Deadly Cancun Bombing: Will Drug Cartel Squeeze Life Out of Tourist Destination?

Expert says Mexican government ineffective in controlling drug cartel.

Sept. 7, 2010— -- The sun-drenched resorts and crystal waters that have long lured foreigners to Cancun, Mexico, may no longer be enough of a draw if tourists have to worry increasingly about bring caught in the crossfire of the country's dangerous drug war.

The deadly bombing last week of the Castillo del Mar bar in Cancun that left eight people dead -- all Mexican nationals -- has spurred questions about whether this popular tourist draw will join the ranks of other Mexican cities overrun with blood-thirsty and money-hungry drug cartels that have all but decimated tourism to the north.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy fellow for the Brookings Institution, told Monday that the nation's largest tourism resort, even with its history of street violence and drug smuggling, is still one of the safer destinations in Mexico.

"But safer opposed to what?" she said.

"I truly believe the vast majority of tourists would have no problem going to Mexico," she said. "However, the more and more attacks, especially more bombs ... that increases the chance that someone will get caught in violence."

With tourism the only industry in Mexico generating new jobs, officials have been quick to reassure potential visitors that the violence is aimed only at other criminals, not innocent bystanders.

But, Felbab-Brown said, "I don't think it's been a very effective message."

It is unclear this early into the investigation whether the attack was an isolated incident or a prelude to more violent future.

Felbab-Brown, who specializes in illegal economics and organized crime, said there have been reports out of the region, although still unconfirmed, that the bar was targeted by men throwing Molotov cocktails because its owners had reneged on payment as part of an extortion plot.

The Associated Press reported that Mexican authorities have arrested six men in the attack.

Although Cancun has been a hotbed of cocaine smuggling for years, it has largely avoided the large-scale attacks and kidnappings that have made border towns intensely dangerous for Mexicans and tourists alike.

But the city, long a haven for spring-breakers and honeymooners, hasn't been immune to the country's volatile war on drugs with the corpses of police officers and politicians surfacing at regular intervals.

"This is not the first time there has been violence in this area," Felbab-Brown said.

Mexican Law Enforcement Tasked With Balancing Safety, Keeping the Peace

Maintaining the relative safety of Cancun would take a calculated effort on the part of Mexican law enforcement, Felbab-Brown said, one that they so far have not managed to organize. Too much of a crackdown, she said, could result in a upswing in rage among the drug lords who will wage violent retaliation against the police.

Too little, and tourists will look elsewhere.

"This is a very difficult calculation," she said. "I don't think the government of Mexico has been very effective."

Felbab-Brown pointed to Acapulco as an example of what could eventually become of Cancun if the drug cartels take over. Once an immensely popular vacation spot, the city fell to a wave of drug-related violence and is now virtually devoid of foreign tourists.

"Today, it's primarily a destination for Mexican nationals," she said.

But the drug lords themselves have an interest in keeping the foreigners streaming into Cancun. A haven for money laundering, criminals are known to use the city's vast network of hotels and resorts to move money around, Felbab-Brown said.

And there is also a smaller but considerable tourist drug trade.

"They have some interest in not turning it up on the scale of Juarez or some of the northern areas," she said.

Cancun, where tourism suffered last year because of the swine flu outbreak, has not been added to the State Department's list of travel warnings for Mexican cities. With the exception of Monterrey, where there was a recent shooting in front of the American Foundation school and an increase in kidnappings, most of the cities on the list are northern border towns.

"The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations," read the state department's Web page on Mexican travel. "Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major drug trafficking routes."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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