Acapulco can rebuild from Hurricane Otis. But what about violent crime?
Going into this weekend, administrator Karla Navarrete said, the building only expected 5 to 10 percent occupancy. Many visitors, she said, were afraid of being robbed or kidnapped on the highway.
Then came Otis. The most powerful storm on record in the eastern Pacific tore into Acapulco on October 25, tearing chunks out of the 16-story building and exposing a skeleton of girders, rods and cables. . Forty-six people are dead and 56 are missing, authorities said Friday; people here think both numbers are likely much higher.
But the Category 5 hurricane was only the latest disaster to hit Acapulco. The coronavirus pandemic kept visitors away. And organized criminal gangs have turned the city into a battleground.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, Acapulco was Mexico’s pearl of the Pacific, the glittering resort where John and Jacqueline Kennedy honeymooned and Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant vacationed. days.
Now there are at least 16 active crime syndicates in the state of Guerrero, according to Ministry of Defense documents cited by the Mexican newspaper Milenio, trafficking drugs, extorting businesses and carrying out kidnappings. Such is their control that when two drug traffickers were arrested in July, thousands of people besieged Chilpancingo, the state capital, to demand their release.
In August, at the height of the summer vacation season, gunmen set fire to at least a dozen cars in Acapulco, blocking roads and causing chaos. The city’s hotels reported about 7,500 cancellations amid the wave of violence.
Last month, a dozen police officers and a local security supervisor were killed in a brazen ambush in Coyuca de Benítez, 20 miles outside of Acapulco.
The resort has suffered a long, slow decline for decades. As it became one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, international tourism declined. The US State Department advises US citizens not to travel to the state of Guerrero, a warning they share with Haiti, Somalia and North Korea, among others. The US government forbids its employees from visiting Acapulco.
The number of foreign visitors to the resort fell 63 percent from 2012 to 2017. Then the pandemic took tourism. And now Hurricane Otis has almost completely wiped out business.
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About 95 percent of Acapulco’s 280 hotels have been damaged or destroyed, according to the city’s hotel association. Almost all the condominiums in the Zona Diamante – the tourist Diamond District – have been destroyed. Eighty percent of restaurants were destroyed by the storm.
Businesses not destroyed by the hurricane were damaged by looters. Leticia Anzaldo and her husband, Mario Alberto González, are still paying off the ice cream machines in their shop for a year that was taken off last week.
There will be rebuilding costs and lost business anyway $10 billion, estimated Steve Bowen, chief science officer for global reinsurance broker Gallagher Re. “This is one of the most expensive natural disaster events recorded in Mexico,” he said.
Santos Ramírez Cuevas, Guerrero’s tourism secretary, said that just rebuilding hotel rooms will cost nearly $2.3 billion.
In a city where 57,000 people are employed by hotels and restaurants, the attack of the hurricane could be a death blow.
But government officials and tourism industry leaders are expressing hope that rebuilding will provide an opportunity to renovate and even rebrand Acapulco as the top tourist destination it once was.
“This leaves us with a great opportunity,” said Alejandro Domínguez, president of the Acapulco Hotels and Tourism Companies Association. “After this, we will have an Acapulco that will be more competitive. We have to clean house, we have to re- design and then we must start aggressively campaigning to promote this destination.”
Ramírez, the secretary of tourism, said that the city is giving priority to establishing a center to hire and train workers in skills such as plumbing, construction and electrical installation to recover.
Germán González, president of the National Chamber of the Restaurant and Seasonal Food Industry, said that it may also be time to establish a better security infrastructure, with cameras, information and better policing. “It’s a good time to rethink how we do things in Acapulco,” he said.
Analysts say reconstruction could also provide opportunities for organized crime groups.
He rode out Hurricane Otis on his boat. He has not been seen since.
In the short term, International Crisis Group analyst Falko Ernst says, organized criminal groups could take advantage of a government vacuum to attract supporters with food stamps and other aid. In the medium term, he tweeted, unemployment could push more people into illegal activity. And in the long term, the cash income for reconstruction could be a “golden opportunity” to launch and invest money.
Ezequiel Flores, a journalist from Guerrero who fled threats for his work four years ago, said that Acapulco’s role as The “goose with a golden egg” ended in 2009, when the “narco state established in Guerrero” and criminal gangs began to fight for control of the cocaine trade. The tourism industry, he said, offers a front to keep these jobs.
Now, he said, the tourists who come to Acapulco, many of them Mexican, have less purchasing power. The ones most affected by the violence are not the tourists in Zona Diamante or the main hotel owners.
“They are tortilla sellers, public transport drivers, working class people,” he said. He fears that urgent need will force young men to join even younger criminal gangs.
Ten days after the storm, despair is growing. Many residents still do not have power or running water. On a highway Wednesday, families waved to passing cars with signs that said “rain.”
Aid in the most remote areas of Acapulco remains limited. Those who are not scrambling for basic supplies are working to clear debris.
At 9 a.m. Wednesday, about 50 people from all over Acapulco were waiting in line to start their cleaning movement at the Mundo Imperial hotel. Among them was Felipe Baltazar, a 22-year-old medical student, and his friends. With classes canceled due to the storm, they had to work to support their families. “We need money and help,” said Baltazar. “Our house was destroyed.”
At the Las Olas condominiums, workers had already cleared a path through the rubble. On the ground covering the pool, the furniture of 141 units was scattered in stones.
The building will likely take two years and $45 million to build back from Otis. For now, their 95 employees are out of work.
“Everyone is afraid of losing their jobs,” Navarrete said. “There will be cuts.”
After the storm, Navarrete deployed three “brigades” to start the recovery: a cleaning team, a cooking team and a team that sorts donations of water bottles, toilet paper and other items. Of the 95 workers, only 35 have reported in to help clean up.
Navarrete has not heard from the others. She knows at least five people lost their homes in the storm.
Hurricane Otis death toll rises to 45; dozens are still missing
With public transport at a standstill, some workers walked hours in the scorching heat to work. In the first days after the hurricane, Griselda Hernández, 65, and her daughter Ana Grisel Hernández walked through broken glass and water together to help the workers with shrimp. The cooks used whatever food they could save from the fridges in the units.
Ana Grisel Hernández’s home was badly damaged. She said she can’t sit at home, in the dark, without drinking water.
Besides, she said, “there’s more use here.”
“This is our workplace. This is our Acapulco.”
Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City, Dan Stillman in Washington and Diana Durán in Bogotá contributed to this report.