How do Mexico's drug cartels work?
Mexican drug cartels are the greatest criminal drug threat to the U.S. with a footprint spanning coast to coast. Here’s how they became so powerful.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
- Increasing threats of violence pervading Mexico have made their way to popular tourist spots.
- State Department officials issued a warning of a heightened risk of violence to Americans.
- Tourists are an easy target for drug cartels, analysts say, particularly if they’ve come to sample the drug scene.
TULUM, Mexico – With its turquoise waters, white sand and ancient ruins, this city has become an increasingly popular spot for tourists seeking a getaway along the Caribbean coast.
Its raves, nightclubs and exclusive resorts and restaurants offer a more tranquil getaway than Cancun, its more well-known neighbor 81 miles to the north.
But the increasing threats of violence pervading Mexico have made their way here, as well as the surrounding state of Quintana Roo. State Department officials issued a warning Aug. 17 of a heightened risk of violence to Americans traveling there.
While the U.S. government has no restrictions on travel for its employees in Quintana Roo’s tourist sites, such as Cancun, Cozumel and Tulum, it is warning Americans to “exercise increased caution due to crime and kidnapping.”
Tourists are warned to “remain in well-lit pedestrian streets and tourist zones” in the wake of shootings between rival cartels that have injured bystanders.
US travelers warned of ‘kidnapping risk' in some parts of Mexico
In October, two tourists were killed while having dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Tulum. A month later, guests at a resort in Puerto Morelos were forced to hide while gunmen arrived by boat and killed two.
And in January, two Canadian tourists were killed at a luxury hotel in Playa del Carmen the same month the manager of a popular beach club was murdered in a restroom by two men who fled on a watercraft.
The cartels’ influence in the region has risen as “tourism began to grow, and as thousands of tourists started to arrive in this region, a drug dealing market was created for them,” said David Saucedo, a Mexico-based security analyst.
The prevalence of the cartels was readily apparent when journalists working on this story were confronted by cartel members at two popular restaurants in Tulum.
As one of the journalists went to a restroom in the first restaurant, he was approached by armed men who checked his pockets and ID, asking him multiple times what he was doing there and what cartel he worked for before finally letting him leave.
When the journalists went to another place, the same thing occurred.
They left Tulum the next morning.
Tourists are an easy target for cartels, analysts say, particularly if they’ve come to sample the drug scene.
“Many tourists found the possibility to do drugs during vacation,” Saucedo said. “While in other destinations in Mexico, low-priced drugs such as marijuana and cocaine were sold, (and) in the Caribbean, there were hard drugs in the market, so foreign tourists were looking to live this experience not only of tourism, but also of consumption.”
More than 160 people have been detained since January on drug-dealing charges, said Tulum Police Chief Oscar Aparicio.
“It’s a quite considerable number; we have raids every day,” he said. “While there is supply or demand, this crime will continue.”
Danger in the restrooms
Two Tulum-based business owners who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the cartels said the city’s tourism has blossomed after the worst of the pandemic lifted.
“It became a very fashionable place,” said one.
But with the extra business has come the increasing threat of cartel violence, they said.
“Last year, they (cartels) put a person to sell drugs in the restrooms,” one said. “It’s extortion because you can’t say no to them.”
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He described how he was visited by a trio of armed men who told him a man was going to be selling drugs from his restroom for the next three days.
“At that moment, I didn't know what to answer,” he said. “I told them, ‘Yes, I only work here.’”
But going to police isn’t an option, he said, because business owners can’t be sure the authorities aren't working with the cartels, “and you never know what’s going to happen to you.”
Chief Aparicio said police are aware of the drugs being sold in restrooms and have taken steps to try to curtail the trade.
“Unfortunately, many of the tourists who come to Tulum come precisely to get drugs and try things that they haven’t tried in their countries,” he said. “As long as people come who want to consume, this will continue happening, and we won’t be able to avoid it, even if we have 100,000 police officers at the beach.”
But security analyst Erubiel Tirado said blaming the problem on tourists misses the larger issue.
“To blame tourists and say that their actions lead to more crime seems to me to be an irresponsible simplification,” Tirado said. “It’s very easy to blame them when, in most cases, some come just to visit the Tulum ruins.
“They talk about a drug-dealing problem, and the reality is that organized crime wouldn’t exist if there is no complicity at all the levels of government.”
Cartel hawks are always on the lookout
Aparicio acknowledged the omnipresence of cartel hawks, or halcones, who are constantly watching areas – whether it be the juice vendor or the waiter at a restaurant – to collect information and keep drug dealers from being caught.
“The National Guard is patrolling all the time, but these people have hawks everywhere that immediately inform their dealers, so they hide or stop selling,” Tulum’s police chief said.
But Aparicio disputed the contention that cartels were extorting businesses, saying “it has been eradicated.”
“There are indeed drug cartels operating, local cartels that have been around for a long time, but we have not allowed access to other cartels into Tulum,” he said.
David Ortiz-Mena, president of the Tulum Hotel Association, agreed with the police chief’s assessment, saying there was no extortion at hotels.
“If there has been an attempt – kidnapping, extortion in hotels – these have been resolved adequately by state response,” he said.
But the two anonymous restaurant owners in Tulum said it would be naïve to underestimate the cartels’ influence in the area. That became clear after they were so openly approached by a cartel member.
“I began to understand that the reality is that this is normal,” he said. “Even though I was shocked at first, and suddenly I was a little bit paranoid, the truth is that it becomes business as usual.”
Before you travel
Get travel advisories broken down by cities and states on the U.S. State Department’s website.
State Department officials encourage Americans to “take 90 seconds for safer travel,” by enrolling in STEP, Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which sends updates on travel alerts and allows U.S. officials to more easily aid travelers in an emergency.