Taxi War Turns Mexican Tourist Mecca Bloody

The fractured drug cartels hit high and low. In Acapulco these days, theyre even knocking off taxi drivers who dont pay up, or who work for rival gangs.”>

ACAPULCO, Mexico Shots rang out behind one of Acapulcos Walmarts and not far from my hotel. They were strangely muted thuds on a hot and rainy September night. Within minutes, the assailants were gone, the food truck parked nearby had closed in a hurry, and police officers were taping off the scene.

Another taxi driver dead.

A lot of us have been killed recently, says a rookie 19-year-old taxi driver well call Rigoberto, since hes too scared to have his real name published. Were afraid. If they ask us for money, what happens if we dont have it?

Roughly 20 taxi drivers have been killed this year in Acapulco, a number based on local media. It could be more. There is no comprehensive means of tracking the deaths, and the local taxi union did not respond to a request for comment.

There are several types of taxis in Acapulco. Gonzalez drives one of the many blue 1970s Volkswagen Beetles that rattle up and down Avenue La Costera Miguel Alemn, the strip next to the breathtaking beaches of Santa Luca Bay that made this one of Mexicos most famous resorts in decades past.

These taxis are commonly referred to as tortugas, Spanish for turtle, and they show their age. Sometimes water from the street splashes up through the floorboard, often the door handle on the outside does not work, so the driver has to open from the inside, and air conditioning is a distant dream. A ride usually costs 40 pesos, or a little more than $2.

But it was a driver of a white taxi, slightly more modern (perhaps from the late 1980s), and slightly more expensive, who was gunned down behind the Walmart.

From Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, in fact, three drivers were killed and four left injured after attacks near Avenue La Costera Miguel Alemn.

Whats the motive? The attorney general of Guerrero state, Javier Olea Pelez, has attributed the high number of these attacks against taxi drivers to two somewhat contradictory causes.

At the beginning of September, Olea said it was because the drivers refused to pay extortionistsno affiliation namedand were targeted.

Extortion is the root of the problem, the attorney general said then. The taxi drivers have been systematically refusing to pay and weve already detained a group of extortionists, he told the Mexican news site Milenio.

Back in July, however, the story was different. Olea said drivers were targeted because they were delivering drugs for the cartels and giving information to hitmen concerning their targets locations and movements.

Thats the problem, Gonzalez reportedly said in July. Maybe there are some taxistas working with organized crime, but when a taxi stop is attacked, they hurt people who arent involved. You cant trust anyone. You cant trust the police, either.

In 2015, Guerrero was the most violent of Mexicos 32 federal entities for the third year in a row with a murder rate of 57 per 100,000 residents, the U.S. State Department says.  

Indeed, in April the State Department prohibited U.S. government employees from traveling to Acapulco at all.

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The response of Mexican President Enrique Pea Nietos government has been a kingpin strategy similar to that which took down the infamous Medelln and Cali cartels in Colombia, according to a 2013 report prepared for the U.S. Congress (PDF).

But the strategy to capture or kill high-t0-mid-level cartel bosses hasnt been so successful in Mexico, the report claims.

Taking cartel bosses out of the game has spawned equally violent but less organized splinter groups. This has created more instability and, at least in the near term, more violence, says the report, which estimates kidnappings in Mexico increased by 188 percent from 2007 to 2012, armed robbery by 47 percent, and extortion by 101 percent.

The same pattern holds true today, and what weve seen is that the ruthless and often crazy violence of the cartels has reached down into every aspect of life and every corner of society. You can be far from any involvement with the drug lords or lordlings, and suddenly discover your taxi driver is their target.

The Daily Beast reported in March on how cartel violence had spilled over into the tourist areas of Acapulco. The article said that the violence that has for years plagued the favela-like neighborhoods on the citys periphery has reached at last the tourist beaches downtown.

The newly developed penchant for attacking taxi drivers, who transport tourists, in tourist areas, could be seen as proof that the cartels have completely forgotten the former line between tourists and locals.

As a result, law enforcement has ramped up a years-long crackdown.

Highly militarized police are visible throughout Acapulco. On Avenue San Miguel Alemn, soldiers decked out in full camo with huge assault rifles are constantly on patrol. Checkpoints sit at roundabouts throughout the avenue, reminiscent of those manned by occupation forces in the Middle East.

According to researchers from the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a broad coalition that aims to support democracy and human rights across the globe, this may not be a good thing.

An OSF report entitled Broken Justice in Mexicos Guerrero State found that both federal and state actors operate without accountability (PDF).

The most shocking example of police malfeasance, which made international headlines, was the 2014 disappearance and murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College who had commandeered buses to attend a demonstration in Iguala.

According to federal authorities, members of the Guerrero Unidos drug gang allegedly slaughtered the students, who were delivered to them by the police, or according to other indications, state actors themselves disappeared the students, the report says.

This was corroborated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 2016 report on Mexico (PDF). 

Eric Witte, one of the OSF researchers who worked on the Broken Justice report, told The Daily Beast that the situation is bleak for Guerrero right now. Its also difficult for citizens to turn to the federal level.

The IAHCRs 606-page report concluded that Mexicos government sabotaged its own investigation into the mass disappearance and even suggested that federal authorities and the cartels worked together.

Witte concurred. He said there are clear cases of co-perpetration that go unsolved. Theyre left to fester.

In some respects, the U.S. government must share the blame. Under whats called the Mrida Initiative, since 2008 Mexico has received over $2 billion in aid to fight the drug war. Much of this was used to arm police and military forceswho then play a part in the abuses.

In 2015, the State Department cut off 15 percent of that years aid, about $5 million, contingent on human rights improvements, the Los Angeles Times reported. This year, that amount was reinstated.

Witte said the aid was restored even though there is widespread abuse of human rights that even count as crimes against humanity The U.S. has a long and unfortunate history of encouraging Mexico to adopt counterproductive measures.

The situation has deteriorated so much that the OSF researcher doesnt believe the answers can currently be found in Mexico. For citizens who want justice for any of these crimes, we think the answer is the temporary involvement of international investigators and prosecutors, Witte concluded.

Rigoberto, the teenage taxista, said he will continue driving. Its a reality hereits dangerous. What other choice do I have? I havent been extorted yet.

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