We’ve all seen those picture perfect postcards of a pristine white beach with wooden thatched bungalows and multicoloured beach umbrellas that line the crystal azure ocean. Beautiful women baking in the sun, children and men playing in the surf with people parasailing in the distance. These places are often the mecca of cultural integration, where people from across the globe travel to spend time in awe of the picturesque landscape, a place that could only be painted by the divine.
However some of these paradisiacal locations are found in the global south; areas of severe poverty and political repression. Unbeknownst to the many tourists who visit these beautiful areas they can be indirectly supporting these often corrupt regimes.
Located on the west of the Caribbean lies a small, but world-renowned town of Cancún, along with neighbouring Riviera Maya and Isla Mujeres, it makes up the tourist hotspots of the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Featuring white sandy beaches and pristine clear turquoise oceans, historically, this area was home to many of the ancient Mayan civilisations with the remnants of their empires still visible today in the decaying pyramids and enigmatic monsters made of stone and carved into primordial edifices.
A 25 kilometre strip of coastline in the shape of a “7” is known as Zona Hotelera and is covered with luxury resorts and ancient Mayan ruins highlighting the collision of both modern and ancient civilisations. These contemporary resorts showcase the modern step that both Cancún and Mexico as a whole has taken in the last few decades to cater for the huge influx of tourist from north of the border who are choosing Mexico as their next holiday destination.
Zona Hotelera however has a veiled secret. During the day you wouldn’t suspect a thing, this prepossessing part of the world is as picturesque as those postcards with perfectly manicured gardens and pristine coastlines, but after nightfall during Spring, this Caribbean holiday hotspot goes from tropical nirvana to reckless student amusement park that the city is world-renowned for. Anyone not jumped up on copious amounts of alcohol or illicit drugs would find this place quite confrontational.
It is March 2013 and Australian student Stephen Cuff, on exchange in Boston from Melbourne, is visiting Cancún to experience the birthright of all college students, one that sees students from across the United States flock to their southern neighbour. “Spring Break is an American college tradition, as a student from Melbourne I was particularly interested in visiting a popular Spring Break destination, one that I’ve seen numerous times on television and film as a place where students have to visit. Cancún always looks to be the life of the party, and growing up in Australia, Spring Break is a new cultural experience that I was interested to take part in. Additionally it was pleasant to get out of the cold, below-zero Boston weather and spend the week on the beaches of Mexico.”
It’s recommended by the U.S. State Department that travellers intending to visit Mexico remain vigilant throughout their travels, avoid visiting areas that are experiencing drug violence, and before planning their trip, to visit the State Departments website for travel advisories. For many students booking their ideal Spring Break, this is not the case.
“Prior to booking my trip to Cancún I googled to see if the city was generally a safe place to visit. I know ten of thousands of students visit yearly for Spring Break and the area is full of tourists year round. Cancún itself is pretty westernised so I came to the conclusion that it would be safe to travel there despite the constant media coverage about the drug cartel wars and crime happening in the country.” Cuff said.
With millions of U.S. citizens and other nationalities travelling to Mexico yearly for leisure, study and work, “the Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations” and there has been no evidence of criminal organisations targeting these travellers, according to the U.S. State Department.
While there is no evidence of travellers being targeted, it was only earlier this year on April 14th that six people were found suffocated after being buried alive and one decapitated in the resort town over the same weekend. According to Juan Ignacio Hernandez, deputy attorney general of the state of Quintana Roo, the victims appeared to be “independent drug dealers without any links to any specific cartels.”
In an attempt to control any outbreaks of drug violence in the city, the Mexican military were posted to Cancún during the popular Spring Break period. “On our first night out we noticed a heavy military and police presence around the nightclub and tourist areas” says Cuff. With the military personnel patrolling the streets and policing any drug violence, Cuff says he felt a lot safer knowing the military were present in the area, saying “they certainly had a sense of authority.” Although on duty, the atmosphere was relaxed as a member of the military even photobombed one of Cuff’s photos with a peace sign.
This heavy presence of military in the city could be considered as a tactical response to combat the situation which happened in Mexico’s once popular Pacific coast tourist destination of Acapulco, which saw its tourism industry virtually wiped out due to drug-related violence and conflict between rival cartels. With the primary industry in Cancún and surrounding areas being tourism, the Mexican government would be wise to ensure the safety of all visitors to the area to ensure that tourism does not vanish like that of Acapulco’s.
One person who thinks the tourist areas of Cancún are incredibly safe and even moved to the city from the United States is singer, dancer and travel writer Kristin Busse, who says that danger lies in most areas outside the populated tourist areas. “If one walks down the sidewalk or beach in the Hotel Zone of Cancún, only a few kilometres from possibly dangerous areas downtown, should they feel safe? Of course. Would a tourist wander aimlessly through the South Side of Chicago? I would hope not. What about Downtown Cancun? I would hope not.” Busse concludes that the tragedies that occur in Mexico happen similarly in the United States, only when it happens in Mexico it goes viral, unlike the U.S. saying, “would you avoid visiting Tampa, Florida because there is danger and violence in South Central Los Angeles?”
Another issue that tourists have had to face in Cancún is the corruption in the local police force. Dhiren Mistry an English student visiting Cancún from Birmingham experienced the corruption first hand while walking through a busy supermarket car park drinking a can of beer while holding an open box a beer. “This I understand would be illegal but looking around, the majority of people were all American, all on Spring Break, and were all drinking cans of alcohol.” When a police officer rode in on a motorcycle, Mistry and his friends were the unlucky few that were caught out. “There were five of us including one Mexican. Only he could communicate to the police officer since none of us understood Spanish.” After the officer established that none of them were underage, he made a call and told them that a squad car was being sent out to pick them up for public consumption, they could either pay $26,500 in Mexican Peso each (US$2,000) or spend 24 hours in Mexican prison. Not having that sort of money on them, mobile phones or travel insurance, Mistry’s Spanish-speaking friend pleaded to the officer who then said if they gave him US$200 each he would let them go. “Again we didn’t have that sort of money either. Eventually he agreed that we give him whatever we have in our wallets at the time, equivalent to US$600 spread across the five of us.” says Mistry. What happened next was that the officer looked around the area to make sure that no one was watching, he took the money and let Mistry and his friends go. After returning to their hotel, Mistry spoke to hotel staff who told him that this was an empty threat and the officer would have had absolutely no desire to arrest them, he was simply looking for an easy target, young english-speaking students, who would bribe the officer.
While police corruption in Cancún is not uncommon, there have also been reports of civilians impersonating police officers in an attempt to seek bribes from unsuspecting tourists. However the Mexican government have said that they are doing everything they can to pinpoint the corruption in the local police force, resulting in the dismissal of over 4,000 local officers in the last two years, replacing them with military troops and federal police, according to Reuters.
Annoyed with the level of corruption in the city’s police force, Mistry says that after being robbed of his money he was not able to enjoy Cancún as much as he had hoped “I think had we been aware of this sort of activity we would have known what to do better. It did taint the holiday quite a bit.” However Mistry says that he had a great time in Cancún and would recommend the Caribbean holiday hotspot as a destination for all.
With increasing reassurance and action from the Mexican government that police corruption is being tackled in the city and the drug-related violence now at an all time low, it’s quite easy to see why Cancún has become one of the largest travel destination in Mexico being the epitome of Caribbean perfection.