Acapulco’s bay sparkled and the big hotels that line the beach glinted in the sunlight in the view from Marino Casiano’s tiny apartment high in the hills above the resort. However, the taxi driver’s gaze was inward, clinging to the last shred of hope that his teenage son, abducted by gunmen in March, was still alive.
“I want to believe that they took him to recruit him into organized crime and took him somewhere else in the country to fight,” he said in a tone of controlled despair. “Either that or he is in a clandestine grave.”
Life for Casiano and the majority of the city’s 780,000 permanent residents has always diverged from the image of unbridled fun the resort seeks to project. However, life scraping by on the edge of the tourism economy is now also shrouded in the personal tragedies, pervasive fear and additional financial woes associated with one of the major fronts in Mexico’s drug wars.
“I blame the president,” Casiano said. “What is the use of attacking the drug traffickers and bringing down capos [drug lords] if there are always others to take their place? If things get worse for ordinary people?”
Five years ago last Sunday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon kicked off his presidency by declaring an offensive against the cartels whose escalating turf wars along a major cocaine supply route north had started to become a real problem in a few areas of Mexico. However, in the five years since, the military-led onslaught has served only to multiply the carnage. At least 46,000 people have been killed — one an hour — making some Mexican cities among the deadliest in the world.
Calderon remains defiant in the face of growing criticism of his strategy.
“We are going to continue defending the citizens until the last day of my term,” he said at an event to mark the fifth anniversary of his government last week. “Those who say that it would have been better not to confront the criminals are completely mistaken. If we hadn’t done this, they would have advanced in our communities and our institutions.”
Feeding corn on the cob to her three-year-old child outside their home in one of the poor barrios that line the road to the airport and the motorway to Mexico City, Marley is unconvinced.
“The president says the good people outnumber the bad people, but that isn’t true,” she said.
She did not want her surname revealed for fear of being identified.
“I see more bad people every day and I don’t trust anybody any more,” she said.
On at least five occasions, the young woman said, she had had to bundle her children indoors when armed groups started shooting at each other or at the police. Two months ago, she was caught in the middle of a gun battle while at the market, and had to take cover in a shop.
Then there are the bodies dumped on the road or hung from bridges, the severed heads left in places for all to see.
“If we are ever able to save the money up for the journey, we will leave,” Marley said, nodding at the little stall of T-shirts she sells. “It’s not good for the children when they can tell the difference between firecrackers and guns.”
Acapulco’s turf wars are an extreme version of the general trend of cartel fragmentation prompted by second-tier figures fighting over the spoils left by capos who have been arrested or killed.
According to Eduardo Guerrero, a drug war expert, there were six cartels when the offensive began. Now there are 16. Of these, he believes, only the Sinaloa cartel, the Zetas and the Gulf cartel have the capacity to traffic drugs internationally on any scale. The rest concentrate on kidnapping, extortion rackets and controlling local drug user markets. They tend to be particularly violent because they seek total control of the territories in which they operate.