Puerto Vallarta (PVDN) – Following the recent kidnapping of four tourists in Mexico, the US Department of State issued a travel alert on March 13, urging Americans to exercise caution when planning their spring vacations in the country. The incident occurred in Matamoros, a city on the Texas border, where two of the tourists were killed while traveling to an appointment for cosmetic surgery.
Zachary Rabinor, the US founder of travel agency Journey Mexico, pointed out that it is difficult to calculate the impact of a US travel alert on tourism. “We can’t measure the loss of people who never called or just decided to go to Yosemite or Florida or the Caribbean,” he said.
According to the US Department of State’s travel alert system, only two out of the 32 states in Mexico, Yucatán and Campeche, are currently at Level 1, which advises travelers to take normal precautions. Seventeen states are at Level 2, which suggests taking greater precautions, while seven are at Level 3, recommending reconsidering the trip. The remaining six states – Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas – are at Level 4, with a “Do Not Travel” warning due to the high level of crimes and kidnappings in these areas.
Following the Matamoros incident, searches for Mexico travel ideas on Google Trends dropped by 75 percent in popularity during the week after the incident. Since then, the popularity of these searches has continued to decline. In the past month, Google has seen a 200 percent increase in searches for “Is Cancun safe to travel now?”
Steph Farr, co-owner of Maya Luxe, which manages 100 luxury homes in the Riviera Maya, described a significant disruption to her business due to cancellations caused by the State Department’s security alerts. Her sales team had already received eight canceled reservations in February before the Matamoros incident.
However, travel planner Alyson Nash of Cloud 10, an agency affiliated with Virtuoso, said she has received many calls from travelers who have kept Mexico on their lists, especially for year-end holiday travel. Nash noted that crime registers as only an occasional concern for travelers, with pricing being the more significant factor influencing indecision.
Why travelers are concerned about safety in Cancun
Playa del Carmen, a popular tourist destination in Quintana Roo, is currently experiencing a wave of violence that is affecting its citizens, tourists, merchants, and businessmen. In 2022, Playa del Carmen recorded 20% of the total 1,472 homicides that were committed in the state. According to intelligence reports, municipal police officers and officials from the current government are involved in corruption, which is suffocating the tourist destination.
The authorities have identified the factions of several cartels such as the Gulf Cartel, Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG), Los Rojos, La Barredora, Los Pelones, Zetas Vieja Escuela, and the Sinaloa Cartel as responsible for the violence, drug sales, land charges, and extortion. Names and faces of those involved have also been revealed.
Several violent incidents have occurred recently, including the discovery of four bodies inside a Treasury vehicle, who were inspectors from the Directorate of Collection and Inspection. They were responsible for verifying the paperwork of entertainment centers. According to the investigation, they were kidnapped and murdered by employees of the La Cueva bar.
The tourist area of Playa del Carmen also recorded the arrest of 15 alleged extortionists armed with large-caliber rifles in a restaurant on Fifth Avenue by members of the Municipal Police. Other attacks happened outside the La Martina restaurant and on Avenida 10.
The Playa del Carmen business association has recently denounced its members living as “prisoners in their homes” due to the extortion demands by local criminal groups, who are demanding up to $50,000 pesos in extortion.
The growing problem of cartels and other organized crime groups controlling most commercial areas in Mexico is also affecting other tourist destinations, including Puerto Vallarta. These criminal groups regularly threaten business owners and demand money, putting their families and businesses at risk.
In light of these incidents, the United States has published a travel alert for all its citizens interested in visiting the popular tourist destination of the Riviera Maya, including Tulum and Cancun, ahead of Spring Break 2023. The alert asks tourists to exercise caution, especially when visiting the centers of these three places at night. It also warned them of the sale of adulterated alcohol, synthetic drugs, sexual assault reports, and petty crime.
Puerto Vallarta is a strategic stronghold for cartels
Puerto Vallarta, one of the most visited resorts in Mexico, has become a strategic point for the operations of the Jalisco Cartel, according to the US government. Even so, cartel violence hasn’t taken hold like in other vacation destinations in Mexico. Although it has experienced its own problems due to cartel violence.
Proof that the area is under surveillance by CJNG hitmen was the kidnapping of four tourists in July 2020. They arrived in a caravan of 14 people in SUVs and ATVs from Guanajuato. Everything indicates that they were confused with members of a rival group, blocked their way, and shot at them as they fled in their cars and on foot. A businessman from León died from that attack.
The Treasury Department points out that most new establishments that open in that location have to ask the cartel for authorization and agree to give it a part of their profits. It is what is known as a “floor charge,” meaning every tourist and foreigner spending money in Puerto Vallarta is funding drug cartel, the continued violence in Mexico, and the export of deadly drugs to Canada and the United States.
In charge of this criminal activity is Sergio Armando Orozco Rodríguez, alias ‘Chocho’, according to the accusation. “This individual acts for or on behalf of the Jalisco Nueva Generación Cartel (CJNG) by facilitating various illegal activities in Puerto Vallarta,” describes the Treasury Department.
Orozco Rodríguez is associated with several nightclubs, bars, and restaurants in that city. One of his functions is to collect ‘taxes’ from such establishments.
“Many new companies there must receive unofficial permission from Orozco Rodríguez to open,” the US government alleges. “Once open, Orozco Rodríguez collects taxes from these businesses on behalf of the CJNG,” he adds.
This man would also be in charge of laundering the profits that the cartel obtains from the sale of drugs.
In Puerto Vallarta, a relevant event occurred in the recent history of Mexican drug trafficking: the kidnapping in 2016 at the restaurant ‘La Leche’ of two sons of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, when he continued to control a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel from a prison in the center of Mexico.
Guzmán’s heirs were later released. One version indicates that “El Mencho” somehow negotiated with “El Chapo” to let his children go.
At the time, armed men abducted 10 to 12 presumed members of a crime gang who appeared to be celebrating at the upscale restaurant in Puerto Vallarta.
Jalisco state prosecutor Eduardo Almaguer said, “They were not tourists or residents who work in legal activities,” Almaguer said. “They were people tied to a criminal group we can very clearly presume.”
Almaguer said two SUVs carrying five gunmen arrived around 1 a.m. at La Leche restaurant on the city’s main boulevard, which runs through the hotel zone between the old beach city and the airport.
Witnesses reported that four women in the targeted group were not taken by the gunmen, he said. He said authorities were looking for those women.
All of those abducted were from the western states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, and Jalisco, Almaguer said.
He said some of those abducted had been vacationing in Puerto Vallarta for a week and authorities found lots of drinks and luxury items inside the restaurant. Five vehicles were abandoned at the restaurant, among them one with Jalisco license plates, but a false registration.
“Obviously, those who acted (the kidnappers) – we presume with the information we have – also belonged to a criminal group that acted against members of another criminal group they located here in Puerto Vallarta,” Almaguer said.
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