When it was time to relax, Hollywood stars like Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor and Errol Flynn, among others, headed straight for their version of paradise – sunny, fun-filled Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast, where the good times kept coming. In a splendid setting at the famed Flamingo hotel on the cliffs above town, they sipped their favorite loco coco cocktail, savored the view, and the only danger they faced was getting a little tipsy too close to the edge.
Those days are long gone with faded photos the only reminder, and a more serious danger has overtaken Acapulco. The fictional violence of the actors has become all too real in a resort they would no longer recognize. The Acapulco port is now a hub of the drug trade, ever contested by the competing cartels financed by American consumers. The city is now the murder capital of Mexico with 903 homicides last year, ahead of any other urban area. Last month, gunfire erupted in the streets as heavily armed gangs, outraged by the arrest of a cartel boss, attacked federal police in the middle of the tourist zone. The battle led to only one dead attacker and a wounded policeman, but it was enough to shut down most businesses and keep tourists in their hotels. And it was only the most recent encounter as mangled bodies and severed heads form part of the scenery.
In a lengthy, detailed Mexican travel warning issued in April, the US State Department says government personnel are prohibited from traveling to Acapulco and most other places in the quite violent state of Guerrero. Armed groups, says the report, maintain road blocks and should be considered “volatile and unpredictable.” In fact, the warning goes state by state, assessing the probable danger to Americans in each. Though they are not specifically targeted, they can be victims of gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery. They should travel only by daylight and exercise “extreme caution” in particularly violent areas. A hundred Americans were reported murdered in Mexico in 2014, 103 in 2015.
To be sure, if foreigners avoid Acapulco these days, some Mexicans still vacation there to take advantage of reduced prices. There’s a tradeoff between the beach and violence. A tan is still more likely than a bullet. And a few places also remain accessible to Americans that are reasonably free of crime. One is San Carlos, up the Pacific coast from Acapulco and closer to the US. Offering sun, sand and gentle sea, it is a kind of replacement for Acapulco that draws Americans and Canadians to visit or live. Singer and songwriter David Sheehy frequently goes there to perform. He says he likes San Carlos “because it has a local flavor. You know you’re in Mexico but safe.” Still, this is at the sufferance of the cartels. If so inclined, they could turn it into another Acapulco with their trademark murders and beheadings. Or perhaps it could set an example for a way back from the brink.