Shootout kills 18 in Mexico's Acapulco resort

/ Source: The Associated Press

It was a shootout straight from Hollywood in the former playground of its biggest stars: Masked and heavily armed Mexican soldiers battled outlaws holed up in a hillside mansion in a four-hour shootout that had tourists cowering in hotels nearby.

Roughly 3,000 shots flew, and 50 grenades exploded during the raucous gunbattle late Saturday that killed 16 gunmen and two soldiers. Nine other people were wounded, including three bystanders.

More than a dozen Mexican tourists were evacuated from a neighboring hotel strip frozen in the 1950s, when Elizabeth Taylor held one of her many weddings in Acapulco and John Wayne and "Tarzan" star Johnny Weissmuller threw lavish parties at Los Flamingos Hotel less than 100 yards (meters) from where gunfire broke out.

'We were just lucky'
Cindy Pelaquin and Michelle Johnson, both of Boston, were watching the famous Acapulco cliff divers less than a mile away. They saw the military roadblocks but heard nothing.

"We were just lucky I suppose," said Johnson, a Boston nurse.

One neighbor said it sounded like fireworks. But a Mexican tourist, whose group had just arrived from the Mexico City area, immediately recognized the sound of gunshots and dove under a hotel bed.

The battle erupted after soldiers received a tip that a group of armed men were gathered at a gated house in a seedy section of Acapulco where working-class homes bleed into 1950s mansions. One hotel across from the street from the shootout offers three-hour stays for 30 pesos, roughly $2.25.

Several gunmen tried to flee but crashed their car into a military Hummer that was blocking the gate. At one point, more armed men with grenades arrived to reinforce the men in the house, but they died in the shooting, said an army colonel, who led the operation and spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

No drugs were found
Inside, soldiers found four men bound and shirtless who claimed they were Guerrero state police officers and were being held hostage. They confiscated 47 guns, grenades and ammunition, as well as several cars, including a Mercedes Benz.

Military officials said they are still investigating who the gunmen are. But given the weapons stash, large home and late-model cars, it looked like the normal trappings for drug cartels. No drugs were found.

Guerrero state, where Acapulco is located, has long suffered from drug violence from cartels fighting for turf.

The Beltran Leyva cartel, in particular, has a strong presence in Acapulco. Last month, soldiers arrested a suspected cartel lieutenant as he stepped off a private plane in the northern city of Monterrey on his way back from Acapulco, where he said he'd met with cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva at a baptism party.

The premier resort town for America's rich and famous in the '50s and '60s, Acapulco suffered a decline as traffic and urban sprawl took over the palm-swept ambiance. It was reborn in the 1980s as a popular resort for Mexicans, and the working class now flock to the old hotel zone, where they can buy a two-night stay and transportation for as little as $50.

One of the most-visited resort cities
U.S. tourists also have returned during the past several years following construction of the new "Diamond Zone" strip of five-star hotels — on the other side of town from Saturday's violence. Acapulco now ranks with Cancun as one of Mexico's most-visited resort cities.

While tourism is usually low this time of year, the start of the hurricane season in the Pacific, numbers are worse than usual after a swine-flu outbreak in late April that pushed hotel occupancy in Mexico to half its normal rate and prompted the cancellation of many flights and cruise ship visits.

Hotel Los Flamingos, a pink building perched on a cliff where waiters climb trees to pull down coconuts for drinks, had few guests and only two rooms with foreign visitors, according to hotel workers who insisted they had not heard the shooting the night before.

Tourism is Mexico's third-largest source of legal foreign income, after oil and remittances.

"At the resorts they basically tell you not to venture out," Johnson said.

"It's pretty shocking. It's really sad. This a huge problem," added Pelaquin, an insurance analyst whose friends already thought her trip to Mexico was risky because of swine flu. "Mexicans grow the drugs and send them to the U.S. where Americans buy them so we can't blame it just on this country."

Five people inside the house were detained, the Defense Department said in a statement.

Four claimed to be hostages
Those include the four who claimed to be police hostages. Soldiers did not know the hostages were inside when the shootout began, and the colonel said their claims to be police would be investigated.

"We found them like this, handcuffed, and they say they were kidnapped. So if they were kidnapped, as they say, then we rescued them," said the colonel, who gave reporters a tour of the house in a ski mask to protect his identity.

President Felipe Calderon has deployed more than 45,000 soldiers across Mexico to battle drug violence. More than 10,800 people have died since the offensive began in December 2006.

Although foreign tourists very rarely get caught in the violence, shootouts and kidnappings have become more frequent in resort areas such as Acapulco and Cancun. In 2007, a couple from Canada was wounded when someone fired into a hotel lobby in Acapulco.