Moving to halt a bloody drug war in this popular beach resort, the Mexican government fired its representative in Cancun on Wednesday and took a top city police official and a number of other suspects into custody in connection with the killings of nine people, including three federal agents.
The firing of Miguel Angel Hernandez came a day after soldiers surrounded the headquarters of federal investigators in this resort city and Mexico’s top drug and organized crime prosecutor, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, said everyone who worked there was under suspicion for protecting or working for drug smugglers.
Felipe de Jesus Arguelles, who oversees Cancun’s police, traffic and emergency departments, was among a group of around 10 suspects flown to Mexico City late Wednesday night to answer questions.
The chief supervisor in Cancun of the Federal Agency of Investigation as well as a number of members of the force, which is the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, were also apparently among those in custody, though authorities in the capital refused to confirm or deny those reports.
Gangland 'territorial struggle'
Santiago Vasconcelos, who is leading the investigation in Cancun, said rival traffickers working for escaped accused drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and imprisoned capo Osiel Cardenas, the reputed head of the Gulf cartel, are both suspected in the nine killings, which appear aimed at returning the Caribbean coast region to the dark days of the 1990s when it was a major drug corridor.
“We could be witnessing a sort of territorial struggle between these two gangs,” Santiago Vasconcelos said. “Remember that the coasts of Quintana Roo were for many years an ideal shipping point for drug shipments. We can’t allow that to happen again.”
A thriving beach resort
Once a tiny village home to a few hundred fisherman, Cancun blossomed into a major beach resort in recent decades and is now marked by high-rise hotels, and eardrum pounding bars and nightclubs, attracting more than 2 million visitors a year.
Quintana Roo, the state that includes Cancun, was a major drug trafficking route throughout the 1990s, when then-Gov. Mario Villanueva allegedly helped Mexico’s Juarez cartel move tons of Colombian cocaine by boat, airplane and truck along the coast.
Villanueva disappeared after leaving office in 1999 and spent two years on the run before being captured in Cancun in 2001, the same year reputed kingpin Alcides Ramon Magana was taken into custody.
The arrests were supposed to have severely weakened the Cancun smuggling ring, but may have simply opened the door for the Gulf cartel to move in.
The violence has mostly occurred in parts of Cancun that tourists don’t visit. Strolling along a Cancun boulevard, tourist Steve Rotunno from Detroit and others appeared unaffected by the events.
“I’m not scared,” said Rotunno, noting that there’s violence back home as well.
For some residents, however, the recent events have conjured up memories of the 1990s drug era.
“There were drugs back then, but there weren’t massacres like now,” said taxi driver Oscar Herrera.
Santiago Vasconcelos said it appears the three agents found shot in the head on Nov. 25 along with two other victims had information the drug smugglers wanted. Four other charred bodies were found in a separate location, in a burned-out car.
A day later, two other agents from the Federal Agency of Investigation were discovered before dawn outside Cancun with gunshot wounds to their legs.
The dead agents, who were members of the elite Federal Agency of Investigation, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, did not appear to have been working with drug gangs, as has been the case in the past, Santiago Vasconcelos said.
Hit men working for Cardenas and Guzman have fought bloody street battles in the northern border cities of Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros for more than a year, in a dispute for control of that lucrative drug route.
Guzman escaped from a federal prison in 2001, and Cardenas was arrested in 2003, but allegedly continues to run his gang from behind bars.