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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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