food / travel

How Acapulco Went From Tropical Paradise To Capital Of Murder, Drugs And Hunger

Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
Augusto Assia

ACAPULCO — Before coming to Acapulco, I had heard many disturbing things about the city. For example, that six Spanish girls were brutally raped on the top floor of a beautiful beachfront villa last February as their boyfriends, handcuffed, were made to watch.

That Acapulco had suddenly become the most violent city in Mexico — a statistic about as newsworthy as a French student graduating from the Sorbonne. That UNICEF has placed this coastal city at the top of its child prostitution lists, edging out Cancún and Tijuana (in the evenings, there are many 13- and 14-year-old girls along the city's main tourist strip offering a “tourist’s menu” for just a few dollars).

But as disturbing as all that it, to me the most surprising news was from April last year, when five taxi drivers were murdered. And then the following month, another five. Why taxi drivers? “In fact, they’re kids who sell drugs and sell them from the cabs,” one longtime driver says. The man has a grey moustache and an impeccable white shirt. He goes to open the doors for his clients. “The blue taxis are banned from going any further than where we are right now. They think they’re thugs, but if they go up, they get killed,” he adds.

Blood on the streets

So to get to the Simón Bolívar district of the city we have to take a bus, and the photographer I’m with takes a macabre survey of each corner. “Here, I arrived late to a shootout, and this school over here was closed for two years because the teachers were too afraid to come. And over here on this corner I took the most difficult photo of my life. It was of a woman who was gunned down and died shielding her two babies with her body,” he explains.

Now it’s a few months after that incident and Janet, 23, sits breastfeeding her baby in the same spot the photo was taken. As she sits on the sidewalk outside the clinic, she eerily resembles the aforementioned woman who died. This clinic isn’t even in a building — it’s in a van parked on the street so it can treat the poor for free. “Even the drugs are free, and they don’t need to bring any documents with them,” she says. The majority of her neighbors come here with dengue fever, stomach parasites or malnutrition.

For this reason, this was the location chosen by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s minister, Rosario Robles, to begin a crusade against hunger — the most ambitious social project of this government. It’s an imitation of the Hambre 0 ("Hunger 0") project launched in Brazil by Lula da Silva.

“But here, the main problem is violence. After 9 p.m., we can’t go out on the streets. What happened to those Spanish girls is what we live with everyday, but nobody cares about us because we’re not foreigners,” explains Janet, without moving her baby from her breast. Until a year ago she worked making beds in one of the big hotels, for just $15 a day. “But I was fired when I got pregnant,” she says.

The Zapata, Renacimiento and Simón Bolívar areas are the poorest and most violent in the city that epitomized glamor in the 1970s. But today almost 400,000 of its 750,000 inhabitants — 51% of the population — live in poverty.

Hope for a deadly city?

Acapulco is top of the leaderboard when it comes to murders: 143 for every 100,000 people, which is eight times more than the national average. In 2012, it earned the dishonorable distinction of the second-most dangerous city in the world, beaten only by San Pedro Sula in Honduras, with its 169.3 deaths.

On the other side of the city, hundreds of young people dance and drink imported vodka on the beach. Argentine models, hired for the occasion, go in and out of the water to the rhythm of the techno beat. It’s noon on a hot July Saturday and the scene opposite the Boca Chica hotel — where celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and John Wayne once stayed — seems more suited to Ibiza than a city with one of the biggest slums on either of the American continents.

But there may be hope for Acapulco now. The richest man in the world has just bought the Boca Chica hotel to relaunch it as part of a much larger investment package. “We all know that Carlos Slim doesn’t tolerate failure,” says Roberto Zurita, general manager of this precious vintage hotel, where a room costs $200 a night.

This hotel is the only thing that remains from a well-photographed past. It was the ’60s and one of the most beautiful bays in Mexico was gaining prestige as the big hotels and spectacular mansions grew.

The Hollywood stars swapped revolutionary Cuba for the liberal Acapulco as their favorite place to indulge in excess. Well-known actors came with presidents, artists and writers. Everyone who was “anyone” had to have their photo taken at the parties in Acapulco. It made no difference whether it was Orson Wells, Fidel Castro, Dalí, the Kennedys on their honeymoon, the Shah of Iran, Eisenhower, Nixon or the great American astronauts. Even Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller and the excentric film producer Howard Hughes sought refuge on the beaches here.

But the old Acapulco with its glamor is just a picture on a postcard for tourists now. In 2012, only 300 young people came on mini-breaks to Acapulco, compared to the 45,000 who chose Cancún for partying instead.

Today in Acapulco all possible evils are available. In the mountains, opiates and marijuana are grown. Local cartels fight over the routes for drug smuggling, and internal consumption is soaring. Within these 1,882 square kilometers, everything you need to be a criminal is available: incredible beaches, cheap drugs and an abundance of hotels that range from $12 to $200 per night, separated by just a few meters. A far fall from the glamorous hot spot it once was.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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