Hoteliers blamed the growing demand for narcotics on the boom in festivals and parties, which continued throughout the pandemic.
A bar worker said establishments were faced with the choice of paying money for protection, allowing drugs to be sold on their premises, or shutting down
The rapid growth of Tulum’s tourism industry has resulted not only in violence, but also markedly uneven development and severe environmental damage.
“If we stay on this path there will be more and more shootings and people will keep selling their places and leaving,” said Karla Acevedo, spokesperson for a group of environmental activists, Sustainable Tulum. “Tulum has to decide what kind of destination it wants to be.”
“Birds and mammals have been killed on highways after fleeing big jungle events and loud music,” she adds. “Plus, we’re connected to the world’s largest underground freshwater system and polluting it because we don’t have proper sewers. “
A new airport is expected to boost a tourism industry that generates the majority of state revenue. A record number of Americans are believed to have visited the Quintana Roo region in 2020, with around 4 million tourists from all countries coming to Tulum each year.
To meet growing demand, construction of new condominiums and luxury hotels is advancing rapidly, casting growing shadows on adjacent slums.
“There is a feeling that you can do whatever you want when you come to a place like Tulum,” Acevedo said of investors, tourists and criminals. “There is so much corruption and impunity; it generates a feeling of chaos.