TULUM, QUINTANA ROO — With its turquoise waters, white sand, and ancient ruins, this city has become an increasingly popular spot for tourists seeking a getaway along the Caribbean coastline.
Its raves, nightclubs, and exclusive resorts and restaurants offer a more tranquil getaway than Cancun, its more well-known neighbor 81 miles to the north.
But the increasing threats of violence pervading Mexico have made their way here, as well as the surrounding state of Quintana Roo. U.S. State Department officials issued a warning on Aug. 17 of a heightened risk of violence to Americans traveling there.
While the U.S. government has no restrictions on travel for its employees in Quintana Roo’s tourist sites, such as Cancun, Cozumel, and Tulum, it is warning Americans to “exercise increased caution due to crime and kidnapping.”
Tourists are warned to “remain in well-lit pedestrian streets and tourist zones” in the wake of shootings between rival drug cartels that have injured bystanders.
In October, two tourists were killed while having dinner in an outdoor restaurant in Tulum. A month later, guests at a resort in Puerto Morelos were forced to hide while gunmen arrived by boat and killed two.
And in January, two Canadian tourists were killed at a luxury hotel in Playa del Carmen the same month the manager of a popular beach club was murdered in a restroom by two men who fled on a jet ski.
The cartels’ influence in the region has risen as “tourism began to grow, and as thousands of tourists started to arrive in this region, a drug dealing market was created for them,” said David Saucedo, a Mexico-based security analyst.
The prevalence of the cartels was readily apparent when journalists working on this story were confronted by cartel members at two popular restaurants in Tulum.
As one of the journalists went to a restroom in the first restaurant, he was approached by armed men who checked his pockets and ID, asking him multiple times what he was doing there and what cartel he worked for before finally letting him leave.
When the journalists went to another place, the same happened again.
They left Tulum the next morning.
Tourists are an easy target for drug cartels, analysts say, particularly if they’ve come to sample the drug scene.
“Many tourists found the possibility to do drugs during vacation,” Saucedo said. “While in other destinations in Mexico, low-priced drugs such as marijuana and cocaine were sold, (and) in the Caribbean, there were hard drugs in the market, so foreign tourists were looking to live this experience not only of tourism but also of consumption.”
More than 160 people have been detained since January on drug-dealing charges, said Tulum Police Chief Oscar Aparicio.
“It’s a quite considerable number; we have raids every day,” he said. “While there is supply or demand, this crime will continue.”