ACAPULCO, Mexico — From the crescent bay and swaying palms, the taxi drivers of Acapulco need just 10 minutes to reach this other, plundered world.
Here, in a neighborhood called Renacimiento, a pharmacy is smeared with gang graffiti. Market stalls are charred by fire. Taco stands and dentists’ offices, hair salons and auto-body workshops — all stand empty behind roll-down metal gates.
On Friday afternoons, however, the parking lot at the Oxxo convenience store in this brutalized barrio buzzes to life. Dozens of taxi drivers pull up. It’s time to pay the boys.
When the three young gunmen drive up in a white Nissan Tsuru, Armando, a 55-year-old cabbie, scribbles his four-digit taxi number on a scrap of paper, folds it around a 100-peso note and slips it into their black plastic bag. This is his weekly payment to Acapulco’s criminal underworld — about $5, or roughly half what he earns in a day.
“They have the power,” said Armando, who identified himself only by his first name because he feared reprisal. “They can do whatever they want.”
or each of the past five years, Acapulco has been the deadliest city in Mexico, in a marathon of murder that has hollowed out the hillside neighborhoods and sprawling colonias that tourists rarely visit. And yet, the term “drug war” only barely describes what is going on here.
The dominant drug cartel in Acapulco and the state of Guerrero broke up a decade ago. The criminals now in charge resemble neighborhood gangs — with names like 221 or Los Locos. An estimated 20 or more of these groups operate in Acapulco, intermixed with representatives from larger drug cartels who contract them for jobs. The gang members are young men who often become specialists — extortionists, kidnappers, car thieves, assassins — and prey on a largely defenseless population.
“They kill barbers, tailors, mechanics, tinsmiths, taxi drivers,” said Joaquin Badillo, who runs a private security company in the city. “This has turned into a monster with 100 heads.”
Mexico is halfway through what may become the bloodiest year in its recent history, with more than 12,000 murders in the first six months of 2017. June was the deadliest month in the past two decades of consistent Mexican government statistics.
There are many theories on why violence, which dropped for two years after the 2012 election of President Enrique Peña Nieto, has roared back: competition for the domain of captured kingpins; the breakdown of secret agreements between criminals and politicians; a judicial reform requiring more evidence to lock up suspected lawbreakers; the growing American demand for heroin, meth and synthetic opiates. Whatever the primary cause, the result has been terrifying — a disintegration of order across growing swaths of this country.
Violence is spreading to new places and taking many forms. In Puebla, south of Mexico City, a fight rages over the sale of stolen fuel. Beach towns such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen have been bloodied by drug killings. The battle for human-smuggling routes leaves bodies strewn along the migrant trail.
In Acapulco, the faded playground of Hollywood stars, where the Kennedys honeymooned and John Wayne basked in the clifftop breeze, drugs are no longer even the main story. This is a place awash in crime of all stripes, where criminals no longer have to hide.
When Evaristo opened his restaurant along Acapulco’s seaside strip 15 years ago, drugs were plentiful, and that was just fine with him. Acapulco has always been a party town, and became a transit point for U.S.-bound Colombian cocaine and the opium poppy that bloomed along with marijuana in the state’s highlands. The dominant traffickers were the Beltran Leyva brothers of the Sinaloa Cartel.
“What the Beltran Leyvas were doing was selling drugs,” said Evaristo, who identified himself only by his first name, for fear of reprisal. “But they left us alone.”
For Evaristo, and many other Acapulco residents, the city’s descent into lawlessness began with the events at La Garita. A brazen January 2006 shootout in that central neighborhood left flaming vehicles and bodies in the street and became part of the city’s lore, as much as the iconic cliff divers and the Hollywood stars who once passed through town.
That gun battle also made one thing clear: National-level cartels were active in Acapulco — in this case the Sinaloa cartel, allied with the Beltran Leyvas, and the expansionist Zetas. And they were willing to use tremendous violence against each other.
“That’s when all this began,” Evaristo recalled.