Drug War Hits Vacation Hot Spot

A Mexican army soldier guards the entrance of the federal Attorney General's office in Cancun, Mexico on Tuesday Nov. 30, 2004. About 30 soldiers seized the federal Attorney General's office to question its staff about the recent killings of nine people, including three federal agents.( AP

Moving to halt a bloody drug war that has moved south, Mexico was investigating the federal prosecutor's office in this beach resort town for possible involvement in the killings of nine people, including three federal agents.

Soldiers seized the Cancun Attorney General's office at the center of the probe on Tuesday, and Mexico's top drug and organized crime prosecutor said all federal employees there were under suspicion.

Prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos said rival traffickers working for fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and imprisoned capo Osiel Cardenas are suspected in the Cancun killings, which appeared aimed at returning the Caribbean coast region to the dark days of the 1990s when it was a major drug corridor.

Hernandez and Felipe de Jesus Arguelles, who oversees Cancun's police, traffic and emergency departments, were among a group of suspects flown to Mexico City late Wednesday night to answer questions, Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha said at a news conference.

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.

The arrest of Hernandez, Arguelles and the other suspects suggests smugglers may have received help from current and former government employees here.

"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."

Quintana Roo, the state that includes Cancun, one of Mexico's most popular tourist destinations, was a major drug trafficking route throughout the 1990s. Then-Gov. Mario Villanueva allegedly helped Mexico's Juarez cartel move tons of Colombian cocaine by boat, airplane and truck along the coast.

Facing drug allegations, 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 arrested.

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 into the area.

It's unclear exactly how the Attorney General's office is allegedly involved.

Investigators also spent much of Wednesday questioning a local city official who oversees Cancun's police, traffic and emergency departments. They believe he has information about a heroin shipment that appears to have been tied to last week's murders.

Vasconcelos said it appears the 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.

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, Vasconcelos said.

A day later, two other agents from the Federal Agency of Investigation were discovered before dawn outside Cancun with gunshot wounds to their legs, but they survived.

State government spokesman Victoriano Robles said the killings and resulting investigation could damage the city's reputation as a safe, modern getaway, known for its white-sand beaches, sprawling hotel complexes and all-night discos.

"A lot of people have questioned this big operation," he said. "It doesn't match the reality of Cancun. We just want to protect our tourist destination."

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.

The sudden unwanted attention has tourism officials in Cancun worried. The resort — known for its white-sand beaches, sprawling hotel complexes and all-night discos — is one of Mexico's most popular destinations.

State government spokesman Victoriano Robles said the killings and resulting investigation could damage the city's reputation as a safe, modern getaway.

"A lot of people have questioned this big operation," he said. "It doesn't match the reality of Cancun. We just want to protect our tourist destination."

  • Christine Lagorio

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