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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 October 2006, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Law of the gun in Acapulco
By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Acapulco

In some ways it is appropriate that John Wayne used to holiday in Acapulco, because this once paradise resort for the rich and famous has become a little like the Wild West.

A beach in Acapulco
Acapulco used to be a paradise resort before the gangs moved in
The setting may be the back streets, not the OK Corral, but for the past few months here it has been all guns blazing and very few are getting to ride off into the sunset.

When Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and the like used to pitch up here in the 50s and 60s, Acapulco was a by-word for romance, style and luxury.

But the jet set gave way to the heavy set and mobsters replaced movie stars.

These days it is Mexico's drug cartels who have moved in and there is a turf war being played out to control the supply of narcotics to the United States.

A-list celebrities have given way to Class A drugs.

Shootout

"Here, and again here and just look over there", Jose my taxi driver says, pointing at the holes in the wall. Bullet holes.

Jose Peralta Nava, Acapulco taxi driver
I saw two heads here... They were left right here on the railings
Jose, taxi driver

We are standing looking at a church on one road in Acapulco. It was the setting for a ferocious shootout recently.

Bad enough, but there was worse to come.

Jose took me across the road, to a government building.

"It happened at seven o'clock in the morning," he tells me.

At that point he runs his finger slowly across his throat to help explain what he had seen.

"I saw the two heads here," he says, his usual smiling face now replaced by a solemn expression. "They were left right here on the railings".

What he is telling me is that within days of the gun battle, two human heads were dumped on these railings.

"They were there for several hours," Jose says. "A bit further up, three more were found."

The brutal reality of Acapulco's deadly crime wave was now beginning to sink in.

"We could not believe it," says Commander Carlos Gonzalez Fonseca of the local police force.

"We have never seen anything like it either here in Acapulco or in Mexico. We must change our tactics to fight this kind of crime."

Outgunned

"Acapulco has changed," says Teresa de Jesus Rivas Perez, the director general of the city's Tourist Board.

Police Commander Carlos Gonzalez Fonseca
Commander Fonseca wants new tactics to control gun crime
"I've lived here all my life, but it is not the place it was," she says with suitable understatement. "We must get rid of these gangs so Acapulco can return to what it used to be".

The police are trying to muscle out the cartels.

We went on a patrol with them. Guns, motor bikes, dark glasses, it all seemed impressive. A roadblock was set up. Buses were stopped, passengers searched.

"Do you find much?" I ask one of the officers.

"Sometimes a few knives," he replies, "but rarely the weapons and drugs we're looking for."

Privately, some officers also admit to being outgunned by the gangs and not a little out-intimidated as well.

Bullet holes in a door
A tour of Acapulco can reveal many crime scenes
In the neighbouring state of Michoacan, one gang recently burst into a night club and dumped the heads of five men on the dance floor.

Police officers are among those being targeted so, not surprisingly, many of them are nervous.

Another officer we spoke to did not want his name used for fear of reprisals.

"They can find out where we live," he tells me.

Exact figures are elusive, but it is been estimated that as many as 1,500 people have died in the cartel violence in Mexico so far this year.

That is a rate of more than a 150 a month, or five a day, every day.

Tide of violence

The gangs do not just stick to murder and illegal drug trafficking.

Maria Isabel Miranda de Wallace
Sometimes I think [my son] is alive, sometimes I think he is dead
Maria Isabel Miranda de Wallace
For good measure, right across Mexico, some are also involved in kidnapping.

"It's a way for them to raise money to fund their operations," says Maria Isabel Miranda de Wallace.

Since her son, Hugo, was abducted a year ago, Maria has done a lot of catching up on her knowledge of gangs.

She believes she has had to because, she says, the police have not helped her.

The family have become detectives in the search for him.

Arrests have been made because of their work. But Hugo has not come back.

"In your heart," I ask, "do you think you will ever see Hugo again?"

"Sometimes I think he is alive, sometimes I think he is dead," she says, trying to maintain her composure. "He was a lovely man. A lovely man."

On the cliffs of Acapulco you can still find the world-famous divers.

Forty metres up they leap off into the churning waters of the cove below. Timing is everything. So is nerve.

The two qualities could be a metaphor for what is required in Mexico to turn back a different tide, the tide of violence.

Most here will tell you the timing is now, but that it will take political nerve to take on the gangs.

There is no John Wayne to ride into town, round up a posse and head off to round up the baddies.

Finding the true grit needed will be a key test of the country's new president.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Police patrol the streets looking for drug cartel members



SEE ALSO
Human heads dumped in Mexico bar
07 Sep 06 |  Americas
Fox backs Mexico crime protesters
28 Jun 04 |  Americas
US holds top Mexico drug suspect
17 Aug 06 |  Americas
Country profile: Mexico
06 Sep 06 |  Country profiles



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