A dozen drug gangs are fighting for tourist market in Mexico’s Caribbean, official says

Mexican government forces guard the entrance of a hotel
Government forces guard the entrance of hotel after an armed confrontation Thursday near Puerto Morelos, Mexico. Two suspected drug dealers were killed.
(Karim Torres / Associated Press)

The shooting of two suspected drug dealers at a resort on Mexico’s Caribbean coast is part of a fight among about a dozen gangs to carve up the lucrative market of selling drugs to tourists and locals, an official said Friday.

The chief prosecutor of the coastal state of Quintana Roo said two main gangs are fighting for control of Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancún. Thursday’s shooting occurred on a beach just yards from luxury hotels.

Additionally, about 10 gangs are fighting over street-level drug sales in Tulum, a beach town further south. A California woman and a German tourist were killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout two weeks ago, and three other tourists were wounded.


“In Tulum, we have about 10 groups of drug dealers, and here in Puerto Morelos, there are two groups fighting each other,” prosecutor Oscar Montes de Oca told the Imagen Radio station.

Montes de Oca said about 15 masked gunmen arrived in vehicles and stormed the beach in Puerto Morelos by entering through a hotel parking lot — not by boat, as Gov. Carlos Joaquín had said the evening before. Montes de Oca said Friday the gunmen fled in a boat they commandeered after the attack.

The dramatic shooting sent tourists scrambling for cover at the beach in front of the Azul Beach Resort and the Hyatt Ziva Riviera Cancún.

Montes de Oca said the presence of more than 20 million tourists every year in the coastal state is a strong draw for drug sales.

“We are facing an issue of supply and demand for drugs,” he said.

Those fighting for the area’s lucrative retail drug trade include the Jalisco cartel and a gang allied with the Gulf cartel.

Montes de Oca said one man targeted in the attack fled into one of the hotels before dying; the other was killed on the beach. One person suffered injuries that were not life-threatening; authorities could not immediately determine whether that person was a hotel employee or a guest.

Joaquin called the attack “a serious blow to the development and security of the state ... putting the image of the state at grave risk.”

The shootings were the latest chapter in gang violence that has sullied the reputation of Mexico’s Caribbean coast as a tranquil oasis.

Guests at both resorts posted social media images of tourists hiding or nervously milling in lobbies.

Keith Jackson, a tourist from London, left the beach just before the shooting. “We’re not sure we would come back,” he said Friday. “We’re not sure we would come back after this.

“The two women that were killed in Tulum, you know, in the crossfire, you know, this is what happened,” he said. “So we all kind of worried that something will happen while we’re there, and we’ll get caught in the action.”

Jackson and Marie Hitches, also of London, said they saw about five masked men walking down the beach a couple of hours before the shooting, asking questions of a lifeguard and security staff, apparently looking for rival drug dealers, who had masqueraded as trinket vendors.

“They climbed up into the lifeguards’ tower, and they threatened, and they were asking for information, and they threatened him with a gun, asking him, you know, if I’d seen the two new guys walking up and down the beach,” Jackson said.

“And [the lifeguard] radioed in, and that’s when the security came out,” Jackson added, saying that although the security team spoke to the suspected cartel members, “nothing happened. It was about two hours later when the shooting happened.”


Rival cartels in Mexico often kill other gangs’ street-level dealers to eliminate competition. This is not the first time tourists have been caught in such battles.

The Puerto Morelos shooting comes two weeks after California travel blogger Anjali Ryot of San Jose and German citizen Jennifer Henzold were killed by crossfire during what appeared to be a clash over street-level drug sales in Tulum, prosecutors said.

Three other tourists, two German men and a Dutch woman, were wounded in the Oct. 20 shooting at a street-side eatery off Tulum’s main strip.

Montes de Oca said eight suspects in the Tulum attack had been detained for possession of firearms.

The German Foreign Office issued a travel advisory to citizens: “If you are currently in the Tulum or Playa del Carmen area, do not leave your secured hotel facilities.”

There had been signs months ago that the situation in Quintana Roo was out of control. In June, two men were fatally shot on the beach in Tulum, and a third was wounded.

In nearby Playa del Carmen, police staged a massive raid in October on the restaurant-lined Quinta Avenida, detaining 26 suspects — most, apparently, for drug sales — after a city policewoman was fatally shot. Prosecutors said Friday they have arrested a suspect in that killing.

The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pinned tourism hopes on the coastal region, known as the Maya Riviera, announcing plans to build another international airport and a stop for the planned Maya Train, which will run in a loop around the Yucatán Peninsula.