Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Monday, 20 February 2012

Mexico's Acapulco resort takes a dive over drugs war

By Rajan Datar and Jayne Douglas
BBC News


Acapulco's world-renowned cliff divers are facing an uncertain future

Acapulco was once the haunt of the rich and famous, but recently it has struggled to attract visitors as Mexican tourism suffers from bad publicity because of the country's drug wars.

"This wave is good, the ocean is getting rough - that's better," says Angel David Castrejon as he begins to reveal the secrets of his trade.

From the age of 16, when he began to emulate his stepfather, Angel has been performing in the world-renowned diving shows in Acapulco.

"Look, look, look the wave is coming - and now the waves are gone. Only four metres, you've got to move quickly."

Packed crowds have gathered on the cliff tops since the 1930s to watch professional divers plunge 130ft (40m) into the shallow waters of the Pacific.

A forensic team carry the body of a policeman who was killed in Acapulco
Around 5 people a day were killed at the height of the violence in Acapulco

But since the 2009 outbreak of swine flu and the inter-cartel drugs violence which exploded in Acapulco last year, it is a business which has taken a dive.

In the heyday, Angel would expect 150 cruise ships to visit every season - around 20 each month. Now he expects just two, which is why he has had to take on a second job as a security guard at the city hall.

"I feel I'm very lucky because people pay me to do what I like," he says. "For me it's not a job, I love to do this. It's part of my life, my passion.

"The office is a bore, you know, behind the computer, it's not for me."

In its latest warning, the US says: "Americans should avoid all but essential travel to all or parts of 14 Mexican states."

Despite these advisories alerting potential travellers to criminal activity and drug violence, Mexico's government says its tourist spots are enjoying record numbers of visitors.

But try telling that to the residents of near-deserted Acapulco. Its tourism has halved in five years, mostly in the past 18 months.

Drug-related gang violence reached a peak in August last year, when 148 people were killed in the city, bringing the total to nearly 1,000 deaths in the first eight months of 2011 alone.

All the problems with violence… they are just between the drug gangs, they do not bother the tourists

Tony Rullan, nightclub owner

As a result, last October thousands of federal troops and police were drafted in to supplement local forces, but according to Mexico's State Secretary of Tourism, Graciela Baez, this measure was mainly taken to reassure locals and other Mexicans that Acapulco was getting safer.

"In terms of image, it's not the one that we would like to have - the police and the military out there all the time.

"But at the very beginning, we did need that in order to recover the trust of the people.

Old fame

In 1967, Life magazine labelled Acapulco the Top Jet Resort. It had become the preferred vacation destination of numerous Hollywood stars including Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Elizabeth Taylor.

"When she was leaving the club and I was holding her hand, there were 100 flashes," recalls nightclub owner Tony Rullan.

Holidaymakers in Acapulco in the 1950s
In the 1950s Acapulco was the glamorous resort to be seen in

"Three weeks later they called my wife and asked her how she felt about the affair I was having with Liz Taylor.

"But you know how the press are - they exaggerate many things and they invented an affair between me and Liz Taylor".

Tony has been in Acapulco's legendary nightclub business for 40 years. But nine months ago, the Palladium - one of his two clubs which was built for $10m (£6.4m) and has 120 staff - reduced its opening from six nights a week to just two.

"All the problems with violence … they are just between the drug gangs, they do not bother the tourists," he says.

"However they have managed to instil fear into tourists and they are not coming into town."

This is in contrast to the rest of the country, which is enjoying record numbers of foreign visitors. Domestic and international tourist figures were 2% higher in 2011 than in 2008, before the outbreak of swine flu.

Another reason tourists have been staying away from Acapulco is that it had not prepared for competition from other destinations, many within Mexico itself.

When Graciela Baez took up her post last year, Acapulco - Mexico's main resort - did not have a tourism website.

"That's something that you cannot believe," she says.

"We now only have Houston in North America with direct flights to Acapulco and this is a little bit because international tourists have lost interest.

"This is because Acapulco didn't have an effective promotional strategy and that's what we're changing now.

White elephant

Up in the hills, the family-owned Encanto hotel was gearing up nicely for the international jet set when it opened two years ago.

Now it is in danger of becoming a beautiful white elephant. In many other parts of the world, this $20m (£12.7m) sanctuary would be booked up, but business is slow. This is peak season and it has been closing in the week due to lack of demand.

If they don't pay, they finish his life. It's better to stay alive.
Gerardo, waiter

"Last year it really dropped off - from really good occupancies to being completely empty, so it was very difficult, very disappointing," says hotel manager Mariana Aragones.

"We're still confident that it can be better but we are also aware that we might be in the necessity of closing."

Mariana has had to lay off workers and those who remain only work half the hours they used to.

Gerardo works as a waiter at Encanto, but after his shift he has to work at night in another restaurant to provide for his family.

"We live for the tourists and without them Acapulco is going to die," he says.

One of Gerardo's neighbours was killed for not giving gang members his car and taxi drivers he knows have to pay protection money to the cartels just to go about their regular business.

"If they don't pay, they finish his life. It's better to stay alive."

A handful of foreigners have been caught in the violence, but most evidence suggests they had strayed from tourist areas and into the cartel conflict zone, rather than because they had been targeted.

When asked if he and his family may have to leave Acapulco, tears well in Angel's eyes. He is uncertain of the future and deeply concerned by his home town's image following recent events.

Angel believes there is no short-term fix. He wants his son to have a good education and it is that approach which he believes will divert potential gang members away from the world of drugs.

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