MEXICAN cop Emilio Moreno pulls a Beretta automatic rifle from his truck and heads out to patrol Cancun’s beach, telling The Sun: “This is what we use if the cartels come.”
He's fighting a new generation of violent drug gangs, waging a bloody war in the tourist hotspots of Mexico's Caribbean coast – visited by half-a-million Brits holidaymakers each year.
Increasingly this stretch of paradise – which includes the white sandy beaches of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum – is blighted by cartels battling for power and territory.
Last week a lifeguard working at a five-star resort near Tulum was gunned down, sending terrified British tourists fleeing for cover.
The Sun went out on police patrol in Cancun, which has seen its murder rate explode in the last two years – from 205 in 2017 to 540 in 2018.
Authorities here are quick to insist that the majority of the violence takes place away from the hotel zone – the thin strip of land across a lagoon from the main city.
Indeed, the city’s tourist police chief Cesar Augusto Escamilla Pacheco told The Sun: “Robbery is the biggest problem here – the same as a lot of holiday destinations.”
But violence – including murder – has been creeping out of the Mexican barrios, or neighbourhoods, and closer to the tourist enclaves.
Security experts told The Sun that ruthless enforcers from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel – now the strongest drug gang in the area – were forging frightening new ground.
Francisco Rivas, 45, who monitors cartel activity for Mexico’s National Citizen Observatory, said: “Years ago, they agreed there were areas they would not fight in because it is bad for business.
“These were mainly tourist cities.
“The cartels also did not want to draw attention to particular areas that were important highways for transporting drugs from Mexico to the US.
“But now the new cartel members, like those from Jalisco New Generation, don’t respect the old rules. Something has changed.
“They attack rivals in urban areas and murders happen in tourist areas.
“They are not targeting the tourists, but they may fight a cartel rival if they see them out in the shops or eating and drinking in tourist areas.
“Jalisco New Generation is not only the biggest and the strongest cartel, but it is also the most violent cartel we have in Mexico.”
The region, also known as the Mayan Riviera, used to be mainly ruled by the Los Zetas cartel – but the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have engaged them in a brutal conflict.
Now the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has gained supremacy.
The cartel is known for torturing and dismembering its victims.
In January, a bloody shootout between its cartel members and a rival gang left seven dead in Cancun.
Five were shot dead the following month in a bar.
The previous August, eight bodies were found strewn across the city’s streets – with two victims found dismembered and discovered in plastic bags.
ARMED COPS ON PATROL
As a result of the spiraling murder rate, the Mexican government has now taken charge of all 11 police forces in Quintana Roo – the state which includes Cancun – to try and take back control.
The murder rate in Quintana Roo has increased by 335 per cent in the last two years, with 840 homicides in 2018, despite a population of just 1.5 million people.
Cops invited The Sun to ride along with them for the day as they patrolled the beaches, bars and roads in the main tourist district of Cancun.
Officers, wearing bullet-proof jackets, discreetly carry 9mm Beretta semi-automatic handguns on their hip, as well as flick knives.
DRUG GANGS AT WAR
The larger rifles – in case of cartel attack – are usually kept in the back of their Ford Explorers, along with a magazine carrying 25 bullets.
We watched as police, armed with the long rifles, trudged through the sand – past bikini-clad sunbathers on loungers.
Erce Omar Peraza Aquilar, a rookie cop who has been with the force for six months, said a new CCTV system sees hundreds of cameras around Cancun broadcast back to one main office.
The images are carefully checked for known cartel members and the number plates of vehicles are also analysed.
Next year, cops in Quintana Roo plan to hook up the whole state – covering more than 17,000 square miles – to the CCTV system, broadcasting all images back to one base.
Cars were pulled over and checked for any signs of criminal activity, while The Sun patrolled the streets in the back of a large Ram wagon.
We also saw military police officers – some covering their faces – standing in the back of the trucks with AR rifles drawn.
In recent years the government has taken over of all the different police forces, resulting in the arrest of cartel bosses.
They told of one raid, in April, which led to the capture of Juan Diego Núñez Vargas, who is known by the alias ‘El Gordo’ – or ‘the fat man’.
El Gordo was suspected of leading a Jalisco New Generation cell in Cancun and was wanted for multiple murders – including a narco hit which saw a stray bullet kill a six-year-old girl.
The arrest of El Gordo followed a dramatic shootout in which one female cartel member was killed.
A source revealed: “It was a fierce and bloody firefight. Nunez Vargas had others with him who opened fire on the police. The officers returned fire and a woman was killed.
“Nunez Vargas is now being prosecuted and more charges, linked to his cartel activity over the years, will follow.”
The spate of killings has increased anxiety among UK tourists in the resort.
Jenny Stancliffe, 54, from Bridlington, Yorks., on a break in Cancun with daughter Gemma, almost cancelled at the last minute – after reading up on the cartels.
She said: “I went to the travel agent and was thinking about rebooking in Jamaica. I couldn’t believe what I was reading about the drug cartels.
“I didn’t even know what they were a few days ago.”
Daughter Gemma, 28, from Barnsley, heard about the lifeguard being shot near Tulum – but kept it quiet from her mum until they landed in Mexico.
Jenny added: “I don’t think I would have got on the plane otherwise.”
Stuart Thomson, 46, from Glasgow, said: “A friend told me that 20 years ago you needed a bodyguard to get out of here – it’s not like that now.
“I find the police presence here reassuring.”
Wife Julie, also 46, agreed but added: “Although you don’t want them there all the time.”
The hotel zone is separated from the rest of Cancun by a large lagoon, unlike the city of Playa del Carmen, 42 miles down the coast.
We visited the tourist trap – where large hotels sit close to poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.
Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Perla and Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Esmeralda, two family hotels, sit next to the resort’s notorious fifth avenue.
The other side of the road, shanty houses with corrugated iron rooves are separated by walls of graffiti, while stray dogs walk the streets.
In Playa del Carmen, the murder rate sees no sign of slowing down.
There were 55 homicides in Solidaridad, the municipality where the resort city is located, between January and March this year – six times higher than 2018.
Mr Rivas told The Sun: “Here, unlike Cancun, I do not see the local authorities supporting the work of the state against the cartels.
“It looks like they are protecting them.”
CRIME RIDDEN CITIES
Just two months ago, the leader of one of the drug gangs battling for Playa del Carmen – the feared Sinaloa Cartel – gave an anonymous interview from a narco safe house in the city.
The Sinaloa Cartel used to be run by kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman – now facing life in a US jail for running the ruthless drug empire.
Wearing a balaclava, new leader ‘Manuel’ – not his real name – told Canadian TV: “In the northern part of Mexico there is order. Over here there’s no order.
“It’s a jungle. Jungle enemies that with one opportunity kill each other without a doubt, (like) a lion and a hyena.”
Is Mexico safe for tourists?
Drug-related violence in Mexico has increased massively in recent years with murders now commonplace.
Morgues even closed down in the Mexican state of Guerrero after they were inundated with gangland victims.
Many fatalities are those killed in turf wars between the different gangs competing for trafficking routes into the US.
Cops are trying to protect tourist destinations like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco and Nuevo Vallarta.
The Foreign Office warns that while the government has made efforts to protect popular tourist destinations, including Playa del Carmen, there has been a number of shooting incidents in the areas.
They advise: "Crime and violence are serious problems in Mexico and the security situation can pose a risk for foreigners.
"Since 2017 there have been a number of reported shooting incidents and other incidents of violence in the main tourist destinations, including in locations popular with tourists.
"In certain parts of Mexico you should take particular care to avoid being caught up in drug related violence between criminal groups."
However, the FCO also says most tourist visits are "trouble-free".
Chillingly Manuel, who speaks perfect English and claims to have done two tours of Afghanistan with the US military, said that tourists have to accept getting caught in the crossfire.
He added: “Have you ever been close to a firefight? You’re not going to live by those rules. People get shot. We have enemies that are willing to kill us in plain view.
“He’s not going to care and I’m not going to care.”
In 2017, gunmen stormed a music festival in Playa del Carmen and shot dead five people.
It is thought that organisers either didn’t pay protection money or paid the wrong cartel.
One hour south of Playa del Carmen is the ancient Mayan town of Tulum – now a trendy tourist hotspot offering yoga retreats and luxury spa hotels.
But at 10am on June 2, the peace at the Grand Bahia Principe hotel, 15 miles from Tulum, was shattered by the sound of gunfire – sending Brit holidaymakers into a panic.
The hotel’s lifeguard, named locally as Carlos Manuel N, had been hit in the knee with a bullet fired by an angry beach vendor selling alpaca jewellery.
He survived after being rushed to hospital.
One man – named only by cops as Diego N – has now been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, The Sun can reveal.
Sources close to investigation stressed that they believed it was a “personal dispute” between the pair, adding that Diego had turned up with two others in tow.
But Brit hotel guests are convinced the attack was linked to cartel activity.
The whole thing was absolutely terrifying. I just heard this bang
Becky Dullaway, 50, from Hastings, was on a break with a party of ten, including husband Steve, 52, two daughters, Alisha, 30, and Shannon, 24, and their five grandchildren.
She told The Sun: “The whole thing was absolutely terrifying. I just heard this bang. I could see staff members and lifeguards running across the beach.
“A man shouted at us that there had been a shooting and to get out of the water and run. We grabbed the children and ran.
“One staff member said there were terrorists on the beach. With that, my daughters were hysterical. It was like something out of a horror film.”
Becky, a support worker for disabled people, had to put frightened grandson Louie, 13, in the recovery position as they hid in the hotel, because he was repeatedly sick.
Her eight-year-old grandson Teddy sobbed: “I’m too young to die.”
Becky added: “The violence is getting too close to the tourist areas. I cannot believe I was so naïve to take my family there.”
Police in Mexico have stepped up their war on the drug cartels, but they’ll have to win hearts and minds if they want Brits to keep coming back to the Caribbean coastline’s turquoise waters.
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